In our almost 3 years here, we have hiked up many ridges and walked on many beaches. We have marveled at mountain top views, were enchanted by lush forests, saw colorful fish while snorkeling, and gazed at the bright blue water in the sunshine. But my favorite part of this entire island will always be our own backyard.
When we were looking for our home, I told Curtis that something I really wanted was to be within walking distance of something: the town, the beach, a trail, or maybe a park. Somehow we lucked out with every single one of those items — the beach is a 20 minute walk, town is 15 minutes, and best of all, we have a little park down the street that’s also the start of a 2 mile walking trail!
On our very first day in our new house, we drove there from the hotel where we had been living for 2 months and got the keys. We unpacked the few suitcases we had been living out of for the past 5 months, and then Curtis had to go to work. Charlotte and I spent a few hours in the empty house, then decided to go for a walk. I had been eyeing this park down the street on Google Maps ever since our offer was accepted, and now was our chance to finally check it out. We walked down the street, entered the park, and continued following the sidewalk. We walked through a garden, past a big plaque, and rounded the corner, and right away I knew we had stumbled across something special.
The Kawainui Marsh Park is located at the end of Kaha Street in Kailua. There’s a big grassy field where people let their dogs run around, and pre-pandemic kid’s soccer or football leagues would meet. There’s a garden area where volunteers work every week to maintain the native vegetation. And then, there’s the levy trail.
The Kawainui Marsh is the largest wetland area in all of Hawaii. In the late 1980’s, there was a flood here that affected much of the Coconut Grove neighborhood in Kailua. After that happened, the Army Corps of Engineers built a levy to protect the neighborhood from the Kawainui Marsh, where much of the rain from the Ko’olau Mountains drains into, and from there into the ocean.
The levy trail is a favorite spot for many Kailuans to walk, run, bike, and bring their dogs. It stretches along the East side of the marsh and goes all the way to Kailua Road, which you can then follow into town.
Charlotte and I soon got in the habit of visiting the park every morning together, where she would sniff around the gardens and greet all her friends – both dogs and people, many who also visited the park on a daily basis. She isn’t usually interested in walking the entire trail, so I would often return later to walk it by myself and enjoy the views. Then I would convince Curtis to walk it with me at night as often as I could.
For our first two months on the island, we lived in the Navy Lodge on Ford Island. While there, I would walk Charlotte every day to a dog park. From here, I could see the South side of the Ko’olau Mountains. While I knew they had so many gorgeous views and amazing trails, I would look at them from this side and all I would see were sprawling neighborhoods going up and into each ridge and valley. It felt like no matter which way I looked, all I saw was buildings, houses, roads, and other development — it made me feel trapped in a crowded place.
In contrast, the Windward side has reminded me daily of how lucky I am to have this experience. On the East side of the island, the mountains aren’t a gradual slope, instead they are dramatic cliffs with hardly any development to be seen — just tall, steep, dramatic, gorgeous mountains. The levy trail is the perfect place to walk along the quiet marsh and enjoy unobstructed views of the Ko’olau mountains.
I visited this park every day, good or bad, rain or shine. Sometimes I ran the trail, I usually walked. I got to know my neighbors and the other regular visitors. The other walkers, joggers, bikers, dog owners, the volunteers. It made me feel as close to being a ‘local’ as I ever will. I loved being able to take in the views day by day, from the days when the skies were perfectly clear to the ones where the clouds would hover around the mountains. This is truly the place I’ll miss the most when we leave.
So why did I wait until now to talk about this place? Well, mostly because this place is so close to my heart, it’s hard to put into words. Also, I just love how it is now, a quiet neighborhood park that isn’t overrun by tourism. Most would see the highlights of Kailua as being Kailua and Lanikai Beaches, Kailua town, Lanikai Pillboxes, Olomana, or Maunawili Falls. But for me, if I ever return to this island, this is the first place I’d go. I’ll forever be grateful that I was able to live so close to this beautiful park.
Besides the Kawainui Marsh park and trail, there are two other smaller parks you can visit on other sides of the marsh that have more historic significance and efforts to clear out invasive plants and plant native ones.
Na Pohaku o Hauwahine is a small park on the West side of the marsh. There’s a small parking area off of Kapa’a Quarry Road, and a couple of short and easy trails that make a loop around the area. You can see a different perspective of the marsh, Kailua, and Olomana from here. It doesn’t take long to see it all.
Ulupo Heiau is a historical site on the Southeast side of the marsh, off of the Pali Highway/Kailua Road. To reach the park entrance, go to the YMCA and follow the road on the left of the building. There are a couple short trails here as well that take you around the Heiau (Hawaiian temple) and maintained gardens with native plants.