59 National Park Quest #40 – The National Park of American Samoa

My National Park Quest #40 - The National Park of American Samoa

I stepped off the plane and on to a South Pacific Island.  Yet, I haven’t even left the United States.  I am still ‘technically” in the United States.  I had landed at the Pago Pago International Airport on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa.  American Samoa is an unincorporated unorganized territory of the United States.  Basically, the islands are owned by the US but operate under local rule and customs.  The U.S. Federal Government has limited involvement in American Samoa politics and American Samoans are U.S. Nationals but not citizens. I have traveled to this far flung island chain south of the equator and halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii to spend four days exploring the National Park of American Samoa.

I started my trip to National Park of American Samoa at the visitor center in Pago Pago.  The Park has three parts across three of the American Samoan islands: Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta‘ū.  It consists of about 13,500 acres.  About 35% of the park is protected coral reefs and ocean.  The park is one of the youngest national parks.  It was created in 1988 but is not owned by the National Park Service (NPS).  Due to Samoan communal land use, the NPS has leased the land from the Samoan village councils.  I have little doubt that in 2043 when the lease expires, that the NPS will be granted an extension.  The national park gets about 20,000 visitors a year.  The National Park of American Samoa is the 40th stop of my 59 National Park Quest.

Fun Fact: The National Park of American Samoa is the only National Park Service Unit south of the equator.

Most of the park activities are located on Tutuila.  Both Ofu and Ta‘ū are challenging and expensive to get to unless one owns a boat.  Since I didn’t have a boat, I was focused on hiking in Tutuila.  There are several hiking trails managed by park service both within the park and outside the park.  I planned to hike most of the trails on the island over my four days.

There are 2 flights a week from Hawaii to American Samoa (a third is added during the summer).  The flight arrives at about 9:30 pm on either Monday or Friday (and Wednesday during the summer).

Travel Tip:  Grab a late-night snack at one of the fast food places near the airport and a couple of bottles of water on the way to your hotel.

I picked up my rental car in the morning and drove over to the Visitor Center.  At the top of a flight of stairs is a small ranger desk, a shelf of souvenirs, and a couple of exhibits on the National Park of American Samoa.  The ranger managing the desk gave me a map and helped me plan out my adventures over the next four days.  She was incredibly helpful and explained some of the quirks of the park to me.

When entering the villages of Vatia and Fagasa, it is important to ask permission before using the beaches or hiking on the trails that start out of the villages.  I wasn’t there during Sunday but visitors need to be respectful during church services.  At all times, dress modestly when swimming.  There are several trails outside of the park.  One needs to check with the land owner before hiking the trail (and usually pay a use fee).

Over the four days, I hiked 8 of 10 trails on the island.  One was closed and on the other one, I had some navigation issues and I didn’t want to risk getting lost so I aborted the hike.

After the visitor center, I headed into the village of Vatia and found the trailhead Taufanua Trail.  This 2.2-mile trail starts near the Mount ‘Alava Elementary.  There is a small sign leading to the trailhead. Park in an out of the way spot near the small apartment next to the school.  I stopped to say hi and have a quick chat with one of the villagers.  He told me the trail was in good condition and wasn’t too muddy and to be careful on the ladders.

The first half of this trail is a steady climb up to the top of the ridge.  There are some switchbacks but it isn’t that hard.  Climbing down from the ridge out to the ocean’s edge is an adventure.  It is very steep and at some points it’s a 75% grade. There are ropes to hold on to. I took my time and very carefully worked my way down.  I realized I need to watch my step as there are frogs in the area.

When I got down the ridge, I made it to the shores of Taufanua.  I had an uninterrupted view of the Pola Island and the western side of the island.  Other than a little bit of litter, I had the beach to myself.  Due to the water conditions, it is NOT recommended to enter the water here.  I did stick my hand in before I made the arduous climb back to my car.

I gave the man I talked to earlier a small wave as I got in my car and headed to my next hike.  I drove about 4 minutes over to the Pola Island Trail.  The road out there is fairly rocky but it driveable.  I don’t recommend walking from the Taufanua Trailhead because there are a few unfriendly dogs on the way.  Pola Island is a small island that is mostly a really huge rock next to Tutuila.  The trail is 0.1 miles but treated me to a small exhibit and the views of the opposite side of Pola Island.  Pola Island is a protected bird breeding ground.

My last hike of the day was the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail.  This 0.4-mile trail winds one around an ancient star mount with exhibits on Samoan history and culture.

The next day was the big day. I was going to hike to the top of Mount ‘Alava.  There are two options for getting to the top – the Mount ‘Alava Trail (7 miles) or the Mount ‘Alava Adventure Trail (5.6 miles).  Or there is me.  Let’s combine the trails and do both.  I hiked up the Mount ‘Alava Trail then did the adventure trail loop then returned to my car.  I wanted to die when I was done.  The humidity was super high and the sun was shining relentlessly, and the wind wasn’t windy.

The Mount ‘Alava Trail is a straight forward trail.  It used to be an access road for the tramway to the top of Mount ‘Alava.  It is mostly uphill but it is a steady uphill (except for a few sections).  The views of the island make the route enjoyable.  I got to the top and stopped to enjoy the great views of the island.  I could see pretty much the whole island.  I could see the rusted remains of the tram that used to bring people to the top of Mount ‘Alava.

Then the fun began.  I headed down the Mount ‘Alava Adventure Trail.  Over the next 5.6 miles, I climbed up and down 59 ladders and 783 steps (assuming the national park service counted correctly).  As I made my way down the western side of Mount ‘Alava then back up her.

I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing to myself as I sat on the summit of Mount ‘Alava for the second time.  I still had 3.5 miles back to my car. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill back to my car.

Day 3 was an easy day.  I realized a bit then walked from my hotel to the start of the World War II Heritage Trail.  Blunts Point Trail is part of the WWII trail so it was only a 1.7-mile hike today.  before I started the trail, I got to explore the other end of the Mount ‘Alava tram.

This trail took me past several of the WWII fox holes built to defend the island.  Most of them are full of debris and water.  I wouldn’t enter them.  The trail does have several steep sections requiring the use of ropes.

The island wasn’t invaded or attacked during WWII.  Unless one counts the day a Japanese plane flew over the island.  But that was the extent of it.  On the last section of the trail is Blunts Point, which is a collection of gun batteries built to protect the route from Hawaii to Australia.

My last day in American Samoa was spent outside the park.  I had planned to combine the Le’ala Shoreline Trail with the Fagatele Bay Trail.  I had some issue navigating the Le’ala Shoreline Trail as it is not well marked or used often so I aborted and headed over to the Fagatele Bay Trail.

Fagatele Bay is a 1 mile round trip trail.  I had to pay the family at the end of the road $5.00 to use the trail.  The trail is mostly dirt road until descending to into Fagatele Bay.  I had planned to snorkel in Fagatele Bay but the tides were low and I would be at risk to hitting the coral so I spent some time sleeping on the beach and enjoying the peace and quiet before heading back and getting ready to head to the airport and home.

On the way back, I noticed that my foot was starting to hurt.  I figured it was just a blister but little did I know what a surprise I would bring back from American Samoa.  But that is a story for another time.

What do you think of the National Park of American Samoa?

16 thoughts on “59 National Park Quest #40 – The National Park of American Samoa

  1. Sarah

    What a special spot to explore! I’ve been to Samoa but never American Samoa. Those WWII relics are so interesting too – definitely one for the list.

    Reply
  2. Paige W

    What a beautiful national park! I also would like to see all 59 of them! (I’m only at 26 or so). I would love doing the Taufanua Trail, and I also also all of the WW2 history there. When I was in the Philippines, I remember being surprised by how many things were left there from WW2. I knew we were at war in the Pacific too, but it always slips my mind because everyone talks so much about Germany.
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    • Jennifer Post author

      I agree. With the US, it’s like Pearl Habor happened and then nothing else that happened in the Pacific matters until the atomic bombs. Never mind the other countries involved in the fight for the Pacific like China, Australia, and New Zealand.

      Reply
  3. Megan Jerrard

    It amuses me that nations like France, the UK and the United States still have territories so far away. The National Park of American Samoa looks absolutely stunning – love that so much of it is dedicated to protecting ocean and coral reefs. Interesting that it’s not part of the NPS though, I’m genuinely so confused by the relationship that independent territories like this has with it’s “home” country. Not just American Somoa though, just in general . I think the whole “you’re ea National but not a citizen thing” is the same in Peurto Rico. Confuses me lol!

    But a stunning national park for sure – and I love that access points give you the opportunity to visit and interact with the local villages and community. Great selection of trails and beaches, and interesting to see the history from WWII even though it wasn’t attacked or invaded.

    Thanks for sharing your day to day!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      It is interesting to me. Some of the island nations love being a territory for some reason. I would think they would like independence but then they would lose the money they get plus the protection and freedom of travel.

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  4. Siddhartha Joshi

    The National Park of American Samoa is simply stunning and I can’t even relate to this being a part of US…but as you say, the relationship is kind of complicated.

    The hike to Mount ‘Alava looked like a lot of fun 🙂

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  5. Red Nomad OZ (Marion Halliday)

    What a complicated status arrangement American Samoa has – I wonder how the locals feel about being nationals but not citizens, and what that actually means. But all that aside, this looks like a fascinating place to visit – volcanic rock and rainforest mean an interesting landscape! I admire your ability to combine those two rather demanding summit hikes – but I’m not that energetic, so I’d just choose one!
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    • Jennifer Post author

      I think they like their status. They get federal money without being restricted by a lot of US rules and regulations. They can come and work in the US anytime they want. The number of American Samoa’s in the military is the highest % of population of any state or territory.

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  6. Indrani

    Reading too many hiking post this week… makes me want to check my fitness level to do these. So much of walking through uneven paths make me think.
    The WW II trail sounds interesting.

    Reply

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