How to visit the off-limits Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe

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HAWAII Magazine readers Don and Rosie Eller wrote us with a question about how to visit one of Hawaii's least visitable islands:

You mentioned in the story, “Not Quite Niihau,” from the November/December 2009 issue of HAWAII Magazine that you have visited the island of Kahoolawe. We wanted to know if it's possible for us to visit the island.

You ask. We answer.

Yes, you can visit Kahoolawe. But you’re going to have to work for it.

The smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands, Kahoolawe and its surrounding waters are by law off-limits to the public. Your only way ashore is through volunteer work opportunities offered throughout the year.

Considered uninhabitable due to its diminutive size—a mere 44.6 square miles—and lack of fresh water, Kahoolawe became a training ground and bombing range for the U.S. military after World War II. In 1990, following decades of protest, these live-fire exercises ended. The military formally transferred control of Kahoolawe to the State of Hawaii in 1994.

how_to_visit_KahoolaweIn 1993, the Hawaii State Legislature established the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), ensuring the island and its surrounding waters would be preserved for future generations. The KIRC relies heavily on the efforts of volunteers to help with the restoration of the island. The group offers weekly work trips to Kahoolawe.

Volunteers meet on Maui on Monday morning, before being ferried over to Kahoolawe where they work from Monday through Thursday. There is a $100 fee that covers transportation from Maui to Kahoolawe, food and boarding costs.

What can you expect to be doing on the island with the KIRC?

“Large-scale restoration work,” says Mike Nahoopii, KIRC executive director. He explains that the duties vary, but this time of year workers keep busy planting native flora or removing invasive weeds—basic, but crucial, work to reestablishing the island’s once-ravaged ecosystem. It’s not all work. Volunteers learn the history of Kahoolawe—both ancient and contemporary—and practice Hawaiian chants and other cultural traditions.

KIRC’s base of operations is set up on the southern end of Kahoolawe and includes buildings with sleeping quarters, kitchen and a dining area. Modern amenities include toilets and electricity.

There is a wait list for the volunteer work trips, as KIRC takes only 20 to 25 volunteers to the island each week. When assigned to a work trip, volunteers are required to complete an orientation. The session informs volunteers of safety tips, environmental hazards and gives a cultural background of the area.

how_to_visit_KahoolaweClick here to sign up for volunteer work. Or for specific inquiries, call (808) 243-5020, or email administrator@ You can read all about the KIRC's history of restoration efforts by clicking here.

Nonprofit organization Protect Kahoolawe Ohana also offers a similar work trip through a stewardship agreement with KIRC. The trips happen monthly and are based on the north end of the island. As many as 60 volunteers can be accommodated on a single trip.

If you’re interested in volunteering with the PKO click here. For more information on the PKO's restoration work on the island, click here.

Just remember, a stay on Kahoolawe isn’t a causal trip.

“It’s rough work,” says the KIRC's Nahoopii. “It’s not the Hilton Hawaiian Village.”

Photos: Kahoolawe's barren landscape (top, pg. 1) and sea cliffs (bottom, pg. 2), KIRC; Maui's Makena Beach area and Kahoolawe eight miles across the channel (bottom, pg. 1), Commons/Wikipedia.

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