Hawaii is home to many scenic hikes, particularly those that entice visitors with views of volcanoes or the sparkling Pacific Ocean. While Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a well-visited site on the Big Island, there's one hike, in particular, that should not be missed.

The day hike that takes visitors through Bird Park, known as Puaulu, is a higher elevation hike that brings hikers into a unique woodland. Not only is this wooded trail home to an ecosystem comprised of a vast number of bird species, but its creation is also what makes it so unique. Kīpukapuaulu would not exist were it not for the lava flows that once surrounded it, creating a full ecosystem that is unique to this one region of Hawaii.

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How Kīpukapuaulu Was Formed

The easiest way to understand how a kīpuka is formed is to view it from above. From a birds-eye view, these 'islands within islands,' as they're called, are distinctively green and lush. Around them, the markers of lava flows - mainly, reddish-brown earth and rock - can be seen in all directions. The kīpuka is the Hawaiian term for what's left after a lava flow proceeds down the side of a volcano, wiping out everything in its path - with the exception of the forested woodlands that make it out unscathed. These strips of land recover over time, creating within them unique ecosystems that are home to some of the island's rarest wildlife and plant species. Because they're the only surviving patches of forest following an eruption or lava flow, they become havens for species that would otherwise migrate or be left without a place to live or grow.

When translated, kīpuka means 'a variation' or a 'change in form.' This speaks to the result of the lava flow as it encompasses some areas, but not others. Often known as an oasis amidst a volcano's destructive lava flow path, kipuka are small pieces of land that have been untouched due to a lava path splitting or similar a change in elevation. Thus, they are known as 'islands' within an island, because they are remote and separated from the scorched earth surrounding them. This is what happened to Kīpukapuaulu, which sits at the base of Mauna Lea.

Why Is Kīpuka So Important To Hawaii's Landscape?

The first and foremost reason that kīpukas are so crucial to Hawaii's landscape is that they serve as safe-havens. As mentioned before, Kīpukapuaulu is home to many of Hawaii's rare species that would otherwise have migrated or been left displaced due to the severity of the lava flow that created it. This safe haven functions as somewhat of a foundation, because the wildlife and flora that thrive in a kīpuka are then able to recolonize and repopulate the land that has been burned from the lava flow.

Additionally, according to the National Parks Service, the evolution of the wildlife and plant species in a kīpuka begin changing. Over the course of hundreds of years, a species can evolve due to the isolation, which forces the species to become the most dominant version of itself. This is how other species in Hawaii have evolved, as well, bringing forth various wildlife that is unique to the island - and, specifically, to the kīpuka they've lived in.

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Hiking Kīpukapuaulu In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Although the trail to Kīpukapuaulu sits just outside of the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it's still considered to be part of the park, itself. This park has also been named 'Bird Park' due to the vast majority of bird species that exist within it, likely due to their rehoming during the last lava flow. Upon walking into Pualulu, hikers will be surrounded by old ohia trees and ferns, which serves as a stark contrast to the landscape of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The trail through this park is only about a mile, making it a very easy day trip. With the trip being only an hour or less, there's a surprising number of things to see within this kīpuka. One of them is the colorful Khalij Pheasant, which is easily recognized due to its vibrant features. This is only one bird that hikers will see, though; it's likely that they'll easily be able to hear most of the others, as the sounds of this forest are not exactly quiet. The trail also sits at an elevation of roughly 4,000 feet, so the atmosphere alone is interesting to experience in such a tropical climate.

Kīpukapuaulu Hike: Details

  • Admission: The hike is free, but a trail guide is available for a $2 donation
  • Length: 1.2 miles, loop trail
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • How To Get There: Park in the parking area, then walk east to find the trailhead (marked with a sign). There will be a short trail that leads to the main trailhead for Kīpuka Pualulu.

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