Puu Kaeo

Sun, Jun 29, 2014
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Kapalua is found on the northwest side of West Maui, about 3mi north of where I was staying in Honokawai. Once a sprawling pineapple plantation owned by the Muai Land & Pineapple Co., it has become a sprawling resort community with several golf courses, a Ritz-Carlton, vacation rentals, high-end restaurants and hundreds of exclusive homes. The land is still owned by the Maui Land & Pineapple folks, but agriculture is no longer their primary concern. If you look at the satellite view of Kulaokaea, a few miles to the northeast, you can still see the regular layout of the fields when they were under cultivation up until the 1990s. If you visit this same area in person it looks like wild fields of cane grass and other invasive shrubs. Closer inspection will note that the entire area is covered in the tattered remains of black sheets of plastic used to curtail weeds and insects. This same plastic is found over many square miles of the land around Kapalua, along with the irrigation tubing used to water the fields. Obviously it was far more economical to simply abandon the agricultural remnants than to remove them, and what has grown wild in the place of the fields doesn't seem to mind much.

As part of their new-found environmental concern (which makes for great public relations these days) they partnered with the Nature Conservancy to establish the Kapunakea Preserve in 1992, a 1,264 acre section of the West Maui mountains from about 1,600ft to the summit of Pu'u Kukui at almost 5,800ft. As a P5K Pu'u Kukui is of great interest to a lot of peakbaggers. The Nature Conservancy even built a boardwalk to the summit more than 4mi in length, but alas, it isn't open to the general public. For $1,500 you can take a helicopter ride to the summit and hike a section of the boardwalk. A few motivated peakbaggers including Bob Packard, Dennis Poulin and Ken Jones paid the $1,500 fee but went without the helicopter ride, choosing to hike the boardwalk from the beginning. The Nature Conservancy didn't mind, they got the donation and saved the use of the helicopter. Before coming to Maui I called the folks in charge on the mountain to enquire if I couldn't offer some volunteer work in exchange for access to the boardwalk and the summit. Interesting proposal, I was told, but unfortunately the boardwalk is undergoing maintenance and closed for the month of June. This may have been true or it may have been an easy way to get rid of me, but I hung up the phone disappointed. I checked on what it would take to do the route by stealth - about 10mi one-way and close to 6,000ft of gain. Tough, but doable. In the end I decided against it because the Nature Conservancy is one of the few large landholders in the US that I actually respect. Maui Land & Pineapple Ltd, not so much.

So on my last full day in Hawaii I chose to do an easy 10mi roundtrip hike out of Kapalua, starting from the D.T. Fleming Beach Park. The Mahana Ridge Trail climbs to the 1,683-foot summit of Pu'u Kaeo on the edge of the West Maui Forest Preserve. The trail is well-marked though not particularly well-maintained. Ulehe Ferns (indigenous) in the moister upper reaches and cane grass (invasive) in the drier lower sections both grow rapidly to make maintenance difficult. Though the weather was near ideal with unusually sunny skies over much of West Maui, it was impossible to keep the boots and feet dry on this 5mi trail. Having long gotten used to the wet feet, I still enjoyed the trail a great deal. The first mile is not so great as it goes under the highway, crosses several roads including a new development area and passes by the Plantation Golf Course. The usual urban noises such as lawnmowers can drown out the birds in the forest trees. But it soon moves away from the developed areas as it climbs a ridgeline through forest trees on its way to Pu'u Kaeo.

There are several side loops signed along the trail though only one of these I found to be navigable (the Pine Loop), the others having been virtually erased due to disuse and lack of maintenance. Feral pigs run rampant in the lower reaches as evidenced by much rooting damage along the trail, turning portions into muddy bogs. Higher up a pig fence is encountered (you knew that was coming, right?) that marks the border of the Forest Preserve. The pigs seem to have been completely or mostly eradicated inside the preserve as I saw no evidence of rooting past the fence.

The "lookout" as it is described on the trail signs is just a partial clearing at the top of Pu'u Kaeo where one can have a fine view looking south and southeast to the uplands of the Forest Preserve, providing the weather cooperates as it did today. Trees block all views to the west and north coastal areas, however. One can continue of the trail a few more miles to the arboretum, and if you time it well you can take the shuttle bus back to the resort. The bus runs every two hours, so you may have a long time to wait - it may be just as easy to hike back down the trail as I did.

On the way back I stopped at the pig fence to follow a what looked like a spur trail heading up the ridge along the fence. I managed to follow only about 1/10th mile before the easy walking through delightful forest became an overgrown chore - back I went. I explored another unmarked spur trail further down near the named summit of Mahana. In the vicinity of the summit (according to the GPS anyway), the trail turned bad with uluhe ferns overgrowing it into oblivion. I didn't find anything that I would call a summit, I doubt if there was even 10ft of prominence though the topo map shows 40ft. I explored the Pine Loop which has some very cool-looking trees out of Jurassic Park with roots dangling from branches and spreading out from massive bases. Having started at 6:30a, I was early enough to have the trail to myself. As I descended the last 3mi I came across a number of other parties heading up for the day. One was a jogger that asked how far to the arboretum, happy when I told her about 4mi. She had some nice-looking sneakers on and I wondered if it was going to bother her if they got muddy, but I kept that to myself. It's good to discover things about Hawaii on your own, I think. Back before 10a, that pretty much wrapped up my Hawaiian adventures. Maybe a little snorkeling and paddleboarding before I go, but the hiking boots were going out to dry...

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