Located on the windward coast of Oʻahu, Kualoa Private Nature Reserve is rich with culture, fun and folklore. Nestled in 4,000 acres at the intersection of the Ko‘olauloa and Ko‘olaupoko districts, the reserve offers a wide range of responsible tourism attractions and activities that honor the culture and preserve the ‘aina, including several unique, narrated tours, a zipline, ATV and horseback rides.
Between Ka‘a‘awa and Hakipu‘u Valley on O‘ahu’s windward coast lies a diverse and peculiar piece of property of significance to Hawai‘i history. Here lies the setting in which CEO John Hammond, of international bioengineering company InGen, builds a theme park featuring genetically cloned dinosaurs. It is also the setting in which the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 find themselves lost and trapped following a devastating plane crash. Revolutionary Katniss Everdeen fights for freedom from the Hunger Games here too, not far from where scientists discover the massive footprints of Godzilla.
This is Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre property steeped in Hawaiian history, known for beautiful views of both the Kualoa mountain ridge and the Pacific Ocean, and for being the location of choice for dozens of famous films and television shows over the past eight decades. But despite being the backdrop for works of fiction, Kualoa Ranch enjoys an interesting and real history of its own.
Hawaiians view Kualoa as one of the most sacred places on O‘ahu. It was the residence of kings, and a training ground for Hawaiian royalty who studied history, social traditions and the art of war here. Kualoa is considered pu‘uhonua, a place of sanctuary and refuge. Kualoa means “long back” in Hawaiian, describing the area’s incredible valleys and breathtaking mountain peaks. The highest peak atop the ridge, Kānehoalani (meaning “Kāne’s heavenly companion” in Hawaiian) caps off at 1,900 feet.
In 1828, missionary doctor Gerritt P. Judd traveled to O‘ahu and fell in love with the islands, choosing to renounce his United States citizenship in favor of serving the people of Hawai‘i. He became the personal advisor of King Kamehameha III and translated medical journals into Hawaiian. In 1850, King Kamehameha III sold roughly 622 acres of land at Kualoa to Dr. Judd for the price of $1,300, equal to about $35,000 today.
Later, Dr. Judd’s son, Charles Hasting Judd, would purchase additional acreage in the Hakipu‘u and Ka‘a‘awa valleys from Queen Kalama’s land holdings, increasing the size of the estate to the 4,000 acres it is today. In 1927, it would adopt its current name: Kualoa Ranch.
After a brief stint in the 1860s as a sugar mill, Kualoa Ranch saw action during WWII, when the United States military took over most of the area and built more than a dozen large bunkers and pillboxes into the side of the mountain to look out over the ocean and keep watch for potential attacks.
Today, this area is perhaps best known to audiences around the world as anything but Kualoa Ranch. With versatile landscapes—valleys, mountainsides, bunkers, beaches and open fields—Kualoa’s 4,000 acres have doubled as Isla Nublar in the Jurassic Park series, Uganda in Mighty Joe Young, Nigeria for the Bruce Willis military epic Tears of the Sun, and Saipan for Windtalkers, directed by John Woo; a film which also holds the record for the largest use of live fire explosions for a film in a single day.
Kualoa Ranch is also the former home of the Hukilau Café, where Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore first meet (and continue to meet again and again and again) in 50 First Dates. It also houses The Tempest, a chemical research facility operated by the Dharma Initiative in Lost, a fictional installation that is given life through the use of the real-life gun battery colloquially referred to as “Battery Cooper.” Visitors can explore Battery Cooper today, now converted to a mini-museum featuring entertainment memorabilia that celebrate the various projects filmed at Kualoa over the years.
The ranch makes cameos in dozens of other films, including Pearl Harbor, Battleship, Karate Kid, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, The Rundown, Along Came Polly, You, Me, and Dupree, and TV shows E.R., The Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser, Magnum P.I., North Shore, The River, and Hawaii Five-0. In addition to attractions such as ziplines, horseback riding, ATVs, paddling and more, Kualoa Ranch visitors can also see these movie sites during a 90-minute tour.
After so many decades, film and television crews return to this place for the same reason: despite the advances in green screen technology and computer-generated graphics, nothing can replace the natural beauty and wonder of this ancient place. And with so many different façades, it’s hard to imagine what new “face” these mountains and sprawling plains will become next for the camera. Whatever new film project arrives next, it’s safe to say that Kualoa Ranch will be picture perfect.