5 Must-See Natural Marvels of Hawaii
The Taj Mahal was built in 1653 and is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is actually a mausoleum, built by the grief stricken Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. It is a sacred place, filled with spirits and echoes of ancient peoples, life, and death. We journey far and wide to these places which remind us of where we came from, what we are inspired by, and to celebrate and connect with beauty, antiquity, and forces greater than ourselves. To reach Hawaii, you must also travel far, but for those who do, what awaits them are living monuments, wonders of the natural world, whose ancient past, overwhelming beauty, and ethereal presence connect you to the mana (spirit) of this tropical place and take you on a voyage through our Earth’s humble origins, constant rebirth, and otherworldly creations. As you explore the most revered natural wonders in Hawaii, take your own sweet time and truly appreciate the amazing gifts of nature.
In 1758 when King Kamehameha was born, his mother hid him deep in the recesses of Waipiÿo Valley. The ruling king Alapainui, was wary of a legend, marked by Halley’s Comet, foretelling the coming of the “killer of all kings,” thus he sought to eradicate any royal children that might challenge his throne. Today, when you stand at the 1,000-ft lookout, gazing out over the taro gardens, secluded surf beach and sheer cliffs covered in ancient greenery, Waipiÿo still resonates with a regal authority hidden amongst the stunning scenery, its mighty presence cleaved into Hawaii’s Northern flank. The lure of an exotic paradise and some mysterious adventure draws you down along a narrow one-lane road, barely clinging to the steep cliff, accessible only with a four-wheel drive or a hike down. The base of the valley leaves you with two options. Head deeper into the valley and you may discover the crescent canyon of Hiilawe Falls, a 1,450-ft dance of water and rock secretly tucked up one of the valley’s stream beds.
However, to find Hawaii’s largest falls some local knowledge may be needed, so ask nicely. Or continue on through the valley and ford across streams and dirt paths to get a view of some truly local Hawaiian living and breathtaking grandeur as Waipiÿo cuts further into the island and farther back into time. At the expansive mouth of the valley, if you took a right when you arrived, a seriously bumpy, car-sized potholed dirt road spits you out on a beach that is every bit the picture of an indescribably beautiful tropical hidden paradise. If the surf is up you may see locals riding the angry waves on the exposed windward seas. Be very careful of the currents and waves, your only rescue will come from a considerate surfer!
Spend all day exploring the expansive beach and hidden gems, like a little waterfall on the southern cliffs that falls into the ocean when conditions are just right. Hike up the switchbacks on the northern end for some incredible yet too-often unvisited views. Just be careful going in and out of the valley, drive slow—and remember, help and a cell phone signal are far away!
Green Sand Beach
It’s fitting that the southernmost point in the United States is memorable not simply because of its unique location, but also because of its exceptional formations. Along the eastern edge of South Point, the southernmost tip of the Big Island, exists a unique green sand beach—so rare that it is found in only one other spot in the world. Papakolea Beach, as it is known officially, can only be reached by four-wheel drive or a 3-mile hike on foot.
This isolated wonder was the result of a unique set of geological circumstances starting with Mauna Loa, the world’s largest and most massive active volcano. Just off the southwestern rift zone of this enormous volcano is a smaller volcanic cone Pu‘u Mahana, the erosion of which has deposited olivine crystals onto the beach and surrounding area. As the olivine crystals are very dense, the ocean has carried away many of the other lighter sand particles, leaving the characteristic olive green beach.
The steep cliffs combined with the isolated location form a stunning backdrop where the turquoise blue waters crash onto the smooth green sand. It is off the beaten track and just about the last point of terra firma between Hawaii and Antarctica, but it offers a pristine geologic phenomenon that is a wonder unto itself. Be careful as it’s in a remote part of the island and the current and waves can be unpredictable.
There are places in this world where you can visit the ancient home of gods. The Mount Olympus of Hawaii is Kïlauea Caldera. Located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it is the fiery dwelling of one of the most revered and omnipresent Hawaiian gods: Pele.
Lava spews from the Halemaumau Crater and torches the molten amorphous rock flanks of the eastern rift zone as it winds and flows, glowing 2200°F on its unstoppable march towards the ocean. Four thousand feet below, as liquid fire collides with the mighty Pacific, perhaps the only force great enough to mollify Pele’s wrath, huge clouds of vapor stream into the atmosphere. On nights when the lava flow is heavy, this great struggle is proclaimed by huge fountains of lava shooting a hundred feet violently into the air. Although the summit crater can be seen easily from the lookout at the Jaggar Museum, to view this shoreline spectacle, travel down Highway 130, about 32 miles from Hilo, to Kalapana before 8pm. After that the rangers won’t let you in. The viewing area is open from 3pm to 9pm. Do not venture outside the viewing area, as the entire coastline is unstable. Huge portions of it regularly collapse into the ocean and underground lava beds and fiery death traps abound on the eastern rift. For viewing conditions at Kalapana, call (808) 961-8093.
Back in the national park, there are a multitude of geologic creations worth exploring that mark the violent pressures and releases as the Earth’s crust battles to begin anew atop Kïlauea. One of the best hikes is the 4-mile (2-3 hour) Kilauea Iki trail which descends through a rainforest teeming with tropical flora and fauna and spits you out inside a prehistoric crater, home to Hawaiÿi’s most violent recorded eruption. As you walk across the barren lava bed, once a 400-foot lake of lava, the vibrant lush embrace of the crater rim rainforest watches you from above reminding that Pele’s presence abounds.
Mauna Kea Summit
Rising from the perilous depths 18,000 feet below the surface of the expansive Pacific, Mauna Kea crests the surrounding waves and continues its mammoth reach skyward almost 14,000 more feet. Atop the tallest volcano in the world resides one of the most sacred locations in all of Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians considered it the origin of space, a place of creation where the sky and earth separated to form the heavens. Few Hawaiians ventured to its starry summit, it was kapu (forbidden), only the privileged few made the difficult journey in hopes they could commune with the gods.
As they did long ago, modern day sky priests are still trying to peer off into the night sky and decode the heavens. Reaching deep into space and time seeking our very origins, astronomers and scientists have harnessed the unique geologic, geographic, and climactic features of Mauna Kea to create one of the premier astronomical observatories on earth. Home to 13 of the most powerful telescopes in the world, its peak rises above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere. With extremely dry and low turbulent air, a high altitude far above the tropical inversion layer of moist air, a record number of clear nights, low light pollution, and a location close to the equator, Mauna Kea is by far the world’s largest and best astronomical observatory. From the summit at night, the stars twinkle in your eyes like a million distant lights beaconing the Earth. If you go, acclimatize first at the ranger station for at least an hour, and be aware the summit drive requires four-wheel drive. It’s normal to get lightheaded in the thin air at the top, but read the warnings about high altitude at the Visitor Information Station. Mauna Kea is one of the few places on Earth where spiritual, scientific, and cosmic forces collide to create a memory that will last you a lifetime. To go with a guide for a worry-free adventure, contact Hawaii Forest & Trail (808) 331-3638 or Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (808) 322-2366.
An impressive 442 feet of cool mountain water falling into a lush tropical jungle evokes an image of paradise in the imagination. Along the Hamakua Coast on the east side of the Big Island just such a place exists—Akaka Falls. Tucked in a delightful cascade of banana plants, tropical orchids, and towering bamboo groves, a half hour paved trail leads you through a wet jungle and sets a mysterious mood for the sprawling views of these magnificent falls. If you could hike above Kolekole Stream from its run mauka (upland) to makai (towards the sea), it would be hard to believe that eventually this unassuming tributary would plunge skyward off the rocky edge of a lush secluded valley creating the most amazing spectacle of falling water, bending light, and rising mist. Once airborne, it speeds in a frothy white torrent of water, crashing into an almost hidden pool at the base of the falls. Looking at the falls, you are left to wonder at the splendor of this cloaked pool, covered in a mosaic of life with twisting vines and overlapping leaves of ginger, ferns, impatiens, birds-of-paradise, and bougainvillea, all of which make you feel as if you are miles away from modernity in the midst of a tropical jungle. The cool damp air softens the lungs and the sound of cascading water from Akaka and nearby Kahuna Falls, a smaller secluded waterfall along the trail, helps to soothe the spirit and rejuvenates the soul. In this place of beauty, reflection, and solace, there is little to do, but take in the natural wonder and cherish the experience of this natural marvel.