The Smallest Island in Hawaii Has a Waiting List—And Other Things You Didn't Know


If you want to see this beach in person, you may have to wait two years. (Photo: Thinkstock)

I’ve been traveling to the Hawaiian Islands since I was a child. There are eight major islands, and until recently I’d only visited the four most populated: Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and Hawaii (aka the Big Island). So three years ago, prompted by my love of the Islands, I started researching how to visit the other four: Lanai, Molokai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe. By the end of my deep dive, I’d gravitated toward Kahoolawe, the smallest of the eight, due to its historical significance.

The island has a shocking story. It was originally settled by no more than a couple hundred people, who formed small fishing communities, around the year 1000 A.D. But wars broke out through the years, and eventually the already-sparse population became nonexistent. Fast forward to the the early 1900s: A couple of ranchers rediscovered the land and tried to convert it into a cattle ranch, but their plan failed and the U.S. Army gained control of the land (with no remaining inhabitants). Because of its Army presence, Kahoolawe quickly earned the nickname “Target Island” — it was used as a training ground and bombing range until 1994. The land was then transferred back to the state of Hawaii, and restoration of the island, led by the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, began. To this day, there aren’t any full-time inhabitants on the entire island. Not a single one.


An old-school map of Kahoolawe. (Photo: Bettie Levy, courtesy of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission)

Historically significant as it may be, though, the island of Kahoolawe has one fatal flaw in terms of tourism: You can’t get to it easily. The only way is by volunteering through the reserve commission, so I signed up to do so. But here’s problem number two: There’s now a two-year wait to donate your services, and only 1,200 people get to go each year. Luckily, I was chosen as one of them. The fee to volunteer is $150 per person — the cost of a permit — for a typical four-day trip. Food and lodging are included in the fee.

To get to Kahoolawe, you travel from Maui on an LST (World War II naval vessel), and let me tell you, it’s an experience out of a James Bond movie.

Leaving Maui on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) to head to Kahoolawe. (Photo: Bettie Levy)

The trip takes about an hour, and when I first set foot on Kahoolawe’s pristine sand, my immediate thought was, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m still in the 50 states.” I could see a small refurbished Army base in the distance — aka Base Camp — but otherwise, there wasn’t much. There’s very little vegetation, and it sounds like crashing waves for miles.


Just another boring day on the job. (Photo: Bettie Levy)

Our first stop: Base Camp, which reminded me a bit of my first sleep-away camp experience. There were cabins for lodging, a cabin for laundry, a mess hall for meals, private bathing areas, and benches in the center of the camp for congregating/talking/making friends. Everything was clean and comfortable. There were 29 other people in my group — both volunteers and KIRC employees — and the other volunteers felt like family from the start. We all wanted to hear what had motivated the others to visit the island.


An aerial view of Base Camp. (Photo: Bettie Levy)

After we got settled, the crew gave the volunteers a briefing about the erosion project we’d be working on for the next four days: putting plates in the ground to collect soil and rain. We were also told that we were not, under any circumstances, to venture into any unmarked areas on the island. Why? There’s still unexploded ordnance — i.e. explosive weapons that did not explode — on the land.


It may look barren, but this soil is loaded with plates, which aid in the development of Kahoolawe’s soil base. (Photo: Bettie Levy)

Following our briefing, everyone packed into a bunch of ATVs, driven by the KIRC staff, and went off to tour the island, which is six miles wide and 11 miles long. One of the most special parts of our tour was visiting the second highest peak on the island, Moaulaiki. It was a clear day, so we were able to see five of the other Hawaiian islands. Kahoolawe is bordered by Maui, Lanai, and Molokai, but we were also able to see as far northwest as Oahu and as far southeast as the Big Island. Moaulaiki is also home to the Navigator’s Chair, a seat in the ground made of stones, used as a compass to help ancestors navigate between the Hawaiian Islands and Tahiti.


Photo: Sitting in the Navigator’s Chair, looking out at five of the other seven Hawaiian islands. (Photo: Bettie Levy)

Once we arrived back at Base Camp after our ATV tour, I took a moment to appreciate just how fortunate I was to be among my Kahoolawe co-volunteers, some of whom are now lifelong friends. And then, for the next four days while we were working on our soil project, I continued to do so. What a spiritual, education and restoration-based adventure. This pin on my map is one I will never forget — and next up on the agenda? Niihau, of course. I will keep everyone posted.

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