Hawaii's Climate Zones
It was not a question a visitor to Hawaii expects to hear: “What size parka do you wear?”
Nevertheless, it was welcome. We were some 13,796 feet above sea level, and it was cold. Meat-locker cold. Maybe 20 degrees. I shrugged on my parka gratefully as I stepped from the van that had carried us over a tooth-rattling, bumpy road to the top of Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island.
“It can be argued that Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain,” said Maka Stone, a guide with tour operator Hawaii Forest & Trail. “When measured from its base on the ocean floor, its 33,500 feet–taller than Everest.”
I looked down at a blanket of fleecy clouds lacquered orange by the fleeting sun. Fifteen minutes later the sun went down like a ship on fire and jerked the world into dusk. Then the van took us down to the 9,000-foot level where Stone set up a telescope. Overhead, the night sky–unsullied by the glow of any city–was carbonated with stars giving off light that has been on its way to this moment for a thousand years.
Remarkably, in our 20-minute descent from the summit, we had moved from a Peri-Glacial Climate Zone to a Summer-Dry Cool Climate Zone. The world has 14 climate zones–and, even more remarkably, 10 of them are found on the Big Island, which embraces an area not quite twice as big as the state of Connecticut.
Why does the Big Island have such diversity? “We are made up of volcanoes that have risen from the sea, one lava flow at a time,” sayd Rob Pacheco, owner of Hawaii Forest & Trail. “The hot spot feeding this process happens to be right at the edge of the tropics and within the path of the northwest trade winds. Elevation and wind interact to create our humid tropical lowlands, wet temperate rainforests, dry desert coasts, and frigid arctic summits.”
As a result, in just a few days on the Big Island, visitors can see black sand beaches, volcanic deserts, rain forests, the rolling pastures of cattle ranches–and one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
I resolve to experience as many zones as I can in four days, and the morning after my night of stargazing, I am driving on the Kohala Mountain Road, through the 200,000-acre Parker Ranch. Miles of undulating, velvety green pastures are framed by the immense blue fabric of the Pacific and are broken by stands of ironwood trees that serve as windbreaks At about 3,000 feet elevation I am in the Summer Dry-Warm Temperate Zone. A mist hangs over the land like cotton candy.
After passing through the pretty town of Waimea, I turn off State Route 19 onto the Old Mamalahoa Highway, which descends some 2,500 feet through lush, greenery in a Tropical Continuously Wet Zone into the old sugar plantation town of Honokaa on the Hamakua Coast. Honokaa’s main drag, Mamane Street, is lined with historic turn-of-the-last century buildings, including, shops, a hotel and a theater.
A few miles east of Honokaa I enter the tiny town of Paauili and drive uphill, away from the coast, and soon I am in a towering forest of eucalyptus trees. This is the Tropical Monsoon Zone, the smallest on the Big Island, a 10-mile stretch that has distinct wet and dry seasons.
An hour I’m back in a Tropical Continuously Wet Zone in Hilo and standing beneath a canopy the Farmers Market, seeking refuge from the rain that makes Hilo the wettest city in the United States (it averages 128 inches of rainfall annually). Hilo (pop 48,000) also is one of the nation’s most laid back cities. It is beyond the tug of the main tourist current, and the locals are amiable to strangers as well as each other.
A woman with a straw hat jauntily askew sits behind a table of fruits, giving back change and taking in gossip. There are the usual suspects–mango, papaya, plantain and pineapple–but also some exotic offerings--cherimoya, jaboticaba, lychee, rambutan, and soursop. A man with a beard like the king of spades sits pitchforking a bowl of noodles, and a gentle breeze carries the reassuring smell of brewing coffee. At the flower stand there are big buckets brimming with orchids, anthuriums and protea.
The rain slows down and then stops, leaving the streets rinsed and puddled. Then a rainbow arches over Hilo Bay like a tiara.
It’s a one-hour drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. While Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano–it’s been 46 centuries since it last erupted–Kilauea volcano has been pouring lava down its side and adding to the Big Island’s land mass every day for the past 33 years, living up to its name, which means “spreading, much spewing.”
“Kilauea is an infusive volcano, meaning there is no eruption, just a slow oozing,” explains Nathan Romeo, head guide for Nui Pohaku Adventure Tours, who has been guiding here for nine years.
We had been walking through barren lava wastes, but suddenly we are in a rainforest. “Within a few minutes, we have moved from a High Altitude Desert Zone to Continuously Wet Warm Temperate Zone,” says Romeo. “Climate zones are determined by elevation, temperature and trade winds.”
Near the village of Volcano, the Niaulani Rain Forest offers a short loop trail lined with giant koa and ohia trees. Black-faced nenes, a species of goose found only in Hawaii and the official state bird, strut on the forest floor with Chaplinesque jerkiness. Apapne birds, the Hawaiian honeycreeper, sing loudly, chirping and whistling, from the trees.
There are a dozen or more shades of green, including 29 species of ferns, some of them larger than many trees. Markers describe how ancient Hawaiians put the ferns to use-- akolea. (appetite enhancer), Amau (glue), Hoio hapuu (embalming), Olomea (fire starter).
The next day I’m in a Tropical Winter-Dry Zone where some of the world’s best coffee is grown along the Big Island’s famed Kona coffee belt, which consists of some 600 small farms, most of them in single-digit acreage, on the slope of Mauna Loa volcano.
The 25-mile strip takes me past old plantation towns–Honalo, Kainaliu, Kealakekua, Captain Cook and Napoopoo. It is lined with farms, coffee mills, roasters, museums, tasting rooms and cafes. Coffee trees are nurtured in rich and generative volcanic soil
“This is the perfect place to grow coffee,” says Norman Sakata, pointing generally up the slope to where the top of Mauna Loa is robed in mist. “We have sun in the morning, and clouds in the afternoon. It’s a coffee greenhouse.” Sakata should know. His family has been growing coffee here since 1893, when his grandfather, who had emigrated from Japan, completed three years of indentured service at a sugar plantation and set out on his own.
I drive down about 1,500 feet and I’m in a Hot Semi-Desert Zone. It’s a balmy evening in downtown Kailua-Kona, and on the grounds of Hulihee Palace parents and grandparents are seated on lawn chairs watching a group of children practice hula. Overhead, palm fronds are being rattled by a gentle breeze coming off Kailua Bay. The palace was a summer seaside retreat for Hawaii’s kings and queens until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. Today, Hulihee is a well-preserved historic site surrounded by a rock wall.
I head north along the Kona coast, into the Hot Desert Zone. It is dry and perpetually sunny, dotted with world-class golf courses and luxury oceanfront resorts. One of them is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel–the grand dame of resorts on the Big Island--and what it offers guests more than anything else is a view with a room.
From the lobby I can see one of Hawaii’s most beautiful white sand beaches—a perfect crescent of sand and palm trees. When I turn 180 degrees, I can see the hotel’s namesake volcano soaring into the clouds, where I began my journey three days ago.
I have covered 10 climate zones. I could have achieved the same thing by
visiting Japan’s Mount Fuji, the Australian Outback, the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, Africa’s Serengeti Plain, Mumbai, San Francisco, Madagascar, Namibia, Dubai, Paris, and the Oregon Cascades.
William Ecenbarger is an award-winning journalist whose magazine and
newspaper articles appear in markets throughout the world. He is also the author
of three books: Kids for Cash (2012), which recounts one of the worst judicial
scandals in American History; Glory by the Wayside (2008), a photo-essay book
released this year about the old churches of Hawaii, and Walkin’ the Line, (2000) a
travel-history narrative about the Mason-Dixon Line. As a travel writer, he has
produced more than 300 articles for newspaper and magazine outlets in the U.S.,
Australia and Canada. He has won 17 writing awards from the Society of American
Travel Writers, which named him "Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year" in
1996. He lives in Hershey, PA.