The Hawaiian word “kipuka,” adopted by scientists elsewhere in the world, refers to an island of vegetation developed on an older lava flow surrounded by younger lavas. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Kipuka Puaulu Trail introduces you firsthand to the lush wonders of these fascinating ecological oases.
This 1.2-mile loop is accessed off the Mauna Loa Road about 1.5 miles from Highway 11 northwest of Kilauea Caldera. Its mostly level dirt tread offers an easy hike. Numbered posts along the way correspond to information in the national park’s trail guide, often available at the trailhead and also downloadable from the park website.
This guide is definitely worth consulting along your walk: You’ll learn loads about the kipuka’s history, ecology, and conservation. The numbered interpretive stops proceed clockwise, though you can certainly also do the loop in the other direction.
Founded on Kilauea lava at least 8,600 years old, Kipuka Puaulu is edged by lavas much younger: a roughly 600-year-old flow. The splendor of its vegetation is reflected in the kipuka’s name: pua means “flower,” ulu means “growing.”
More species of native Hawaiian trees grow here per acre than anywhere else in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Manele, papala kepau, olopua, koa, hau kuahini, and other trees form a complex canopy and understory. (The kipuka’s ohias—the most abundant and widespread of Hawaii’s native trees—are struggling, likely due to drought.) Many shrubs as well as palapala, kupukupu, and other ferns prosper below. It’s a remarkable recovery from the ravages of cattle, pigs, and goats, fenced out in the late 1960s.
With so much diversity in the plant department, animal life is accordingly rich as well. Native birds are abundant enough that Kipuka Puaulu was also sometimes historically called “Bird Park.” Keep your ears pricked and eyes peeled for feathered wonders such as elepaio, amakihi, and apapane. (You might also spot the non-native Kalij pheasant.)
While much of the spectacle within Kipuka Puaulu is biological, the trail also passes a skylight: a natural opening in a lava tube. It’s a reminder of the lava underlying the kipuka (and everywhere else on the Big Island), and the natural development of ecosystems over time atop lava flows.
This is a process called ecological succession. Kipuka Puaulu represents an old, well-established mesic forest, but fresh lava flows (or perhaps a major storm) may someday destroy the kipuka and “restart” succession here. It’s all part of the ancient interplay between natural disturbance—especially volcanic eruption—and succession that defines Hawaiian ecosystems.
For sheer biological variety and vitality, Kipuka Puaulu is hard to beat in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Give yourself at least an hour—and ideally more—to soak up its beauty and ambiance along this easy loop!
-You won’t find restrooms at the trailhead. But they’re just a stone’s throw away at the Kipuka Puaulu Picnic Area, accessed by a turnoff just east of this hiking loop.
-Check out another amazing demonstration of Kilauea lava’s impact on native vegetation not far away on Mauna Loa Road. Close to its intersection with 11, you’ll find a turnoff showcasing tree molds: rock cavities revealing where, long ago, trees were engulfed and burned by lava.