For many Kauai visitors, a trip to Kokee State Park and the Garden Isle’s spectacular Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast lookouts ends up as only a slow drive along a twisting mountain road interrupted by a handful of stunning photo ops.
Those photo ops are, of course, some of the most geologically unique across all of Hawaii and absolutely worth the drive, but Kokee has a great deal more to offer travelers than simply great parking near jaw-dropping scenic overlooks.
For those looking to escape their cars, not to mention the often bustling scenic vistas and parking lots, spending a morning volunteering in Kokee State Park with the nonprofit organization Hui o Laka is a wonderful way to get a much closer look at some of Kauai’s beautiful native forest while learning about the island’s native plants, flowers and trees.
During a recent visit, I worked for about three hours on a patch of invasive ginger rapidly encroaching on a grove of native Ohia Lehua trees, leisurely cutting through ginger stems with garden clippers while chatting with Hui o Laka Executive Director Marsha Erickson.
“People who volunteer certainly learn a great deal about the Hawaiian forest and the threats to it and get to meet some of the native plants that local people cherish so dearly,” Erickson told me, adding that visitor volunteers will also spend a lot of time with residents. “And you get a chance to develop a relationship with Hawaii’s beautiful forests, which are some of the most beautiful and rare in the world.”
Along with the work to remove invasive plants from Kokee’s forests, Hui o Laka runs the Kokee Museum, which sits just off of narrow Highway 550 between the Waimea Canyon overlooks and the Na Pali Coast lookouts. The museum is an excellent place to learn more about the region’s geology and natural history and get advice and condition information about the park’s many excellent hiking trails.
“In addition to long trails, and there are several full-day hikes in the park, there are some lovely short trails,” Erickson said. “And what I love about all of Hawaii is that you don’t have to walk far to see a lot.”
The Kokee trail Erickson is most proud of is located just 200 yards beyond the Kalalau Lookout parking area, a short 10-minute drive from the museum, and a walk Hui o Laka volunteers spent nearly six years working on, clearing away a wide range of invasive plant species to reveal native Kauai trees and ferns. Known as the Kaluapuhi Trail, the beautiful, 1.5 mile rain forest walk is great for just about all comers because it’s relatively flat and short.
“You are surrounded by forest, so it’s also a great birding trail,” Erickson said. “I would be shocked if people didn’t have an Elepaio [an endemic Hawaii bird species] or two come up and check them out. You can certainly see the little red and black Apapane [another Hawaii endemic] up there, and I’ve also seen owls up in that area.”
Erickson insists Hui o Laka’s volunteer program is meant for just about everybody and is especially happy to have families come work in the Kokee forest. The nonprofit hosts school groups regularly, along with other community organizations but has also started occasionally working with guests of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort.
I certainly enjoyed my time clipping away at the invasive ginger, working at my own pace and learning through the entire experience, and while I’d not made a huge dent in the removal work that needed to be done, I left feeling good about the little I’d accomplished.
“I know the forest is grateful,” Erickson told me. “The forest is going to be permanently changed for the positive because of your short time here.”
It’s that attitude and approach that makes the activity such an excellent voluntourism option, and those who want to do more than just a few hours of work can actually stay up at Kokee overnight in the Hui o Laka camp accommodations near the Kokee Museum. While accommodations are humble, the price is right, starting at just $7.50 per night, per person. The organization’s camp facilities also have some rooms with en suite bathrooms and adjoining kitchens.
Travelers interested in hiking and volunteering over a couple days might also consider the Aston Waimea Plantation Cottages, one of my favorite Kauai properties. The cottages are located near the base of the mountain road folks travel up to visit the Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast overlooks, a 35- to 40-minute drive from the Kokee Museum.
For more details and Hui o Laka volunteer contact info, call (808) 335-9975 or visit www.kokee.org