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Connecting to the Trees

Stepping into the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary is a transformational experience. It’s not just the varieties of trees, intentionally planted to reclaim this unique climate zone, it’s a quality in the air. It’s an invitation into presence. You’ve heard of forest bathing, that Japanese term pinpointing the healing properties of spending time in a forest, well, spend some time in the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary to learn about this unique climate zone, connect with nature, and leave a renewed version of yourself. No prune fingers required.

Kona is known for its dry weather. As a desert-like district on the leeward side of the island, it’s opposite the prevailing trade winds that hit the northeast coast. Loads of moisture is dropped as air climbs up into cooler elevations. Once that wind crosses the summit and moves down, the air warms up, expands, and clouds dissipate. It’s the orographic rain shadow effect. Kona doesnʻt get much precipitation down by the coast, but drive 20 minutes up Kaloko Drive and it’s a different story.

The Creation of Clouds

The Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary isn’t a rainforest. You won’t get tons of water falling down in big fat drops the way you might expect in a tropical place. It’s a cloud forest. It’s at that sweet spot on Hualālai that ranges from 2500 – 5000 feet in elevation; a 50-mile-long swath about five miles wide.

The very nature of a cloud forest is self-sustaining. Trees cool their habitat by shading the ground and drawing water up into the canopy. Moist air rising up the mountain cools and turns to clouds. This foggy precipitation maintains the forests that created it. Cloud forests are rare. The Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary even more so because it’s a seasonally dry cloud forest. Winters are the dry season on the Kona side of Hawaiʻi. And if you’re visiting during the summer, expect it to be even more misty.


From Lava to Forest to Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary

The Sanctuary itself comes from fiery beginnings. Up the slopes of Hualālai, the volcano framing the district of Kona, the Sanctuary exists on different lava flows from around the years 1400, 1600, as well as the most recent 1801 flow. It took generations of trees and shrubs to decompose into the thin layer of soil that the forest now grows on. But it didn’t take long for cattle and other introduced animals to destroy some of these centuries-old forests. Thirty years ago, cattle were grazing on these lands. They were once part of the 8000 acres or so that made up the historic Huʻehuʻe Ranch.


Norman Bezona, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, first bought 20 acres of land in 1982 and started planting trees. He used the land as a laboratory, working with native and other non-invasive introduced species that he knew wouldn’t spread and cause more damage. The Sanctuary now stewards 70 acres on Hao Street. Part of those original 20 acres are open for guests to experience on guided tours. Bezona remains an active force for preservation and education in the community. He handed the reins of the Sanctuary down through the family to Drew McWhirter, who spent his childhood running through these lands munching on guava jelly ginger, and his partner Brooke Olenski


Restoring the Forests | Restoring Ourselves

Restoration and conservation form the foundation of the Sanctuary’s mission. Humans have done damage to the land. Some of that damage is irreparable, like extinct native species that are not found anywhere else on earth, but some can be reversed, reminding us that hope exists — even in devastation.

Throughout the grounds, you’ll see some of the 200 palm and 100 bamboo species Bezona first planted on the lands. There are six different types of banyans, various eucalyptus, rubber trees, and even a carnivorous garden. The forest now rests on about a foot-and-a-half of loose rubble and decomposing matter. Trails are littered with these fallen leaves and lava chunks, which nourish growth to come. Each step is an acknowledgment of the tiny sliver of time humans can experience.


But time in the Sanctuary just doesn’t seem linear, anyway. It can stretch and morph, reaching up as high as the tallest Rainbow Eucalyptus. It can condense into the perfect spherical fruit of the Blue Marble or Rudraksha Tree. This isnʻt just a hike through some trees. This is a meditation. This is a mindfulness practice. This is a sanctuary.

Explore the Sanctuary

Tours run daily at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary. Book ahead online and choose between a two-and-a-half-hour, or an hour-and-a-half option. The longer tour will take you farther up the mountain into higher elevations. You’ll walk through a bamboo tunnel, beside century-old dry-stacked lava walls, and even through areas used for filming the movie Avatar.

To get there, take Palani Road from the hotel. Turn up the mountain on Kaloko Drive, which winds upward until Hue Street. Parking is on the street and your guide will meet you at the gate. You’ll get decked out with a bamboo walking stick for your tour. Bring close-toed shoes, a rain jacket, and hat to avoid the damp. Show up about ten minutes early to start breathing in that fresh forest air and watch your shoulders drop in relaxation. Bring a phone or camera, too. Or, just leave it in the car to experience peace without the barrier or a screen.

If you’re looking for more, add on a Sound Bath after your hike. Sound Baths are a facilitated experience where participants relax and enjoy the vibration of sounds to bring a deep state of peace and harmony. Groups are kept small on the forest platform onsite at the Kona Cloud.