HIKE: Mo‘omomi, Northwest Moloka‘i
WHEN: September 2015
LENGTH: As long as you want it to be
DIFFICULTY: Easy, mostly flat, hot
FEATURES: Coastal native plants, sand dunes, coastline scenery, sightings of Hawaiian green sea turtles and native shorebirds
There are two things my husband looks for when selecting a hiking trail: scenery and crowds.
He likes more of one — scenery — than the other.
So when we started planning his birthday weekend on Moloka‘i, we looked for new places we could explore, see native plants, and not run into anyone else.
What turned up was the Mo‘omomi Preserve.
Located on the northwestern shore of the island, this 921-acre preserve, purchased by The Nature Conservancy from Moloka‘i Ranch in 1988, protects some of the last intact coastal shrublands in Hawai‘i. It’s pristine and rugged and simply breathtaking — and very accessible, especially if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle.
While The Nature Conservancy staff and volunteers lead monthly hikes through this beach preserve, you can visit it on your own. (Though I’d recommend stopping by the nonprofit’s Moloka‘i office to pick up brochures and find out the conditions there.)
So we had a plan: we were going to drive to the end of Highway 480 (Farrington Highway) and walk the 2.5 miles to the preserve. We didn’t want to chance taking our rental Jeep down what could have been a muddy, pothole-laden road and risk getting stuck. (Heavy rains often make this soft, red dirt impassable.) Plus, walking gave us the chance to explore the area as we made our way to the shoreline.
We parked our car on the side of the road and geared up, taking lots of water — this area can get scorching hot! — snorkel gear and what turned out to be not enough snacks.
We got directions from the conservancy staff: Walk down this dirt road for about half a mile, until the road forks. Go right for another two miles and you’ll be at a pavilion right on the coastline.
To be honest, there are lots of different paths and trails that lead into this preserve. We kept going right and ended up at this bay (above). There were several trucks parked at the edge of the bay and fishermen propped with poles on a ledge just below.
Up mauka (toward the mountain) — and really, all around us — we could see the tradewind-shaped sand dunes, some a mile long and hundreds of feet wide. And everywhere you looked — granted, I’m sure the recent rains helped with this — we could see swaths of native succulents, grasses and other Hawaiian plants, happily existing in this pristine, wind-battered habitat.
This preserve boasts more than 22 native Hawaiian plant species, including four that are listed as globally rare or endangered. These rare plants, like ‘akoko and ‘ena ‘ena, thrive in this dry, windy, salt-sprayed environment. There’s even a member of the sunflower family — Tetramolopium rockii — known to be found only at Mo‘omomi, though, sadly, we didn’t see it.
We arrived at Kawa‘aloa Bay, the azure expanse of water we would have probably seen first if we had driven into the preserve. Northeasterly winds push in from the open ocean, causing the mile-long stretches of sand dunes.
Carefully, we made our way down the rocks and into the warm waters of the bay, snorkels handy, to check out the marine life. We spotted ringtrail wrasse, manini (convict tang), weke (goatfish), mū (bigeye emperor), pualu (surgeonfish), ‘uhu (parrotfish), kala (unicornfish) and nenue (rudderfish) — all just a few feet from shore.
As a former Nature Conservancy staffer who worked on marine conservation campaigns, it warmed my heart to see such a thriving marine environment.
On a bluff above the bay — and near the pavilion — are three sandstone slabs that legend says bear ancient footprints foretelling the arrival of westerners to the Hawaiian Islands. These 10-inch-thick slabs of lithified sand were returned to Mo‘omomi in 2003 after almost a century of safekeeping at the Bishop Museum on O‘ahu.
The story goes that a prophetess named Kuʻuna had recurring dreams of strangers coming and taking the land away from the Hawaiians. As proof, she etched toeless footprints in the sandstone at Keonelele. She was deemed made by the ali‘i and killed. Centuries later, boot-wearing foreigners arrived with similar footprints.
Mo‘omomi means “pearl-eyed lizard,” and it’s hard to tell why this area is called that. Are these native shrubs that shimmer in the sunlight in this desolate, dry area that might resemble lizard skin? I’ve heard that its name comes from another legend about a submerged cave here with a stony sponge valued for its medicinal properties. The cave was guarded by a lizard god — a mo‘o — with iridescent eyes.
I like that explanation better.
It was pretty amazing to walk through what’s considered the most intact beach and sand dune area in the main Hawaiian Islands. (Much of the coastal lands have been snatched up for oceanfront development.)
This area is bursting with native plant life — from the nehe to the hinahina kū kahakai to the pāʻūohiʻiaka. And it’s a nesting site for the endangered green sea turtles and native shorebirds, plovers and seabirds like the ‘iwa (great frigatebird) and the ‘ua‘u kani (wedge-tailed shearwater). The Hawaiian owl, or pueo, can also be spotted here fairly regularly.
It’s a glorious place.
VERDICT: If you geek out over native plants and wildlife, this is a must-visit on Moloka‘i. You definitely need a four-wheel drive, especially if you’re planning to drive all the way into the preserve. Check with The Nature Conservancy office (808-553-5236, [email protected]) for monthly guided hikes, which I would highly recommend. While we both enjoyed the walk into the preserve, we would have had more time — and energy — to explore more of Mo‘omomi had we driven in. So keep that in mind. And bring water and snacks. You’re not going to find a concession stand here.
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