I have been to Iao Valley on Maui before to see the famous Iao Needle but like many visitors I had driven passed a lesser known gem which is the Hawai’i Nature Center.
Located in the valley not far upstream from the site of the king Kamehameha’s final victory at the battle of Kepaniwai, the Hawai’i Nature Center offers a glimpse into Maui’s ecosystems and its history. The very plants of the Iao Valley are a history lesson on Maui and Hawai’i when you have a knowledgeable guide like Jay Franey. On a two hour hike Jay informed us which plants were indigenous, which were brought over by the Hawaiians (like taro and sweet potatoes) and which were introduced more recently (like coffee, guava and mangoes). He also knew how the Hawaiians used some of the different plants for medicine, cookware or candy.
The Nature Center spends much of its time passing on this knowledge to Maui school children but also is available to individuals or even to private groups. In addition to the guided tour that I enjoyed they also have a small hands on earth sciences music and will soon be introducing a less expensive self-guided walking tour. Both the guided tour ($29.95 for adults and $19.95 for kids) and the new self-guided tour take you through 20 foot tall coffee plants, 15 foot banana plants, ti plants, guava trees, royal palm trees, ferns, kukui trees, ancient Hawaiian village sites and even a taro field as you work you way up the valley until you are just below the Iao Needle.
The Hawai’i Nature Center also has a small cafe and a 1955 era hotel which has been remodeled into both an education center and a lodge for individuals or small groups.