Kamakou Preserve: Tropical Mountain Hiking in Molokai, HI

I recently found out that my Polish ancestors were mountain folk, and so perhaps my love for the mountains has been passed down to me. Whatever it is, the mountains always call to me and Mololai’s heights were no different. However, unlike the readily accessible mountains of Phoenix, Molokai’s mountains are steep, can be treacherous, and/or aren’t always to be scaled (private land or sacred land). So, for me, the Nature Conservancy’s Kamakou Preserve was the perfect place for mountain hiking in Molokai. I got to see some very different ecosystems, a more temperate forest and then a tropical bog. Also, the views were out of this world.

While mountain hiking in Molokai isn’t easy, for those travelers who are willing to do it responsibly and respectfully, it is an amazing and unique experience. The challenge that it presents offers you an opportunity to explore your own limits. And the mountains offer a view into the wild heart of the Hawaiian islands. If this hike isn’t for you, I’ve got you covered with some cool photos of the forest and the bog. And no matter your location or travel style, I will include information in this blog about the conservation of Kamakou Preserve and how to support this important work.

Mountain Hiking in Molokai is a True Adventure

Mountain hiking in Molokai and Hawaii in general is like basically nowhere else in the United States. I hike hundreds of miles a year, in difficult desert terrain where people die every year. Despite that, even I found hiking in the mountains of Molokai to be extra difficult. Furthermore, there is lots of private land and sacred places in the mountains. And visitors need to be respectful of these spots.

Difficult Conditions

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

First, as you might guess from photos of the mountains, they are very very steep. This means that hiking off trail (which is not responsible anyway, especially not for visitors) is extra dangerous. In fact, travelers visiting Molokai have also lost their lives in the mountains from falling off cliffs. Accessing the trails often requires 4WD and more likely than not will involve loss of cell phone service.

Furthermore, the conditions in Hawaii are generally humid and sometimes hot. This means that for most of us, it is more exhausting to trek up and down trails.

Sacred Spaces and People’s Home

When hiking in Hawaii, you should also pay attention to the status of the land that you are on. Some places are very sacred to the Hawaiian people, and many trails pass through private land. So, you need to be very respectful while hiking. Do research before you get out on the trail; learn about the cultural history of the place, and who owns the land.

Taking all of this together, I think it is really important for anyone considering Kamakou Preserve to come to the trails with great respect.

The Kamakou Preserve

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

The Kamakou Preserve was established in 1982 and it is currently managed by the Nature Conservancy (one of the largest conservation non-governmental organizations in the world) and the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). Besides protecting over 200 species of plants, many of which are endemic or found no where else in the world, Kamakou Preserve protects some of the most important sources of freshwater on the island. Interestingly, the Pepe’opae Bog (which is where the boardwalk trail navigates) is “the oldest in Hawaii.”

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

While the mountains are not hotspots for human development, feral goats and pigs represent a threat to the native forest species. Both of these animals are highly resilient and can eat just about anything. They can trample and consume sensitive native species that are found no where else in the world. The loss of this biodiversity would be a permanent. Furthermore, this would represent a cultural and spiritual loss for the Hawaii people, which you can learn more about in Heidi Pool’s reporting on Kamakou Preserve.

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

The way TNC and DLNR are protecting Kamakou from pigs and goats is pretty simple (but requires the help of visitors). They fence off the area. If pigs and goats can’t enter, they can’t physically damage the species that find refuge in the preserve. That’s why it is ESSENTIAL that you close the gate when you enter and exit. 

Need to Know Information

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

This guide is based on a trip in 2019 and corresponding research on conditions in 2022.

Official Website

Trail difficulty: Difficult – while not long, there is a steep ascent to the trailhead, and the boardwalk is narrow and potentially dangerous. If you are worried about these but wish to visit, contact the Nature Conservancy to inquire about their monthly group hikes which run from April – October.

Trail length: 3 miles in and out PLUS additional mileage if you park down the road at the overlook; this is an out and back trail.

Elevation gain: —

Shade factor: Very shaded.

Bogginess level: High; the road up to the trailhead can be muddy and slick, and while the boardwalk will allow you to not hike through the bog, there is a chance of slippage.

Toilets at the trailhead? No

Entrance fee: None

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

4WD/High clearance needed to access? Yes! It is a ~10 mile drive to the overlook. This road is a narrow, dirt road that passes through fields and then climbs up into the mountains. This part of the road is generally better maintained and drier, but can be rough. Past the outlook, however, the road becomes very steep and rutted. It is also often slick and muddy. I would not suggest that any visitors try to drive past the outlook. Speak with the staff at the Nature Conservancy office before you attempt to visit to ask about current conditions.

TNC contacts: Phone: 808-537-4508 ; Email: hawaii@tnc.org

On the Trail

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

There were two parts of the Kamakou Preserve trail for me, because I opted to park lower down even though I was driving a Jeep. Visit the Nature Conservancy office before you set out for this mountain hiking in Molokai and ask about the condition of the road. When I went, it was muddy and very very steep. It was a good choice to hike it instead; I never would have made it up.

Hiking up the road from the established parking area has quite a bit of elevation gain. There can also be muddy conditions. But you will be travelling through the forest, so it is nicely shaded. That being said, I do think that this part of the trail is the hardest, just due to the incline.

You will know when you have made it to the actual trailhead, when you come to a gate with signage. Be sure to follow sign instructions and close it after you pass through.

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

The condition of the trail will completely change at this point, when you access Pepe’opae Bog. Much of the trail in Kamakou Preserve is a narrow, single-board boardwalk. This is necessary because much of the ground in this area is inundated with water. It is a bog, afterall. I really enjoy traveling on unique trails; so, I found this very very fun and beautiful. However, this kind of trail can also be a little bit dangerous. If the wood gets wet and doesn’t have mesh over the top, it can become seriously slippery. If the metal mesh comes up, it can also be sharp.

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

I hiked the boardwalk until I made it to a view of the mountains and then I turned back because I had to make it all the way back to my Jeep down the road. 

Safety Concerns

Aside from my normal cautions (you must take care of yourself!), there are some extra things to consider for mountain hiking in Molokai at Kamakou Preserve.

First, hiking is only one part of your trail trip, you must also get there and get home safely. The road to Kamakou is very difficult and you will likely not have cell service in the mountains. Thus, you need to be careful and error on the side of caution when considering if you can make it up there.

Second, boardwalks are very cool but represent their own dangers when they are as narrow and wild as those found in the preserve. It is possible that you can slip off the boardwalk or cut yourself on the metal mesh that is meant to help stop people from sliding off the wood. Both can result in injury, potentially to the point that traveling could become difficult. It is important to wear sturdy boots while hiking here as well as pants. Walk carefully and slowly, watching where you step.

Joining one of TNC’s monthly group hikes will increase your safety; these run from April – October.

Land Acknowledgement

kamakou preserve

(c) ABR 2019

Molokai is believed to have been home to the ancestors of the Hawaiian people as early as 650 AD. Molokai, like all Hawaiian islands, is foundational to Hawaiian culture, and it has been stewarded by the Hawaiian people for hundreds of years. What we get to experience today is thanks to the love and care of the Hawaiian people, and is, in many cases, in spite of the impacts of Western colonization.

It is essential to respect Hawaiian culture and people while visiting Molokai. (And respect locals in general).

I cannot offer comprehensive tips of how to do this, and you should do research before you leave. However, respecting private property and sacred lands by only entering under allowed conditions (e.g. entering with a guide, or staying out altogether) is important. Staying in lodging that does not impact the housing crisis in Hawaii is also essential. That means avoiding short term rentals that are not owner-occupied (e.g. don’t rent an entire house or apartment).

Another way to support Hawaiian people is to become customers of Hawaiian-owned businesses. Molokai is home to cool shops and restaurants that support the local people.  You might also donate to Hawaiian run organizations that support Hawaiian people and their culture.

Finally, if you have the cash to purchase vacation property, consider NOT buying in Molokai or Hawaii in general. The housing crisis is real and has been forcing Hawaiian people and other locals out of their homes. 

Learn More About Molokai

Mo'omomi Preserve

(c) ABR 2019

The Nature Conservancy doesn’t just preserve tropical forests on Molokai. They also have a wild coastal preserve that visitors can hike in as well. While also difficult to access, Mo’omomi Preserve offers a glimpse into an ecosystem all but lost in Hawaii. Fragile bird and turtle species nest on the beaches and rare plants nestle in the arid soil here.

You can also join a monthly group hike to this area, or with 4WD and utmost respect, you can visit on your own. Be sure to close any gates that you come across, and respect signage about nesting areas.

For our full guide, see Mo’omomi Preserve: Beach Hiking in Molokai.

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5 Comments

  1. Wow! What a gorgeous hike and views! This makes me what to book a trip to Hawaii right now.

  2. Wow this hike looks amazing! My husband and I love to hike but haven’t made it to Hawaii yet. This one will have to be on the list when we do go!

  3. Wooow the Kamakou Preserve looks like a fantastic place to explore. I love hiking and I love how many different ecosystems you would be able to experience while hiking! Great post.

  4. It’s amazing all the different terrains that you see along this hike. It really does look quite difficult, especially balancing on those single boards. I love that you can also see the coastal preserve as well.

  5. What a beautiful trail! I don’t think I am fit enough to hike Kamakou, so I will enjoy and live vicariously through this post 🙂

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