Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Insight Maui visitors wondering what the island looked like long before the first human inhabitants arrived may want to reserve a spot on a weekly interpretive hike through the Nature Conservancy's upcountry Waikamoi Preserve.

Guided by a Haleakala National Park ranger, the three-and-a-half-hour, three-mile hike travels through a high-altitude native Maui cloud forest, full of indigenous trees, ferns and plants that attract a range of Hawaiian birdlife, including several species you’ll only find on Maui.

“What I love about it is that in a nutshell it shows you the history of conservation in Hawaii,” explained Jeff Bagshaw, a supervising park ranger at Haleakala National Park, noting the hike’s early stages travel through a host of invasive plant and tree species introduced on Maui after the first Western explorers visited Hawaii.

“We’re learning to take care of Hawaii,” he continued. “There have been mistakes in the past, so on this hike you can see all the mistakes, but you see the good stuff, too.” ShaneNelson

As the trail continues to climb, rising above 6,800 feet on the volcanic slopes of Haleakala, more and more native species take over until hikers arrive within a section of the preserve that Bagshaw said is 90% indigenous.

“You’re hearing almost all native birds, and you can turn on your heel, doing a 360, and all you’ll see is native koa and ohia trees, native ferns and plants,” he added. “And I tell visitors, the only other place you’d be able to do that on Maui, to be surrounded by 90% native, is underwater.”

According to Bagshaw, the Waikamoi Preserve hike is a great place to see one of Hawaii’s most iconic native birds: the I‘iwi. If you’re incredibly fortunate, you might spot the mostly red-feathered honeycreeper, equipped with a distinctive hooked beak, elsewhere across the Aloha State, but Bagshaw said you won’t find birds like the endemic akohekohe, the kiwikiu and alauahio anywhere else but the eastern slopes of Halekala, a 10,000-foot shield volcano.

The chance to glimpse some of these Maui-only natives draws many hard-core birders to the Waikamoi trek.

“We’ve also got a lobelia that you’ll only find on the east side of Haleakala,” Bagshaw said, referring to one of the island’s rarest plant species. “It’s called lobelia grayana and looks like a Dr. Seuss truffula tree out of ‘The Lorax.’ It’s got these 3-inch-long, purple curve-shaped flowers that fit the I‘iwi’s bill just right.”

The hike is extraordinarily popular and needs to be booked one week in advance, so Bagshaw suggested calling the national park office, at (808) 572-4400, Thursday morning to book one of the 12 spots for the next week’s hike.

“On Thursday morning, we start answering the phone at 8 a.m., and by 8:30 the hike is full for the following week,” he said. “It’s a sellout crowd pretty much always.”

Hikers should come prepared for a good climb, dressed in layers and ready for rain, wearing proper hiking footwear. The only charge is the $10 entry fee into Haleakala National Park.

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