OverviewThis is a page describing the West Maui Mountains, specifically its highest point.
To call this mountain Pu’u Kukui or to call it Mauna Kahalawai, that is the question. Well that is just one of the questions. Most peak lists refer to this mountain as Pu’u Kukui but Pu’u Kukui is really just the name of the highest point, a small bump of a hill (pu’u) that harbors an arbor of various species of trees, including the candlenut tree. “Kukui” means “enlightenment” in Hawaiian, or something akin to that, and the candlenut tree is symbolic of that.
It’s curious, to me at least, that these same peak lists refer to the highest point on the island as Haleakala, but that’s really the name of the entire mountain massif (there is actually a lesser point east of the Haleakala highpoint that is officially called by this name). The name of the highest hill is Pu’u’ula’ula (aka Red Hill*). So why not call the highest point on the island Pu’u’ula’ula instead of Haleakala? Or why not call the West Maui Mountains Mauna Kahalawai?
Still more confusion arises when one notices the words Kahoolewa Ridge running over the summit. And still more confusion arises if an old Hawaiian name of Maui Komohana is considered.
But maybe Mauna Kahalawai more realistically refers to the small mountain “range” that lifts up the west end of the island. When I asked locals, namely the employees of the preserve thereon, they said it should be called Mauna Kahalawai, but they understood that Pu’u Kukui would be appropriate too. It would depend on the context of conversation.
- Height = 5788 ft [#15 in the state by 300-ft mean prominence cutoff]
- Prominence = 5668 ft (clean) with key saddle here [#4 in the state]
- Isolation = 21.64 miles to NHG at this point; 24.92 miles to NHN at Red Hill (highpoint of Haleakala)
- Distance from center of Earth = 20,922,609.8 ft (6377.211 km) after geoid height correction (geoid height = +31.2 ft)
- Speed of rotation around axis = 972.69 mph (1565.40 kmh)
The terrain of Mauna Kahalawai is just about everywhere rugged with many sharp arêtes dividing plunging valleys. Some of these arêtes are ensconced as a jungle obstacle course (just ask Bob Burd!). And yet, because of the whole idea of trade winds, the mountain is jungle-like on the “wet” side (mainly the north and east sides) and somewhat barren on the south side, with the west side above Lahaina something in between. The summit ridges that are not sharp arêtes tend to form into angled bogs, though when I was there it looked more like the highlands of Scotland because, apparently, it hadn’t rained much lately to make it wet. It didn’t seem boggy at all, but then I didn’t step off the boardwalk to find out except for in the trees at the summit (so as to stand on the exact highest point, you know). And yet just steps south of those summit trees the ground falls away almost dead-vertical for 2000 vertical feet. Pt. 5145 just south of Pu’u Kukui is a sight to behold!
*of interesting trivial note, this Red Hill isn’t even the highest Red Hill in the state. There’s a 11,863-ft Red Hill on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
GeologyMauna Kahalawai was a volcano but it is long deceased. It was significantly higher than it is today. Erosion in a rainy environment will do that to you. The mountain is older than Haleakala to the east, which should be obvious not only from observation of the features of each massif, but also in the fact that the Hawaiian hotspot has been creating volcanoes more easterly than the previously-created volcanoes. To be clear, of course, the hotspot itself isn’t moving but the Pacific Plate that lies over the top of it is moving generally in a WNW direction. For example, Midway Atoll 800 miles to the WNW of the Big Island used to be where the Big Island is today. The Pacific Plate moves west-northwestward at the rate of about one inch per year. This line of volcanoes along the sea floor is known as the Emperor Seamount Chain.
At one time there was just the volcano of Mauna Kahalawai, and older volcanoes to the WNW, above sea level. The volcano that became Haleakala then entered the atmosphere and grew and grew, eventually creating a flank so vast that it rose above the sea all the way out to Mauna Kahalawai, thus creating the low saddle between the two mountain massifs.
WeatherThere are some who argue that Pu'u Kukui is the wettest place on Earth, even wetter than Waialeale on Kauai. The annual rainfall for the last 50+ years can be viewed here where there is a link to Waialeale. The links there show that Waialeale has had a higher average over that 50 years. But the Pu'u Kukui chart shows a singular anomalous “event” that was 1982 where over 700 inches of rain apparently fell. But it was such an anomaly one has to wonder if some goof ball kept pouring water into the rain gauge at the summit. I can tell you it is easy to reach over this gauge to pour water into it! The mountain also received just over 100 inches of rain in March 1942 (Source).
So, why was it so nice when we were there? It seems like for the six days we were on Maui we were able to see the summit for at least half of them at least for some part of the day. On the morning of our climb there was not a cloud in the sky as if we were in the Atacama Desert. By the time we reached the summit clouds had begun to form in the valleys below and were building higher as stratus or cumulus fractus, the result of montane condensation.
Pineapples, Pineapples, PineapplesFor 100 years pineapples were king in Maui. Well, there were 2000+ acres of it (the Maui Gold hybrid variety) run by Maui Pineapple Company, a division of the Maui Land & Pineapple Company. On the lower west slopes of the mountain there were many pineapple fields running down the declivity toward the ocean. These former fields can be easily seen on satellite imagery. The approach to the trailhead (at Kaulalewelewe) makes use of the network of red dirt roads that serviced these fields. Now these fields grow high with sedges. You can’t always see across the fields from the roads. The roads are walled in.
In some parts of the lower mountain efforts are underway to replant native aalii trees where pineapples once grew. My son got to plant one of these trees. Maybe 20 years from now he’ll return and find the very tree he planted.
EcologyWith all of that rain you would expect the place to be teeming with life. Well of course. And it is this pristine environment that makes it hard to get permission to visit. It’s not quite like Area 51. You won’t get shot if you’re caught in the preserve. But there are some steep cliffs around with deep jungles at their base. Wink.
The mountain is home to species that are found practically nowhere else in Hawaii, much less the world. There is a land snail (partulina perdix) that lives on a tree. There are silver swords and green swords (these are plants not long, sharp blades). And there are other things that I don’t know about because I’m not a biologist. And so I’ll stop there and point you to the Internet.
AccessThe highest point of Mauna Kahalawai, Pu’u Kukui, can be seen from many vantage points and from some of these vantage points it looks tantalizingly close. Or, at least that one could just hike up a ridgeline and get to the summit. But this is far from the case.
The foremost challenge on any clandestine climb to Pu’u Kukui or anyplace else deep in the heart of the West Maui Mountains is the formidable brush (yeah, jungle) combined with the high probability you’ll either run into cliffs or a knife edge traverse. There are rumored to be “trails” transecting the range but that’s as far as that goes: a rumor.
Now, there is a trail to the top from the NNW side. It’s actually a boardwalk the entire distance from trailhead to summit, which is 4.5 miles long and about 2800 ft of gain. But one doesn’t just get to this trailhead and start hiking. No. This trailhead and the entire mountain above it (and a fair amount of the mountain below it) is part of a biological preserve that goes by a couple of different names, such as the Pu'u Kukui Watershed Preserve or the West Maui Forest Preserve (a different entity than the former), which is “administrated” or “owned” by the West Maui Pineapple Plantation. Basically, the summit is off-limits. And for good reason. There are endangered species of flora and fauna high on the mountain and the preserve caretakers are quite protective of spoiling this ecology. It’s probably not so much that the flora and fauna that is there could be “trampled” or “fleyed,” (though that would happen to if everyone was allowed to go up there) but that careless transgressors could go up there and unwittingly (or wittingly, if you’re that diabolical) transport invasive plants, bugs, and even critters that would then take hold and squeeze out the plants and animals that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. There is a tree-massacring fungus that has killed thousands of acres of ʻōhiʻa forest on the Big Island in a very short amount of time that is preserve enemy number one (more information here). If you’re lucky to be granted access to be guided to the top or to take a helicopter to the tiny landing platform next to the summit, you’ll be required to “detox” your climbing equipment, especially your boots. And you won’t be allowed to take anything to the top that you’ve used elsewhere in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island.
Now when it comes to figuring out who to contact to obtain permission to go to the top, you won’t find the information here. You’re on your own. The preserve caretakers probably do not want to be inundated with requests and you would likely be wasting your time anyway. It took me five months to get final permission and I had to work at it, with there being more to it than simply being told "yes." These things are for you to discover. I owe it to the preserve not to divulge more.
The BoardwalkThe boardwalk trail is approximately 7400 meters long one way, which converts to about 4.5 miles. Distances along the trail are marked by frequent tags displaying the number of meters from the trailhead. The trail goes the entire distance from the trailhead at Kaulalewelewe (the w’s are pronounced like v’s) at 2980 ft to the top of Pu’u Kukui without a single junction or side trail (that I saw). In fact, you can make the entire climb without stepping off the boardwalk unless you’re clumsy or not paying attention. There are a few boardwalk segments (10 feet long at a time) that are or will be broken but these are generally negotiable. Sometimes the boardwalk squeezes through a thicket of ʻōhiʻa trees. Other times it’s either in the lower jungle or crossing the open tundra-like or Scottish highland-like bogs nearer to the top. I express the word “bog” here loosely because it is referred to as such. But I found its appearance to be quite dry looking. I didn’t step off the boardwalk to find out how dry or how deep my boot might sink in. And it would have been inappropriate anyway. Maybe they just hadn’t had much rain in the days leading up to the hike.
At about halfway (in the segment known as Nakalalua) the boardwalk transitions from being three planks wide to two planks wide, which just means you have to concentrate on your steps more. Oh, and the riser of each step (each and every one of them!) is about an inch higher than your standard step. This means you might get fatigued using muscles you don’t normally use. This also means that on the way down you have to step down each step slightly more forcefully than your body is use to. You go to straighten your leg for the next platform but your heel is still an inch above it. So you have to drop that final inch while releasing your back foot a bit more. If you repeat this for 3000+ steps, well, you get the idea. My feet were sore for a week afterward (stepping on a sea urchin in the ocean later that day didn’t help matters).
It is interesting to note that the paniolos of yore actually dug a network of diversion ditches in the bog just off the summit that were used to funnel water toward the NW side (presumably to the pineapple fields far below). These ditches were pointed out to us and are obvious when up there. They are visible on the satellite image if you know what you’re looking for.
The boardwalk passes a rain gauge down at about 3,400 ft and another one higher up (that we didn’t see) and yet another one or two near the summit. The boardwalk passes a lower “helicopter” pad at the lowest elevation of bog and an upper pad just above the upper rain gauge(s). Just after the upper pad the boardwalk enters the candlenut trees that occupy the small summit hill of Pu’u Kukui itself. These occupying trees unfortunately block the views to the south side of the summit. However, the boardwalk builders* were kind enough to construct a viewing platform that just barely peeks out from the tree coppice for an astounding view (weather permitting) of the aforementioned prominent peaks with their sharp arêtes south of the summit.
Also at the summit is a 10x10 tent structure for getting out of the rain. But it’s hot in the tent if it’s not raining.
*The newer lower half of the boardwalk was built in just nine months in 2009 by Chris Lagase and a small team of helpers. The upper boardwalk is older (and looks older). Before the lower boardwalk was built the tread was mud and roots and just a whole lot brushier. It is astounding to me that this lower boardwalk could have been built so quickly. My only nit would be that the height of each step riser is about an inch more than a standard riser. 10 miles of this round-trip can really wear out your feet.
"Other" RoutesWell there aren't any.
There are other trails on this mountain on the lower flanks and there may be survey or research paths at higher levels, but these are not trails as much as they are “routes” used by preserve employees to perform transects (which I think they do yearly) to search for invasive species. They are not really viable pathways to the top. These preserve employees are professionals when it comes to bushwacking those ridgelines.
When we were at a zipline course on the east side of the mountain one of the zipline guides said there is a trail up Iao Valley that can be taken all the way to the Lahaina side, I guess going through the divide south of the summit. But I am dubious. She may have been referring to the Lahaina Pali Trail. But that trail doesn’t exactly transect the range.
There is of course another way to get to the top: helicopter. In fact this is the most common way that commoners get to the top. And by commoners I’m mainly speaking of scientists.
Lower down on the mountain’s west side there are motorcycle trails. These are generally below 2000 ft. Our guides told us that these motorcyclists keep cutting through a fence and they keep having to repair the fence. Don't be a moto jerk.