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The largest natural lake on Hawaii's Big Island is 25-acre Waiakea Pond. A lake this small would hardly rate notice in most states, but Hawaii's mountainous geology and surrounding oceans leave little flat land for natural ponds to form. Waiakea Pond is connected to Wailoa Stream which meanders on its journey down from the lower reaches of Mauna Loa volcano in the center of the island toward the ocean at Hilo. Waiakea Pond collects fresh water from a number of springs, with excess water flowing out through a 100 foot-long channel to Wailoa Stream which empties into the ocean at Hilo Bay.
High tide washes sea water from the bay into the pond, mixing saltwater with freshwater. Recent studies show that the saltwater tends to stratify, leaving some near-shore areas a haven for freshwater aquatic plants and less salt-hardy mollusks and small fish. It is also suspected that some of the springs in the lake have a high salt content, so the pond cannot be classified either saltwater or freshwater. Technically, Waiakea Pond is an estuary pond that receives some freshwater flow. Fish found in the pond are primarily saltwater species.
Waiakea Pond, in what is now the City of Hilo, once held lakefront residential communities along the eastern shoreline. These communities were washed away by the tsunami that resulted from the Valdivia earthquake in 1960. The land was eventually condemned and the State took possession of the entire area in 1969, creating 130-acre Wailoa River State Park. A memorial honors the victims of that tsunami. Another pays tribute to those who fought in the Vietnam War. A 14-foot statue of King Kamehameha overlooks the pond from the shore. Wailoa Arts and Cultural Center is located near the statue and functions both as a visitors center and a cultural museum featuring artwork and exhibits. Exhibits by local artists change monthly. Landscaped in Japanese garden style, Wailoa River State Park is a popular place for residents and visitors to enjoy walking paths, jog the roadways, and fish in Waiakea Pond.
Waiakea Pond is regularly used for fishing, with the portion of the lake south of the foot bridges designated as public fishing waters. A boat launch ramp is provided, but boat use is restricted to fishing. Only wooden boats are permitted, and no gas-powered motors are allowed. Fishing rules are enforced by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Common catches include mullet, aholehole and ulua with a maximum catch of 20 fish. Certain crabs can be caught with specified nets. A Freshwater Game Fishing License must be possessed. No swimming, water skiing or activities involving water contact are permitted. Several parking areas are provided to make access easy from Hilo. Children enjoy coming here to feed the multitudes of waterfowl.
Waiakea Pond is just one of several beautiful destinations near Hilo. Nearby Liliuokalani Gardens showcases landscaped grounds and lovely gardens, while to the north, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden holds over 2000 species of plants from the world's tropics. Bayfront Park extends to the northeast from Wailoa River State Park and offers beautiful views of the bay. Paddle boarding is popular here, although this is not technically a swimming beach. The area is home to many resort hotels and guest stays, some with their own sliver of beachfront. A better swimming beach can be found at Cocoanut Island Park just outside Liliuokalani Gardens.
The Hilo area offers a variety of lodgings, restaurants, shopping, entertainment venues, and outdoor recreation. Driving northwest along the oceanfront will provide breathtaking overlooks, secluded beach scenes and access to some of Hawaii's thundering waterfalls. At Akaka Falls State Park a few miles away, one short hike will take visitors to view two breathtaking waterfalls in one of Hawaii's best birding areas. The lush rainforest is filled with orchids, ferns and stands of bamboo. Large acreages of preserved lands offer glimpses of unspoiled forest, endangered tropical flowers, and some of Hawaii's increasingly rare native birds.
South of Hilo is spectacular Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park with two active volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The lava flowing through lava tubes into the ocean continues to add land mass to the Big Island. Visitors can drive the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive and 19-mile Chain of Craters Road, although sections can be closed due to lava flows and hazardous fumes. The National Park Service website provides updates on where visitors can view active lava flows.
Waiakea Pond was a popular and culturally-significant landmark long before European missionaries settled here. As with other ponds along the few rivers on the island, the shoreline was much modified to facilitate its use as a fishing pond by these native Hawaiians. Retaining berms were built in the past to contain the waters, cutting off water flow to some of the former wetlands that adjoined the shore. A series of arched footbridges facilitate foot traffic between the shores. In the past, a sugar cane plantation and mill along the banks discharged arsenic and cadmium-laden flows into the river to be washed to the sea. These heavy metal pollutants still exist in the sediments below the water and have been under study for remediation efforts in the area. With an average depth of about six feet, water levels rise and fall according to ocean tides. The pond is truly an unusual lake, one that Hawaiians are determined to protect from further damage.
Wailoa River State Park and Waiakea Pond are easy to access from Hilo. With the ocean at its front and the island's highest mountains in the background, Waiakea Pond gives visitors a true taste of Hawaii's natural beauty. Come enjoy the serene pond waters and the manicured lawns of Wailoa River State Park. Check into one of the beachfront hotels or a private vacation rental and enjoy a laid-back Hawaiian vacation.
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