Kamakou Preserve on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai holds many rare plant species — some so rare that they can be found nowhere else. With so many unique species in such a small environment, one threat is that relatively few individual plants exist for each species, which makes them highly susceptible to hurricanes, disease, and other random events that could lead to serious depletion or extinction.
Tucked away on the highest mountain of Hawaii’s least developed island—we’re talking remote here—lies a remarkable bit of undiscovered Eden. Draped with mosses, sedges, and lichens, this misty humid habitat feels like a land lost in time.
Though you’d hardly believe it from the rugged, red-dirt appearance of most of Molokai, up in the mountains it rains more than 80 inches (200cm) a year—hence the rainforest, which supplies 60% of the island’s water. An amazing 250 different plant species thrive here, 219 of them found nowhere else on earth. There’s the alani, a citrus fruit cousin to oranges and lemons; the hapuu, or Hawaiian tree fern; and Hawaii’s iconic ohia lehua, a knee-high tree with brilliant red, yellow, or orange blossoms.
It’s not just thrills for botanists, either. Birders can train their binoculars on precious species such as the brilliant green amakihi, the nectar-sipping apahane, and the endangered Hawaiian owl. The last time anybody caught sight of a Molokai thrush, it was here in this lush rainforest. Same goes for the Molokai creeper bird (kakawahie).
Of course, you don’t preserve rare species like this by letting just everybody tramp through. The Nature Conservancy carefully protects this nearly 3,000-acre (1,215-hectare) haven, which was ceded to them by the vast Molokai Ranch, that dominates Molokai’s interior. The conservancy offers once-a-month guided walks along a 3-mile-long (5km) narrow board-walk (the Pepeopae Trail) spanning the rainforest’s boggy ground. The hike ends at a breathtaking vista over Molokai’s inaccessible north coast, with its plunging emerald-green cliffs—truly a once-in-a-lifetime sight.
If the guided tour is full—reserve way in advance if you don’t want to be disappointed—you can still visit on your own, though without a naturalist to guide you may miss the rarest species. It’s still worth the effort, but getting here isn’t easy. Go west from Kaunakakai 3,5 miles (5.6km) on Highway 460, turn right onto an unmarked road that eventually turns to dirt, and drive 9 miles (15km) to the Waikolu Look-out, where you sign in. Drive another 2,5 miles (4km) through the Molokai Forest, its stands of sandalwood trees still rebounding after being stripped for the shipbuilding industry. Go left at the fork to reach the trail head. The drive takes 45 minutes, the hike itself another 90 minutes (unless you dawdle—and of course you’ll want to dawdle).