The cloud forests of Hawaii Island: What to know and where to go
You’ll know you’ve entered a Hawaii tropical cloud forest by the smell: The sweet ozone-y scent of earth after rain mingles with cool, crisp mountain air. But one way you may not be able to tell a cloud forest from other forests in Hawaii is by its plants.
I recently tromped through the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary (tours upon request, details below), a conservation easement-protected private preserve of 70 acres on the slopes of Hualalai Volcano. It’s truly another world from the broiling lava desert surrounding the Kona Airport, just 15 minutes away. Cloud forests, also sometimes called fog forests, are characterized by a frequent, low-level cloud cover due to their generally tropical/subtropical, evergreen, montane or moist environment. (Though few specimens of truly native cloud forests remain in Hawaii, leaving many questions about endemic plants that may have formerly thrived there, there is a growing trend to reforest areas at cloud forest-friendly elevations. Across the street from the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, another forest, populated almost entirely by native plants, thrives. A drive further up steep Koloko Road highlights even more of these efforts.)
The Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, however, is an amalgamation of global introductions. Statuesque blue marble Rudraksh trees from India, Chinese bamboo, sprawling green fronds from Africa and even an old ficus houseplant mingle with endemic species found in other more familiar Hawaii landscapes —flowering ohia, squat and endangered loulu palm and the unfurling fronds of hapuu, the native Hawaiian tree fern. The result is a riotous explosion of green, a chilly jungle at 3,000 feet.
Sanctuary owner and horticulturist Norman Bezona told our group that he’s been carefully recreating this microclimate from old ranchlands since the mid-1970s. When he began, the exposed landscape lent itself to hot days and cold nights. As the forest around him began to grow, the days became shadier and cooler and the cold nights were tempered by a blanket of trees.
Unlike Hawaii’s tropical rainforests, which can feel muggy and hot, the cloud forest here hovers somewhere between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit and, as its name implies, is often shrouded in mysterious mist. Located in higher elevations, cloud forests receive much less rain than a rainforest and instead obtain some 40 percent of their life-sustaining water directly from condensation on plants’ leaves.
To recreate a cloud forest where they may once have naturally occurred, Bezona first brought in fast-growing Monterey pine, capable of bolting upward six feet in a year. The pines successfully shaded out the thick mats of grass selected for cattle, and, with less sunlight reaching the new forest floor, different native plants—seeds long dormant in the soil—began to reemerge.
From there, he and his sons and a bevy of volunteers went to work experimenting with different global species to fill in the gaps. He has also added a stone arch entrance way he calls the Bali Gate, carefully placed statues and almost a dozen rescued parrots that squawk and call to visitors in eerily human voices from their cages in the forest.
Not all plants can thrive at this elevation—the coastal-loving coconut palm, brought to the Islands by early Polynesians, is not a fan—but many other species will. “Access to sunlight makes a big difference on what you can grow,” said Bezona. “As you plant different species, the microclimates change.”
If you don’t have the time to reserve one of the limited tours through the carefully-managed Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, another way to experience a Hawaii cloud forest is via the always-free and open-to-the-public three-mile-long Makahi Trail, part of the Honuaula Forest Reserve’s Makaula Ooma Tract. Pink markers blaze the way through higher elevation montane forest exploding with birdsong, giant ferns and koa seedlings planted by volunteers and Tree Hawaii. Park near the trailhead on Makahi Street near the top of Kaloko Drive.
Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary
The Sanctuary offers limited tours by appointment or through KapohoKine Tours, to book call (808) 964-1000. Private tours for horticulture enthusiasts or students require their own transportation to the forest and can be arranged by calling (808) 325-6440. For more information visit konacloudforest.com.