Hawaii (The Big Island): March 6-16
Day 3, Pololu Valley

Looking out from Pololu Beach

After a day at the beach, we decided to go for a hike on Sunday. We got underway a little later than the day before, taking off about 8:45 a.m. and again driving north on 19, stopping at a gas station for some ice for the cooler. The northern end of the island is a peninsula (Kohala) which I suspect is the original volcano on the island. The last of the nice, sandy beaches is in the little bay that separates that peninsula with the rest of the island. There, highway 19 turns inland toward Waimea, located in the saddle between the Kohala peninsula and Mauna Lea. Instead, we turned left/north on 270 and followed the north Kohala coast through more savanna-type vegetation, looking out over the blue Pacific. About the time we would have reached the northern tip of the island, the road turned inland and began passing through small communities surrounded in lush vegetation. It was a beautiful area—one of the places I can most picture myself living on the Big Island. The farther we got toward the east coast of the island, the wetter and more intense the vegetation became. 270 narrowed and began to roll up and down and around the lush landscape, huge trees and vines beginning to dominate the landscape. We could tell we were reaching the end of the road by the line of cars parked along the side of it. Luckily we found a free space in the small parking lot at the very end. We’d been driving for nearly two hours and were now solidly on the wet side of the island.

I was initially disappointed to see such a crowd, but it quickly became apparent that most people were there just to see the view overlooking the Pololu Valley or, at most, walking to the beach at the bottom. We got out of the car just as it began to rain torrentially. I wasn’t sure if east side rains are short lived or not, but one way or another we were going to do this hike! We headed down the steep trail, which descends right along the edge of the valley, past four hazard signs for shore break, falling rocks, dangerous cliff, and strong current. Pololu Valley is the northernmost of a series of large valleys that cut through the old land on the northeast corner of the island. Famous Waipio Valley can be approached by road from the south; between the two are several more large, jungely valleys that are much less accessible. Each of these valleys is steep sided and flat bottomed and I’d like to think they look like they have for thousands of years, though I’m sure a good portion of the forests are comprised of introduced species. Look south past Pololu, I could see why it was called the “wild Kohala coast.” Dramatic cliffs separated black sand beaches with green jungles behind then and white capped surf in front.

I wanted to take photos, as we carefully made our way down the slick mud and rocks of the trail, passing quite a few hikers hurrying their way up out of the rain or sheltering under branches, but we both wound up tucking our iphones into our backpack to protect them from the rain, which was quickly soaking us. It was warm enough, but not very pleasant! The trip to the bottom was relatively quick and spat us out into an enchanting pine forest. Tall trees rose up over a smooth forest floor carpeted in long pine needles and smoothed lava rocks, some arranged to edge a path. The pines, clearly visible in contrast to the rest of the vegetation from the top of the valley, form an unexpected fringe behind the beach and created an almost magical atmosphere. About 50 feet from the edge of the valley was a stagnant pond that becomes a river during wetter times; we crossed the dry mouth of it at the beach and headed back among the pines on the other side. In that area, the pines grow on high dunes through a vibrant green ground cover. To our relief, the rain and wind began to diminish as we crossed the valley.

On the far side, we found a trail through the morning glories and up to the side of the mountain. As soon as we left the beach, the trail became a trench with shoulder-high soil to either side, one of many sections of this trail that appeared to be deeply entrenched in the landscape. What created such deep trails we never learned.

From there the trail crisscrossed back and forth along the front (ocean facing) or corner of the narrow ridge that separated Pololu from the next valley over. It was more gradual than the trail on the other side and was usually tucked in dense, wet foliage of a delightfully jungle character. There were many varieties of ferns, including one that looked surprisingly like Juneau’s narrow beach ferns, along with an array of unlikely looking trees and other plants. Bird songs caught my attention immediately, and I managed to get one good look at a stunningly colored bird with an orange beak and red on green wings. He was hiding behind a sisal-like plant, but we both managed good looks at him—surely, I thought, in this remote valley, I’d finally found a beautiful, indigenous bird!

I heard more of his song and other songs as we climbed the switchbacks and the slick, muddy gullies of the trail, but did not see any others on the way up. We finally found an overlook near the top of the ridge that looked back across the valley to the parking lot and revealed a small side-gully nearby. Behind the stagnant pool near the beach was a wide, wet meadow inhabited by what appeared to be two happy cows. A little farther along the trail we skirted a puzzling bar across the trail which we guess was either to keep 4-wheelers or cows off the lower trail, or both. Shortly beyond we broke out of the dense jungle and onto the top of the ridge where the vegetation became drier and more scrubby. We passed two people on the way down, one of which was finishing up a fresh papaya he’d found at the top; he said there were a couple more so we kept an eye out. Among the big, orange butterflies prevalent all over the island, we walked along the ridge until the trail dropped us on the far side at a bench overlooking the next valley. The view was stunning.

Driving north

Looking down the wild Kohala coast

Behind the beach

On the beach

Cool trail behind the beach

Behind the beach

Heading up the trail

Trench trail

These look like narrow beach ferns

Trench trail


Looking across at the parking lot

After enjoying the scenery for a while, I wandered down a rough trail around the point of the ridge toward the ocean. The wind off the water was steady, the ocean covered in white caps, but the short walk was worth it. I quickly spotted a raptor soaring up from below, passing me and continuing along the ridge line; I managed to watch it long enough with binoculars to confidently identify it as a Hawaiian hawk (‘lo in Hawaiian)—endemic and endangered (though I read later that it is under consideration for delisting). Then I saw a huge splash in the ocean that could only have been a breach or similar activity, following by a blow and the back of a whale.

As we headed back down the ridge, I spotted two yellow fruits growing together on one of the scrubby trees and immediately assumed they were the papayas mentioned earlier. I picked the darker one and cut it open with Chris’s leatherman. The inside, however, looked little like the pink flesh and small black seeds of the fruit the hiker had been eating. There was a quarter inch layer of dense, unchewable fruit and a core of large seeds in a gooey mass that were out-of-this-world delicious. I slurped up their sweet tanginess with gusto, greedily finishing Chris’s when he offered it up. I had no idea what the fruit was and could only hope it was edible! A friend who’d spent some time in Hawai’i later suggested it might be a variety of passion fruit, and that seems the most likely.

Shortly after we re-entered the wetter forest, we glimpsed more birds including another of the orange-beaked friends we’d seen already as well as a northern cardinal. We walked along the sand instead of inside the trees on the way back across the beach, noting the row of round lava rocks piled at the back of the sand. By the time we were at the north side of the beach, we were worn out from the heat and humidity and the walk back up the steep trail was a trial. It started raining again when we reached the car, so we hastily had a drink, packed up, and headed back. Just on the other side of a wooden fence, two donkeys grazed right at the top of the cliff!

We had two choices for our return trip. We’d been hiking for about three hours, so it was early afternoon and I checked my cheat sheet for potential points of interest in that neighborhood in case we didn’t drive back there again (it being rather out of the way). Along the northwest Kohala coast is an old navigational heiau where a cluster of standing rocks point toward south Pacific islands. You can see them from the road, or take a hike to see them more leisurely. The other option won out, however; another road cut through the center of the Kohala area from north to south, connecting with highway 19 at Waimea, and we chose that for our return route. It proved a brilliant choice. The landscape we drove through was the most lush and beautiful pasture land I’ve ever seen. Rolling hills of deep green grass dappled with trees and populated with what can only be the happiest cows, sheep, and horses around. From some of the higher vantage points, the blue of the ocean complimented the perfect, green hills.

At last we drove down the south end of the old volcano past cinder cones growing out the side and more cattle and, at last, to the village of Waimea, a pleasant looking semi-lush community. From there, back to 19 and Ultimate Burger for a late lunch. It was everything I’d hoped for. Before leaving Juneau, I’d done some simple searches for restaurants that served bison or, knowing that there were ranches on the big island, 100% grass fed beef. I found www.ultimateburger.net--serving not just 100% grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free beef, but using local, organic ingredients as much as possible, hand cut fries, and buns from a local bakery. On top of pushing all my conscience buttons, the burgers were truly outstanding. We ate them along with fresh squeezed lemonade and fries in the shade outside the restaurant.

After four hours of driving and three hours of hiking, we were a little worn out, so we rested in our room for the rest of the afternoon. That evening we returned to the original steakhouse we’d visited where Chris snacked on wings and I had a fresh strawberry smoothie.

Valley south of Pololu

The ridge


Looking from our ridge to the parking lot

Crazy tree root/stabilizers?

Chris in the jungle

Chris on the trail

Pine trees at Pololu Beach

Pololu Beach

Heading back to the parking lot

Pololu Beach

Kohala pasture land

Black sand beach of Pololu Valley

On to Day 4