Treading Lightly in Paradise

Leaving no trace is complicated in the Aloha State.

Hawaii illustration

I woke up at 4 a.m. to embark on one of the most gorgeous hikes I’ve ever done.

My friend Jessi and I drove three hours from Kihei, on Maui’s west coast, to the Pipiwai Trail in Haleakalā National Park. We hiked through bamboo groves and verdant rainforest, finding something beautiful around every bend: intricately designed plants, a massive tree with a trunk made up of strands of wood and branches that almost seemed to offer places to sit.

After 650 feet of elevation gain and 2 miles of trekking, we reached Waimoku Falls. Unbothered at being drenched with sweat and mist, I gazed up at the magnificent sight: 400 feet of water, framed by lush greenery, falling to a pool below.

It’s easy to go to Hawaii and see nothing but paradise. As a vaccinated, COVID-negative traveler last summer, I was granted an immense privilege to access a place cherished for its natural beauty and awe-inspiring sights. The 727-square-mile island of Maui is brimming with the divine, full of sacred sites often trampled over unknowingly by tourists. Hawaii is also a place marked by struggle, colonization, and militarization. I tried not to forget that. I carried with me the responsibility of being a guest, a delicate balance between thoughtful enjoyment and letting your cares wash away—and leaving no trace.

Before traveling to Hawaii, Jessi and I had a conversation about what our trip would, and more importantly wouldn’t, look like. Our vision wasn’t of luaus, resorts, hula skirts, or coconut bras. We saw ourselves as travelers, after all, not tourists. We wanted to explore and experience Hawaii as it is. I bought and read Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i.

But shortly after returning home, I read a news story about water shortages in Maui. Locals had their water access restricted as tourism soared. I felt a pit in my stomach. I had contributed to that. I’ve read more and more pleas from native Hawaiians and locals for visitors to stop coming to Hawaii since then. A pang of guilt strikes my heart every time.

Maui gave me the gift of presence. I felt content and at peace there. From seeing the sun set beneath the clouds from the 10,023-foot summit of a dormant volcano to snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of the Molokini Crater, it was a fabulous trip. But was it really worth contributing to a system that prioritizes tourists over the people who actually live on the islands? How can I immerse myself in a place if my being there means something negative for others?

While I adored Hawaii and would love to explore its other islands, I wouldn’t make the same decision again. Traveling to new places is such a joy. It opens your eyes and your heart; it exposes you to new cultures and cuisines. But going forward, I’m determined to travel conscientiously, as aware as I can be of what my presence in a place really means.


Sarah Rafacz is a writer and editor. She lives in State College.