Soak up some rainforest vibes and spy gorgeous endemic birds on the Kaulana Manu Nature Trail. This easy, mile-long interpretive loop shows off a high-quality kipuka, a forest island, along the Saddle Road (aka the Danile K. Inouye Highway). It’s one of the best places on the island to see native plants and birdlife.
Set in the cool Saddle Road highlands at roughly 5,500 feet, Kaulana Manu lies within the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve. You’ll find the parking area at mile marker 21. That location is the origin of the alternative name for Kaulana Manu: “Kipuka 21.”
A kipuka represents an old lava flow that’s grown up in a tall-statured forest and is surrounded by younger, less lushly vegetated lava flows. It’s essentially an island or oasis of mature forest offering important habitat for species dependent on this lusher, closed-canopy ecosystem.
Kaulana Manu is a centuries-old rainforest kipuka dominated by ohia and koa trees. Its lush understory includes a diverse medley of shrubs, including olapa, pilo, kolea, and ohelo, plus ferns—including amazing hapuu tree ferns. All told, better than 70 species of native plants find refuge here.
The recently remodeled Kaulana Manu Nature Trail parking area includes restrooms. Walk a little up the paved road and then to a dirt road to access the kipuka. It’s fenced- and gated-off to protect it from the pillaging of feral pigs. Close the gate behind you!
Make sure, too, to scrub off your boots or shoes at the provided decontamination station. This footwear-cleaning spot helps protect Kaulana Manu from infiltration by Rapid Ohia Death, a fungal ailment that’s decimated ohia trees throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
Interpretive signs along the footpath help you identify native plants and learn some of the marvelous, delicate intricacies of the kipuka ecosystem. There’s also some information on the significance of Kaulana Manu to Native Hawaiians. Among other uses, Hawaiian birdcatchers once trekked here to capture feathered prizes.
Those feathered prizes remain well evident in this kipuka. Having a pair of binoculars along on your hike comes in real handy, given the abundant and diverse avian lineup here. Among the native Hawaiian birds, you might see or at least hear are apapane, iiwi, elepaio, and anakihi. When the ohias are flowering, birdwatching really cranks up. The birdsong within the depths of the kipuka makes a stirring soundtrack. No surprise this loop path is an official Hawaii Birding Trail!
Along with the lush shrubbery and twittering birds, you’ll see some lava tubes along the loop. These reveal the old volcanic rock underlying the magnificently verdant forest.
Roughly halfway on the loop, a spur trail leads to the edge of the kipuka onto the surrounding younger lava flow. Here you’ll find an observation deck offering a cool overview of the kipuka, another nearby forest island, and the lower scrub of the younger flows. You can also get a stirring look at the huge, subtle rise of nearby Mauna Kea from this vantage.
The Kaulana Manu Nature Trail provides an easily accessible look at a quite pristine kipuka, analogous to other rainforest oases up in the Big Island highlands that are much more remote. Spare an unhurried hour or three to stroll its luxuriant, bird-filled sanctuary.
For the best shot at clear views of Mauna Kea from the observation platform, try to walk the nature trail in the morning.