Kualoa, which means “long back” in Hawaiian, is one of the most beautiful and sacred places on all of O’ahu. Think the island is all traffic, crowded beaches and concrete? Think again.
Located just 24 miles from Waikiki along the scenic Likelike Highway and contours of the Ko’olau mountain range, Kualoa Ranch awaits your arrival.
From the moment you approach the property, the enveloping cliffs and sweet, salty ocean air leave you feeling almost weightless and in awe of the sheer majesty of this untainted Eden. Even from the parking lot, you’re provided with breathtaking views of Kane’ohe Bay.
Following a palatable teriyaki beef plate lunch and a refreshing Hawaiian Sun passion orange drink at Aunty Pat’s Paniolo Cafe, I packed my things and prepared to embark on a one-hour guided tour of the Kaʻaʻawa Valley, known as the Backlot of Hawaiʻi, for the Movie Sites & Ranch Tour. This legendary ranch raises Kualoa beef, trains horses, grows orchids and is the home to two long-horned bulls.
The topography of the ranch varies in terrain, most of which is only accessible by long, strenuous hiking, on horseback, or an all-terrain vehicle. From tightly-packed rainforests to vast and lush valleys to serene white sand beaches and dramatic cliff faces, this‘āina (land) is the idyllic place for outdoor recreation (and daydreaming). In ancient times, this was one of the most sacred places on the island. It was known as a place of refuge for Hawaiians who were condemned to die, since the land was under a special kapu, and anyone who was able to find their way to Kualoa could not be harmed.
After a short, dusty ride, we were treated to views of an abandoned WWII bunker and a dozen pillboxes that were built after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. We also got up and close to what was left of the Kualoa Sugar Mill built and operated by Charles H. Judd and Samuel G. Wilder. It was fascinating to hear about the cultural significance and history of this magical place, as well as see firsthand how this land has been preserved and protected from further development.
“We’re continually thinking of ways to enhance our experiences while keeping true to our mission of conservation, sustainability, agriculture and cultural and historic preservation,” says John Morgan, president of Kualoa Ranch.
We then took the road around the base of a cliff to Ka’a’awa Valley to check out all of the movie sites, including the scene from Jurassic Park where Dr. Alan Grant and the two children take cover behind the trunk of a fallen tree when they encounter a flock of fleeing dinosaurs. This is probably the most famous dead tree in the world.
During this tour you’ll also get acquainted with Godzilla’s footprints and see the filming locations for Lost, 50 First Dates, Windtalkers, and the TV series Hawaii 5-0. Who knows, you may even get lucky and have the opportunity to see a shooting in progress!
We weren’t so fortunate, but the landscape surely made up for any chance encounters with celebrities we may have stumbled across.
From a vantage point on the northern side, our group was allowed to exit the bus and take in the views of the tranquil blue ocean and dreamy cumulus clouds. Everyone was glowing with enthusiasm and taking every opportunity possible to capture memories on their smartphones and SLRs.
As an unhurried line of four-wheelers pass, we couldn’t help but look up towards the top of the 1,900 foot ridge of Kualoa. Called Kānehoalani which means “Kāne’s heavenly companion,” Kualoa ridge is the highest peak in the valley. After speaking with some of the ranch’s employees, it became apparent that despite how long they may have been tending to this land, it still amazes them every day.
On the southern half of the property, you’ll bear witness to Hakipuʻu Valley, the 800-year old Moliʻi fishpond, and Secret Island.
In order to sustain the wondrous landscape that makes Kualoa Ranch so intriguing, it relies 98 percent on motorized tours and two percent on raising and selling its cattle.
If you’re interested in a one-of-a-kind experience, this stop is a must while visiting O’ahu.