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A‘ole Nā Malihini ‘Āina - ‘Ekolu

After the first few days in Moloka‘i, my attention started to turn to the highlands in the center spine of the island, particularly the Moloka‘i Forest Reserve. I started to hatch a plan, involving a steep hike up from where we were staying on the south shore, up and over the 4,000-foot crest to the Waikolu Valley overlook, where we could get a view of the north slope down to the ocean.


Lelehune over the Waikolu Valley.

So late on Thursday afternoon, I decided to investigate some of the trails leading up from the south shore.

In particular, I had spotted a jeep trail leading a dry, partially burned area up the west side of Onioni Gulch. I climbed up for a little over an hour, managing to get into the first band of pines at an elevation of 2300 feet before having to turn around and come down because of the imminent sunset. I hadn't brought a headlamp, unfortunately - but this was just a practice run.

On the way down, I scared a bunch of deer, and took a couple of nice sunset pictures thanks to the unusual number of clouds that reflected and amplified the light of the low sun.


Sunset clouds.

Annie and I finally planned to do the full hike on Sunday. We started out around 8 AM and managed to make it up to the pines before it started to get really hot out. The sky was clear and cloudless, but as the sun rose so did our elevation, and with it the air cooled off (I'd guess it was about 4-5 degrees for every thousand feet). Once we made it into the pines, the path was nicely cool and shady, with a carpet of red-brown needles underfoot. It almost felt like being back at home!

The only map I had of the area was a USGS one on my computer, but since I knew that USGS maps usually aren't wildly inaccurate (just somewhat), I figured out how to take along a copy. I set up the computer screen, and then took a picture of it with my phone. And it actually worked - I could read the trails and contours without much problem, at least when I zoomed into the photo:


Central Moloka‘i on the iPhone - it's not a pretty way to navigate, but it works.

It turned out that the trails were quite accurate, so we followed the west side of gulch up, turned due east along the south edge of Kaunakakai Gluch, and then stayed to the left and climbed up to Kamoku Flats. The farther up we got, then more vegetation we saw, and right around the word "Kamoku" we suddenly crossed over into the high-rainfall area. Within the space of a couple hundred meters, the vegetation changed from pines in sandy soil to a much wider variety of trees and shrubs in a thicker soil. Right at the transitional area, I actually found some wild strawberries - with distinctive leaves (and fruit!) We turned north and made our way down and up through two creek valleys, through much lusher vegetation, including the distinctive ‘ōhi‘a tree.


‘Ōhi‘a lehua.

About ten minutes later we came upon the edge of Waikolu Valley, a 3,000 foot gash in the steep north slope of the island. You can see the contours in the upper right of the picture. We had seen this same precipitousness earlier at the Kalaupapa lookout, and a little Wikipedia research after we got back home revealed the geologic history. Moloka‘i was once a larger island. About a million years ago, the east part of the northern shore, the remnants of an ancient caldera, suffered a catastrophic landslide and slumped into the ocean. You could only imagine the tsunami that resulted from this event - we could be talking about a wall of water several hundred feet high as it struck the coasts of what (one day) would be Alaska and British Columbia four thousand miles away. The constant rains then went to work on the uniformly exposed front and carved the deep parallel valleys that we see today.

So we arrived at the lookout, which was indeed spectacular. If you look closely, you can see the slender white threads of multiple waterfalls cascading down the far side of the valley. The trade winds were blowing moist air up and over the steep ridges, which condensed into constantly shifting fog and light rain. Which of course, explains the omnipresent rainbows. And the hair.


At the lookout.

It turns out you can get the Waikolu lookout by car, but it's a twelve-mile drive over pretty sketchy roads. Before we left the island, we actually investigated that road, but had to turn back after only a mile due to the risk of getting the rental car stuck in a sand pit! The route we took, on foot, was probably as good as any to get up there, and it was certainly more satisfying.

As we approached the valley from the south, we ran into a group of three people - a husband-wife and their friend - who were also on vacation and had driven the sketchy road up. They were heading south as we went north, to get over to the Pepe‘opae Trail and the high altitude bog it leads to. They were really surprised to see someone else on this remote trail - Annie and I both with backpacks and smiles, plus my walking stick I had picked up on the south shore. I talked maps with them for a couple minutes, and then we parted ways. Annie and I started to head back the way we came, and didn't get back down until late afternoon.`