While on Maui, one morning, we got up at 5 a.m. to drive to the top of Haleakulā National Park. Haleakulā (house of sun) is a massive shield volcano that forms more than 75% of the island of Maui. The tallest peak in the park, at 10,023 feet, is Pu’ u’ Ula’ (Red Hill).
Tourist publications recommend you drive to the top of Haleakulā at the crack of dawn, and watch the sunrise over Maui. However, you need reservations. We were too late to make reservations, so we opted to arrive at the park when it opened at 7:30 a.m.
As we ascended the summit, we passed cars coming down, which had viewed the sunrise half an hour earlier, along with a handful of bicyclists and numerous vans full of bikes. There are bike companies that will take you to the top, and then give you a helmet and mountain bike to coast (or race) to the bottom. By the time we got to the top, there was scarcely a dozen cars in the parking lots and no bicyclists.
While it’s interesting to look down on Maui – in between the fog – what I found most interesting was the observatory and other scientific buildings at the top, which looked like a space station on a desert planet. The clarity, dryness, and stillness of the air, and its location above one-third of Earth’s atmosphere, as well as the limited light pollution, make the summit an ideal location for ground-based telescopes.
The complex is operated by the University of Hawaii, United States Air Force, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGTN), and other research organizations. One of the more unusual structures in the complex (and maybe secretly part of Donald Trump’s Space Force) is the ATLAS, an asteroid impact early warning system, funded by NASA, to automatically scan the whole sky several times every night, looking for moving objects.
Also, part of a government program, is the Advanced Electro-Optical System (AEOS), a 3.67-meter AEOS telescope, which is the Air Force’s largest and most advanced telescope system for research and instrument development. Inside this building, the University of Hawaii operates high-resolution visible and infrared spectrograph and spectropolarimeter instruments.
Other facilities at the top of the summit is the Mees Observatory, PAN-STARRS (prototype telescope), LCO Faulkes Observatory, TLRS-4 Laser Ranging System, Zodiacal Light Observatory, and Maui Space Surveillance Site. None of these facilities are open to the public.
Because the Haleakulā summit is so high, it can be twenty degrees cooler at the top. Before we left our Airbnb in Kahului, I grabbed by lightweight cotton sweater, which I wore on the plane, and should have snatched Rich’s hoodie. As a result, he was uncomfortably cold when we got out of the car at the summit. Fortunately, the Park Service had an answer, a long-sleeve shirt for sale in their gift shop.
Warmer, Rich and I walked around several trails, but the low fog made it difficult to see much. Plus, it started raining. As we headed down the roads a Pueo, a Hawaiian Short-Eared Owl flew in front of our car. It was magnificent to see. Unlike most owls, the Pueo flies during the day.
Earlier, we’d seen several Nēnēs, an endangered Hawaiian goose that are smaller than Canadian geese with distinctive black, white, and dark grey stripes. They make a low “nay-nay” sound when on the ground.
While it’s snows on Haleakalā, it’s a very dry, rocky climate, considered an alpine desert. The plants that grow on the summit aren’t found elsewhere in Hawaii. Rich was intrigued by the ‘āhinahina, a low grass, which resembles a large, pincushion with silvery needles emanating from the center. The plant can bloom its first year or wait several decades before producing a stalk of hundreds of purple sunflower-like blooms. After scattering its seeds, it dies.
As you drive down the summit, there’s more plant life, including many non-native and endemic – restricted to a certain place – species. Many of these plants produce berries, which are enjoyed by birds in the parched climate. The further you drive down, the greener it becomes. In the lush green fields are herds of cattle.
The Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council oversees more than one million acres of land in Hawaii with over 60,000 head of beef cows. While the finale is being butchered and placed in a refrigerator case, the cattle have a pleasant life of roaming free and nibbling on rich, green grass. Check out the video about the Hawaiian paniolos (cowboys).
While on Oahu, we decided to do the “tourist thing” and hike up Diamond Head. A 500,000- to 400,000-year-old volcanic tuff cone, which is part of the Honolulu Volcanic Series system of cones, vents, and eruption flow, the formation got the name Diamond Head when 19th century sailors mistook the calcite crystals on the adjacent beach to be diamonds.
Originally used by the US military as a lookout post for preventing attacks against Honolulu, the trail to the top of Diamond Head is short but can be rocky and steep in places with 90 steps near the end. At the top is a concrete bunker, which you need to scooch through to reach several cobblestone pathways and look-outs.
With 360-degree panoramic views, there’s scores of people at the top, drinking in the sights, snapping cameras, smart phones and tablets, videotaping, and flying drones, even though the signs explicitly say, “No drones allowed.”
Standing at the bottom of Diamond Head, it’s hard to comprehend the beauty of the island. At the top, however, you overlook the stunning turquoise water dotted with boats from small sailboats to huge cargo and cruise ships. To the north is cosmopolitan Honolulu, surrounded by verdant rolling hills. Blocked by taller mountains, the south gets less rain and is arid. We spent at least half an hour at the top, but because I’d neglected to put on sunblock – mainly because I was already dark from over a week of snorkeling – we hurried down before my red skin turned into a sunburn.
On a sad note, when I visited Hawaii in 2001 with Rich, we’d hurriedly climbed to Hanakapiai Falls on Kauai. I was looking forward to doing this hike again during our trip to Kauai, Flooding, however, had closed the road and the trail was inaccessible to hikers. It’s not expected to be accessible until summer 2019. Drats. I remember walking through groves of trees and seeing wild bamboo orchids when we climbed to the falls.
Crazy Trees and Unimaginable Variety of Orchids
We visited two botanical gardens while on Oahu. The Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is 400 acres with plants from the Philippines, Malaysia, tropical America, India, Sri Lanka, Melanesia, Hawaii, Polynesia, and Africa. The park was constructed in 1982 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection for Kaneohe County.
Perhaps because the botanical gardens I’ve been to in the past were smaller with paved walking paths and lots of signs, my expectations about Ho’omaluhia was skewed. It’s more akin to a giant park like Portland’s Washington Park with walking trails through forested areas. In the case of the Ho’omaluhia, the forest are gigantic palm trees with large swaths of rainforest planted with palm trees from the Pacific, Asia and Africa, along with large areas with every imaginable tropical plant and tree from groves of bamboo to coral tree, mahogany, lipstick plant, heliconia, cashew, fiscus, bay palmetto, and monkeypod.
Because we arrived two hours before it closed, we kinda’ scrambled from garden-to-garden, waddling across the muddy lawn to see a large, unexceptional pond, driving to various zones, which all seemed to have the same palm trees, and then realizing the park had closed, promptly at 4 o’clock, prompting us to speed to the entrance, only to be met with a glaring docent and guard who scolded us for not leaving sooner, as they unlocked the gate to let us out.
Their attitude was a little quirky considering the park has camping Friday through Monday, and we’d seen several groups with tents. It’s frightening to think campers are “locked in” the park until the following morning.
The second botanical garden we went to on Oahu was near downtown Honolulu. By the Kuan Yin Buddhist Temple, the Foster Botanical Garden was fabulous. I loved every minute, wandering among the groomed trails and manicured gardens, viewing the breathtaking hot house, filled with orchids, marveling at the extraordinarily tall trees, and smelling the incents wafting from the temple.
It was amazing the variety of orchids, anthurium, spathiphyllum, arum, monstera, philodendron, taro, heliconia, ginger, and other flowering tropical plants and trees. Click on the “Foster Botanical Garden” link above to see the nearly 600 pictures people have posted of the gardens.
The Kula Botanical Garden on Maui was my favorite garden. Started in 1968 as a display garden by Warren and Helen McCord for Warren’s landscape architecture business, the garden has evolved into a tourist destination. The 8-acre garden is still privately owned and features a bit of everything in a small space, including a gorgeous koi pond, aviary with colorful birds, cute Jackson chameleon in a cage by the entrance, several waterfalls, carved tikis, and over 2,000 plant varieties.
They even had azaleas, rhododendron, hydrangea, and other cooler-weather plants, many of which were doing poorly in the heat and humidity. Conversely, plants that thrive in tropical climates would quickly die in the Pacific Northwest.
Because the garden was originally designed to showcase landscape possibilities, it was more spontaneous and free-flowing than fussy botanical gardens where species are carefully segregated. Throughout the gardens, flowering plants were interspersed in clumps of lush, deep green big-leaved philodendron and taro. An English garden was tucked behind groves of hibiscus. Clumps of hardy fuchsias were a few steps from several large, carved tikis.
Even though Rich is as enthusiastic about plants as me, he too enjoyed wandering through Kula Botanical.
Stay tuned for more of our Hawaii adventures, including bumping into people who lived in Bullhead City, know Shawn and Stacey (Lary) Lee, and others who live in the Pacific Northwest.