The dormant volcano Mauna Kea, a giant of the Pacific, harbors a tiny, unheralded treasure on its broad flanks. And a new trail now allows the public to discover that treasure.
The Palila Forest Discovery Trail is a mile-long interpretive loop at about the 7,000-foot level of Mauna Kea, which soars nearly 14,000 feet above the island of Hawaii. Opened in late July, the trail is named for the palila (Loxioides bailleui), a critically endangered forest bird with a golden head and breast. Unique to Hawaii and once found on three islands, it is now restricted to about 25 acres on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea, an area less than 5% of their historic range.
The trail features four large interpretive signs and about twenty QR-code identification signs as it passes through a high-elevation dry forest. The signs paint a fascinating picture of the critical role that reforestation of the area plays in the palila's survival. The forest's dominant tree is the mamane (Sophora chrysophylla), another only-in-Hawaii species, whose green seeds make up most of the palila's diet. In a truly Darwinian twist, the seeds are highly toxic except to the palila.
Looking to take a break from the beach while on the Big Island? The new trail makes for a great half-day excursion from the Kona side of the island, though you will need a 4x4 vehicle to access the trailhead. I visited the site before the trail officially opened, and while I wasn't able to spot the elusive palila, I heard its gorgeous song, once thought to herald rain. And as an added bonus, I don't think I've ever enjoyed views quite as stirring as those of the tropical lowlands and cerulean ocean far below.
Directions: From the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, take the Old Saddle Road towards Waiki'i. Turn off at the Kilohana Hunter Checking Station (between mile markers 43 and 44). From there, 4x4 vehicles can drive up the "R-1" road four miles to the trail head.