Climbs, not cocktails, the key draw of Maui conservation tours

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When most mainlanders conjure up an image of their perfect day in paradise, it often includes a beach, chair, umbrella and a very cold cocktail. That is so yesterday, according to some suppliers in Maui.

"The idea of sitting by the seashore sipping mai tais, that's a little old-fashioned," said M.J. Harden, co-owner of Hike Maui. "These days, most visitors want to plug into wild nature.

"Rain forests, waterfalls, craters: They want to see that when they come to Maui," she added.

No one understands that better than Harden, who founded Hike Maui in 1983.

For several years, the Hike Maui team has seen the trend in travelers' interests move increasingly toward the experiential.

These days, travelers to Maui aren't satisfied until they find some way to answer the call of the wild, immersing themselves in the island's mountains, valleys and off-road trails, Harden said.

About 40% of Maui County -- the three inhabited islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai -- is state-owned conservation land. About the same amount consists of national park land or privately owned spreads that are inaccessible to automobiles.

Treading lightly

A good portion of off-road Maui includes the rarest landscapes on Earth, ecospheres whose plants and animals exist nowhere else.

HAW-MauiHaleakalaCraterThe challenge for the Maui visitor is getting onto the land without disrespecting the protocols of private property or harming the environment.

Haleakala National Park is an obvious spot to start exploring Maui island proper. Wrapping around the summit of East Maui's dormant volcano Haleakala, the park descends to the sea through the pristine Kipahulu region, ending at the seven pools of Oheo Gulch.

Drivers can reach the summit via Highway 378, perhaps the steepest 45-minute road trip in the world.

They can also reach the Oheo Gulch region by making the four-hour trip on the challenging and curving Hana Highway.

About 80% of Haleakala National Park's 30,000-plus acres are designated as wilderness.

In 1980, Haleakala National Park was named part of the Hawaiian Islands Biosphere Reserve by Unesco in recognition of the work done to stop the extinction of Maui's native plants and animals.

The most vivid example of this rescue work is the Haleakala silversword, a striking plant that exists nowhere else but Maui.

The plant's arcing, swordlike leaves form a silver sphere that gets as tall as waist high.

Only once in its life will it flower, sending up a tall spike loaded with purple, daisy-like flowers. After it sets seed, the plant dies.

This plant had almost vanished from the Earth, mainly because of the wild goats that once roamed the crater but also because of uprooting by human visitors.

For native Hawaiians, Haleakala holds a sacred significance.

In legend, a demigod named Maui stood atop Haleakala and snared the sun, forcing it to slow down and give more time for tapa, or Hawaiian bark cloth, to dry.

Today, when hikers make the all-day trek through Haleakala Crater, they pass signs of the ancient Hawaiian presence, including C-shaped sleeping shelters and a "bottomless pit" where it was an ancient custom to hide the umbilical cords of newborn children.

The park's visitor center provides talks and short hikes.

Guided and unguided hikes

The best of these hikes is the Waikamoi Cloud Forest trek, a guided three-mile, three-hour walk into unspoiled native landscape of rare endemic plants and endangered forest birds like the bright red apapane.

At the national park's seaside location in Kipahulu, visitors can enjoy daily talks offered four times each afternoon at the visitor center.

Rangers also lead one-hour hikes at 9:30 a.m. daily, except Saturdays.

No guide is needed for the two-mile hike to Waimoku Falls, probably Maui's best waterfall trek. The trail includes two canyon-crossing bridges and a wooden boardwalk through a bamboo grove.

Visitors can also start their exploration in the Hana area of Waianapanapa State Park, with its black sand beach, caves, sea arches and blowholes.

An ancient seaside footpath starts here and goes for miles to the town of Hana, passing old stonework and one of the state's largest forests of hala, or pandanus trees.

Maui's West Maui Mountains feature razor-sharp canyons and lush peaks and are more difficult to access without professional guides.

Rain forests and waterfalls

Hike Maui and Maui Eco-Adventures offer guides with access to private land for rain forest and waterfall hikes in the area. This company also offers some creative ideas for outdoor exploration: a kayak/hike combination discovery of West Maui or a night in Haleakala Crater with a personal chef.

For the solo type of trekker, one of the best places to visit is Iao Valley, with its network of paved paths to a demonstration garden of Hawaiian plants and viewpoints that include the landmark Iao Needle, a 1,200-foot rock feature.

This valley is the source of the largest stream in Maui County, and the steep-walled valley holds the hidden burial places of the highest ali'i, or chiefs, of the land. 

Visitors can hike this cool rain forest valley with guides from the Hawaii Nature Center, a sort of guardian spirit to the valley.

Daily two-hour hikes provide experiences of the stream, native and introduced plants, and the native Hawaiian presence in the valley, which the ancients also held sacred.

Visitors to Maui unable to hike or short on time should consider aerial tours.

Several companies offer flyovers out of the heliport at Kahului Airport.

It's a great way to absorb the steep-sloped island, since helicopters can zip into the precipitous canyons of Kahalawai, scoot along waterfalls and provide views of Haleakala Crater.

Private property

A source of information on Maui County's other trails and treks is Na Ala Hele, a Hawaii program within the Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Na Ala Hele's website provides maps and advice for tackling 19 trails on Maui and one each on Molokai and Lanai.

One important thing for trekkers to remember when hiking without a guide is not to enter private property without permission.

Residents in remote locations can be very protective of their land, according to Harden.

"Anybody can go into the woods, but it's important to go with a certain attitude," Harden said.

"We want to teach people about Maui, about her spirit. The culture springs from nature here. This is a culture of aloha because this is a land of aloha."

For more on Hike Maui, call (808) 879-5270 or go to www.hikemaui.com.

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