Those looking for a hike within the rainforest and away from heavy crowds will appreciate the beauty and challenge that is the Makuala Ooma Trail. This is a gorgeous hike located on the Big Island, but not one that will be a good choice for all.
The Makuala Ooma Trail lies within the Honouala Forest Reserve, which is a large tract of land that was zoned as conservation land in order to protect the area’s unique native cloud forests on the slopes of the Hualalai volcano. You will find this preserve just northwest of Kona, a few miles off of the Mamalahoa Highway, and the trailhead for the Makuala Ooma Trail at the end of the small side street of Makahi Street. To get here is easy, simply take Kaloko Drive west from its intersection Mamalahoa Highway until you see signs for the reserve and Makahi Street.
The Makuala Ooma Trail is not an extensively long trail, but there is a lot to see here and the big elevation gains mean that most people will linger here longer than they’d normally expect for a trail of its length. This is a loop trail, so choose either direction and you will end just where you began. The full length of this loop is 3.8 miles, with most average hikers taking between 2 and 2 and a half hours to complete the route.
This Big Island rainforest trail is considered moderately difficult (and has a longer time estimate than average for its length) for two big reasons: Steepness and seasonal trail conditions.
First, in regard to steepness, hikers can expect to see an elevation gain of just under 800 feet over the whole of the Makuala Ooma Trail. This elevation gain and drop is not done gradually as various parts of the trail feature very steep moments and others an extended period of flatness.
The nice part is that you can change the difficulty of the hike depending upon which way you choose to go due to it being a loop, as noted above. If you want a less challenging hike, you will want to hike in the loop in a clockwise manner, starting eastward. This sets you up with a steep descent and a milder ascent. If you want a bigger challenge, then make the decision to go counter-clockwise, heading first westward on the trail. This will give you a mild descent in the beginning, but finish with a very steep ascent near the end.
The second aspect that can make the Makuala Ooma Trail more difficult than other trails of the same length and even the same elevation changes is its overall trail conditions. Neither the state nor any other government entity maintains this forest trail, rather it is maintained by Peoples Advocacy for Trails Hawaii (PATH). PATH is a non-profit, grassroots and community-based group that has done a great job with the hiking trails under its charge, but there are obvious financial and red tape limitations that make this a more primitive trail than what you will experience within Hawaii’s state and national parks. The path is very, very muddy, with a ton of roots and uneven terrain that makes it necessary to tread with caution. During the rainy seasons, parts of this trail may be partially submerged and impossible to cross without getting soaking wet and muddy. Walking poles and a good pair of hiking boots are recommended every day of the year.
The Makuala Ooma Trail is not a good trail if what you are looking for is big, dramatic vistas, such as overlooks and openings that showcase crashing waterfalls or extended coastal scenes, because it just doesn’t have any of these. This is a hiking trail that meanders deep into a native cloud forest and so what you will experience around you is a lot of green. Lush green ferns, trees, and other plants are constantly about you here — and that does certainly hold its own beauty, just not the type of beauty everyone is chasing during their time on the islands.
One thing that is a verifiable draw for the Makuala Ooma Trail is the wildlife. Many birds call these canopies home and, while the trail is overall not heavily trafficked, birders are a common sight along its length. Make sure to bring your binoculars for the best viewing of tropical birds and migrating species. Feral pigs and chickens are also commonly sighted in the underbrush.
Note that this tract of conservation land is a tract set off from other public lands and is bordered by private properties on every side. Parts of the Makuala Ooma Trail even come pretty close to overlapping the property boundaries and as such, it is important to stay on the marked trails at all times.
This hiking trail is dog-friendly and all dogs should be on leashes, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. Being a less-trafficked and volunteer-maintained trail means that this place seems to attract dog owners opting to forgo leashes. Avoid if you are especially wary of off-leash dogs.