The Big Island of Hawaii is a fantastic place to go if you are looking for more wild, scenic adventures thanks to its many lush landscapes and beautiful hiking trails. And the best part is that many of these hiking trails are short and sweet, offering a wonderful glimpse of Hawaii’s beauty without needing to make significant hiking plans. The Manuka Nature Trail in South Hawaii is an excellent example of this.
You will find the trailhead for the Manuka Nature Trail within the Manuka State Wayside Park. If you are traveling from the town of Nalehu, take Highway 11 west for about 20 miles. You will see signs indicating the turn to Manuka State Wayside park between the 80 and 81-mile markers. It is a narrow road, so drive slowly until you reach the parking lot for the trailhead.
The Manuka Nature Trail is a 2.1-mile long, full loop trail, so you will end exactly where you started. The elevation gain throughout the course of this hike is only about 450 feet, which is low for the average Hawaiian inland hike. That said, while most people can walk a mile in about twenty minutes, expect this trail to take the average hiker just over an hour to complete. This is because while the trail and elevation changes are not difficult to tackle, the rugged nature of the trail itself and the bountiful foliage will force a slower pace. Some might call this a more technical trail and because of that, it does get rated as moderate by some hiking websites. Those hikers who normally take a slower pace should expect the Manuka Nature Trail to take them closer to two hours to hike in its entirety.
While the Manuka Nature Trail starts and ends at Manuka State Wayside Park, the trail itself meanders through the larger Manuka Natural Area Reserve. The Manuka Natural Area Reserve spans 25,000 acres which the highway cuts through (the trail only takes hikers through a portion on the northeast side of that highway). The name “manuka” comes from the Hawaiian word for blundering but refers more to an ancient land division that once ran near this trek of land, from the bay to the lower slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano.
What makes the Manuka Nature Trail unique is that it passes through the remains of an overgrown arboretum. This arboretum was initially planted with both native and introduced flowering species in the mid-19th century. Today, this semi-abandoned arboretum now spans eight acres of the Manuka Natural Area Reserve. Of course, many of the species have proliferated further than that! So as you walk along the Manuka Nature Trail, keep an eye out for the nearly 50 species of native Hawaiian plants and over 130 species of exotic plants and flowers often blooming here.
Other unique aspects of the Manuka Nature Trail include a pit crater and a large, unmarked gravesite. The pit crater sits at a higher elevation on the trail, so it is hard to miss after you’ve stopped climbing. Here, you can more distinctly see rock formations from ancient lava flows. If you are traversing the trail counterclockwise, it will be the last site of note before you make the final descent towards the trailhead; while those traveling clockwise will experience this first, after an initial 0.5-mile slow climb through jungle terrain. The unmarked grave and a small rest area complete with picnic tables can be found about midway through the hike, just after the one-mile marker if you are traversing clockwise (or just before if you are traversing counterclockwise).
There are not a lot of open areas along the Makuna Nature trail. So, don’t take this trail if you are looking for something with dramatic views of waterfalls or the open ocean. That said, on clear days, you will find yourself able to look through the canopies and catch ready sight of the towering Big Island volcanoes.
Before or after your hike on the Manuka Nature Trail, be sure to take a moment to rest at the Makuna Wayside State Park. This might not be the most luxurious of parks, but it offers a nice, free rest area for those traveling to the trail or otherwise through South Hawaii. You will find nice covered picnic areas and composting toilets, but no running water.
-For those who are looking for cheap stays and longer nature experiences, consider camping at the Manuka State Wayside Park. There are several dedicated camping spots here complete with grills that offer a nice, jungle-esque camping experience. Each of them features an open shelter, making for nice protection from the rain and heavy gusts. Plus, you get to wake up on a hike in the forest! Note, that you will need to apply for a permit to camp here.
-The best time to traverse the Manuka Nature Trail is in the early spring, late February through early April, due to the flowering seasons of the flora in the old arboretum and throughout the course of the trail.