September 19, 2017
Park visit number 59 - the National Park of American Samoa!
Pola Island Coastline
Pola Island from Sauma Ridge Trailhead
Rocky coastline leading to Pola Island
Park Ranger Pua Tuaua presented Terry and me with a Certificate of Completion!
Andry Senefili is the park's Interpretive Ranger...and very good at it!
Hiking the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail.
A trek to the summit...a 7-mile, moderately rated hike to the top of Mt. Alava.
Plants in the paleotropical rainforest.
Hermit Crabs joining us on our hike to the summit!
Stairway to heaven...actually to the summit of Mt. Alava.
View from the summit.
Summit shelter keeps us dry as it begins to rain.
Terry munching her Almond Joy
Rope trail down from the summit!
Eastern side of the island of Tutuila
Sadie's by the Sea - our vacation home while visiting the NP of AmSam
Mt. Pioa - "Rainmaker Mountain" view from our room
Misty morning on Rainmaker Mountain
Without a doubt, the food at the Goat was as good as it gets on this island!
Local students honored their park with the following incredible murals placed just outside the park Visitor Center
The American Samoa version of Starbucks!
We made it to all 59!
Our 59th Park Experience – the National Park of American Samoa
In September of 2011, my wife Terry and I created a Life Plan that included a goal of visiting all 59* of America’s foremost National Parks. We’re talking about the likes of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon in addition to lesser-known sites such as Kobuk Valley, Guadalupe Mountain and Congaree.
On September 19, 2017, we achieved the objective with our 59th park visit to the National Park of American Samoa. While drafting the text for this blog post, it occurred to me that by far, the finest aspect of our visit to this particular national park was meeting the people of the park! Pai Aukso, Pua Tuaua and Andry Senefili were beyond a shadow of doubt, the friendliest, and most welcoming of any park staff we’ve encountered during our trek to all 59 of America’s finest outdoor cathedrals!
Pai, Pua and Andry treated us most graciously, listening attentively to our stories about our travels to America’s amazing natural resources and then thoroughly educated Terry and me about their park – its history, its key features and the culture of the Samoan people who came to these islands 3000 years ago.
* In 2009, there were only 58 major National Parks. Number 59 – Pinnacles NP – came on line in 2013, hence we updated the goal to include Pinnacles!
Here’s what we learned about American Samoa, its people and its fascinating park:
The word Samoa translated means sacred earth.
American Samoa consists of 5 major volcanic islands amounting to a total of 76 square miles above sea level. The largest of these islands is Tutuila (pronounced too too EE lah). Tutuila is a narrow, mountainous island 20-miles in length with an east to west orientation. Tutuila’s biggest village is Pago Pago (pronounced Pahng-oh Pahng- oh). Sixty miles to the east of Tutuila are the other two other islands – Ofu and Ta’ū - that include areas of the National Park.
The National Park of American Samoa is considered one of the country’s most remote. (From our perspective, Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic in Alaska were the most remote of all the 59 parks we visited.) The islands are situated 2600 miles southwest of Hawaii and only 100 miles east of the International Date Line. The islands are one hour behind Hawaiian time and 1 day behind Samoa! (Formerly called Western Samoa)
Ninety percent (90%) of these islands are covered with a paleotropical rainforest. A paleotropical rainforest is a mixed-species forest where no single plant or tree dominates. This forest is closely related to those found in Asia and Africa as opposed to neotropical rainforests of Central and South America.
Weather. The average daytime temperature is a humid 82°-84°. Water temperatures range from 82°-86°. Not quite as warm as our swimming pool in the summer…but close! We chose to visit American Samoa in September because that is the month where the rainfall is supposed to be its sparsest. The guidebooks told us of the 120 inches of annual rainfall, an average of only 5 inches of rain is supposed to fall in September. I believe the island got 3 of those 5 inches the first full day we were on the island! Rain showers can last a few minutes…or all day!
Getting around. On the island of Tutulia, you have several transportation options. We opted to rent a car, which, although expensive, gave us the freedom to come and go as we pleased. The locals typically use the aiga or family busses, which operate unscheduled every day but Sunday. Fares on the aiga run from 50 cents to $2 depending on where you’re going. There are bus stops along the roadways; however, you can simply wave at these independently owned and operated busses to get them to stop.
If you venture over to Ofu or Ta’ū, you will not find rental cars, busses or taxis.
Wildlife. We had read about the “flying foxes” of American Samoa and were eager to get a glimpse of these mammals once on the island. The flying foxes are really not foxes at all. The two species of fruit bats got this moniker because of their foxlike facial features.
The fruit bats are the only native mammals found on American Samoa. We did get to see a few of them as we drove about the island.
Although they probably shouldn’t be classified as “wildlife” there are literally hundreds of dogs roaming the streets, sleeping under trees and guarding households throughout the island. Many of them appear to be wild! The three canines we encountered at the Pola Island Trailhead were downright ornery!
Besides the many different species of seabirds we saw, the only other critters of interest were the Hermit Crabs we encountered during our hike to the top of Mt. Alava. Hermit Crabs at 1600 feet above sea level? What the heck are these crustaceans doing up here? Nobody knew the answer to my question!
The Park. The National Park of American Samoa (AmSam) is the only park located south of the equator. The park was established in 1988; however, because of Samoan tradition, the land and sea areas within the park boundaries could not be purchased by the National Park Service (NPS). This matter was resolved in 1993 when the NPS entered into a 50-year lease with the Samoan village councils.
The park consists of 9,000 land based acres and 4500 acres of coral reefs and ocean. It was established to protect and preserve the coral reefs, paleotropical rainforests, the “flying foxes” and the Samoan culture. The most popular activities within the park are hiking its trails and snorkeling the reefs.
The facilities at this park are not like those found at most parks on the mainland. We found no campgrounds, picnic areas or restrooms. The trails we hiked were adequately maintained and the beaches clean of debris. For the Eco tourist, this is as natural as it gets!
Tsunami! One evening at dinner, we couldn’t help but catch glimpses of the news about the calamity Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused Florida, Puerto Rico, and other islands in the Caribbean. With heightened awareness about the devastation these storms can inflict, we couldn’t help but notice all the Tsunami warming signs posted all along the coastal region.
We asked Pai Aukuso about the possibility of a tsunami occurring during our stay. She told us the last major tsunami occurred on September 29, 2009 following an 8.1 magnitude earthquake epicentered about 150 miles northwest of Tutuila.
The tsunami destroyed the park’s Visitor Center and caused substantial damage to the island with waves reaching up to 20 feet washing ashore. The new Visitor Center is located on the 2nd story and has a blue line depicting where the water level reached during the flooding. Fortunately, during our stay the largest wave we experienced was about 6 inches tall.
Our 59th Park Experience.
Getting there. Visiting American Samoa is an adventure all by itself! There are only two scheduled flights from Honolulu each week. One on Monday. Another on Friday. That’s it!
Being a former Flight Attendant, Terry likes to take advantage of her free flight benefits. Hence, she typically schedules us to fly “standby” to our destinations. When planning this trip, she booked us on American Airlines from Phoenix (PHX) to Honolulu (HNL) – standby – assuring me there were plenty of seats available!
Note: I hate flying standby! Nevertheless, we departed PHX on September 16th for HNL and had no problem getting on board. In fact, there was a single First Class seat still available when we checked in and my lovely bride allowed me to ride up front! Ok, maybe this standby business is all right after all!
We spent a couple of days noodling around Oahu before departing for Pago Pago (PPG) on the Monday night flight. Originally, Terry had planned to book the entire trip standby! We’re talking PHX to HNL to PPG to HNL and back to PHX. Terry decided that since there are only 2 flights per week from HNL to PPG, we should consider buying a ticket. Thank goodness she did! The flights to and from PPG were packed! The outbound flight to PPG was relatively uneventful except for the pair of knees constantly poking the back of my seat!
Getting around. We arrived on the island of Tutuila around 10:30 pm. The airport is rather modest. We deplaned via stairs and funneled into the small customs and immigration area before retrieving our bags.
Once our bags were secured, we proceeded to the Avis Rental booth. The shuttle from the airport to where Avis stores its rental cars consists of a young man and his Toyota pickup truck. Five of us await the shuttle. The driver can only handle four of us. A kind gentleman offered to stay behind and said with a smile that he’d “catch the next shuttle!”
After pointing out all the dents and dings on our Toyota RAV, we ask the attendant how to get to Sadie’s by the Sea – the hotel we’re staying at near the park. He points in a direction that just doesn't seem right to me. But who am I to question a local’s directions?
Leaving the airport in the RAV, we quickly discovered Samoans are in no hurry to get anywhere. The top speed limit on most roads is 25 mph. In many parts of the island, the speed limit is 15 or 20 mph…and unlike drivers in the USA who take speed limit signs to mean, “Speed Suggestion,” the islanders obey the signs.
There is only one main road on Tutuila. It is referred to as the 001 and runs east-west across most of the island. We set out into the night and soon discovered that road signs are nearly extinct on this island. We thought we had found the 001, but couldn’t really determine if we were on the right track due to lack of signage! My Spidy senses were twitching. I had no idea if we were going the right way when we passed a sign indicating the turnoff for the Ili’Ili golf Course. (Yes, there is a golf course on the island. More about that later.)
We took a look at the map our Avis Counter person gave us and discovered that my Spidy senses were right! We were heading west. The Avis dude had sent us packing in the exact opposite direction of where Sadie’s is located! By the way, you might be wondering why we didn’t just pull out our iPhones and dial up Google Maps. Good luck with that if you visit this tropical island.
We eventually found the 001 and turned eastbound. Top speed on this “major thoroughfare” is 25 mph. Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t mind crawling along at a snails pace this evening because not only are street signs and streetlights non-existent, business signs are few and far between as well! Would we be able to find Sadie’s at night…in the dark…on an unfamiliar island…102 miles from the International Date Line? We did…at 11:45 pm!
Lodging. Terry booked us to spend four nights at Sadie’s by the Sea. As it turns out Sadie’s is one of the island’s “premier” hotels. We’re assigned room 217. Second story with a view of a small sand beach and the Pago Pago Harbor.
Dead tired from our flight and the fiasco of finding Sadie’s in the dark, we hit the sheets and immediately fall off to sleep. I’m not sure if its jet lag or what, but I’m up at 5 am! Terry’s sound asleep. I read my book. She softly snores.
Weather. Terry gets out of the sack around 7:30 this Tuesday morning. The skies are dark and threatening. Since we didn’t have any dinner on the flight from HNL, we’re a bit hungry and in search of food. The Goat Mountain Café is adjacent to Sadie’s. As we make our way to the Goat, the skies open up. I remember the brochure saying it could rain for just a few minutes…or all day long. The clouds are looking like it could be an all-dayer!
Fortunately, the rain only lasted a half-day on Tuesday. During the rest of the trip, we encountered only sporadic rainfall.
Dining. Food is important. Good food is desired. I will admit that my expectations regarding the quality of food on this remote island were low. The Goat Mountain Café immediately exceeded my expectations! Much to my delight, my Veggie Omelet was excellent and Terry’s Eggs Benedict superb!
At breakfast, our situation begins to sink in. Here we are on a remote tropical island visiting the final park of our quest to visit them all. The pace of life is much slower and more primitive than in the USA. And that’s quite ok with us. What’s the hurry?
We would dine at the Goat each day and found every meal to be delightful! Our server Ruta, was friendly and quite charming! We asked for her each evening. She helped us learn the language. As mentioned earlier, Pago Pago is actually pronounced Pahng-oh Pahng- oh. The “g” is mostly silent. And the locals pronounce Sāmoa as SAY moah. Strong emphasis on the SAY part of the word.
The Park. With the weather looking rather inclement, we hop in the RAV and set off to explore the island. Our first stop is to find the National Park of American Samoa sign and take pictures with our “59“ flag in hand! At the summit of road 006, we find the sign, snap our pix and continue on to the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail.
The view across Vatia Bay to Pola Island, nesting grounds for sea birds, is hampered by the cloud cover. Since all of our park visits included hiking, we set out to trek the short Ridge Trail. Very easy 0.4 mile round trip hike although a bit slippery due to the rain.
From the Lower Sauma Ridge, the RAV winds its way down the steeps of road 006 to Vatia Village where we are greeted by Chief Dave who is wheel barrowing his trash down the center of the road. Dave repeatedly welcomes us to his village. The glazed and very bloodshot look of his eyes along with his slurred speech tell us Dave is pretty much stoned out of his gourd. Nice enough guy, however after the 10th “welcome to our village,” Terry and I chose to bid Dave adieu and venture on to the Vai’ava Straight Natural Landmark.
At the entrance to the Landmark, a trio of loudly barking, very angry looking dogs greets us. In fact, there are dogs everywhere you go on this island. Dogs lying under trees. Dogs roaming the streets. Dogs guarding landmarks. Not excited about dealing with dogs at this particular moment, we chose to turn around and get some lunch.
Back to the Goat for a late lunch. Terry’s Rueben and my NZ Burger were delightful. Two meals at the Goat…all four thumbs up! As it would turn out, there was no need for us to eat anywhere else. After lunch, we decided to retrace our steps from last night…only this time in daylight. We’d head back toward the airport and see what we missed.
We quickly learned that heading eastbound at 4 pm on the 001 is a very bad idea. If you think the max speed of 25 mph is annoying, traffic on the 001 at this time of day resembles the 405 in Los Angeles at rush hour. The map Avis gave us shows a multitude of cities or towns or villages along 001. Yet we soon discovered that if there are signs indicating the location of these villages, they are very well camouflaged!
We drove west as far as Auma, then turned back to check out the Ili’Ili Golf course just off route 014. Upon inspection, we chose to pass on playing the Ili. The price was more than fair; however, the rental clubs were a mixed bag of ragtag sticks and the practice putting green appeared to be rolling about a 0.5 on the Stimpmeter. A tad shaggy to say the least. From there, we headed back to Sadie’s and the Goat for dinner.
9/20/17 – Slept in until 6:30 this morning. Cloudy skies again today. A fellow tourist told us that the weather forecast for the remainder of the week called for rain! At 6:30, it appeared this forecast might prove to be accurate!
Once Terry awoke and freshened up, we wandered back to the Goat for more food. We discovered early on that the serving portions were very generous. Hence, we began splitting meals…and still had plenty to eat. By the way, if you ever do find yourself in Pago Pago, go to the Goat and order their Chicken Quesadilla. Best we’ve ever had!
After breakfast, the sun poked out from behind the grey skies and provided us with some photo opportunities. We hustled back up to Sauma Ridge and then back down to Vatia Village. This time, Dave was not there to greet us and the three ornery dogs had gone off to terrorize others.
Now that we’ve actually set foot in Park #59, we needed to pay a visit to the park’s Visitor Center to purchase our Park Pin, a commemorative Hat and Teeshirt and learn more about this area. As I mentioned earlier, the highlight of Trek 59 was the people we met at the Visitor Center.
The first person we encountered was Pai, who was stationed at the reception desk. She welcomed us to the park and asked us about our travels. When we mentioned that AmSam was our 59th and final park on our quest to trek them all, she went and got Pua Tuaua, the Park Ranger on Duty. Pua and Pai gave us perhaps the warmest welcome we’ve ever experienced at any of the 59 parks we’ve been to. When they learned that AmSam was the final chapter in our quest, they created a personalized “Certificate of Completion” and ceremoniously presented it to us!
Following the presentation ceremony, we hopped back in the RAV and proceeded to venture eastbound on Highway 001. We drove along at the blistering pace of 27 mph passing through Alega, Faga’itua, and Tula. We almost stopped at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar; however, there didn’t appear to be anybody working there when we passed by.
On our return trip from the east coast, we stopped back by the Visitor Center and had the pleasure of meeting Andrey Senefili – the park’s Interpretive Ranger. Andry is a delightful young man who enlightened us about the cultural ways of the Samoan people. He explained the making of the Siapo – one of the oldest cultural art forms of the Samoan people.
The process involved in creating the Siapo tapa is to first cultivate the bark from a Paper Mulberry tree, stripping the bark from the tree, repeatedly beating and scraping it until its thin enough and wide enough to apply the patterns thus creating an artistic tapestry like those shown in pictures #37 and 38. When Andrey learned we had created a game about the National Parks and had written a Park Guide Book, he was eager to have his picture taken with us so he could prove to his friends that he met the “authors” of the game and Guide Book!
We learn the park gets about 42,000 visitors each year. That’s about the same number of people who visit Great Smokey Mountain National Park in a day and a half. Many of these visitors arrive by cruise ship. Lucky for us, the cruisers typically don’t arrive until October.
After leaving Andry and the Visitor Center, we drove up to Fagasa Pass to check out the trailhead for tomorrow’s scheduled hike – weather permitting. Our destination will be the summit of Mt. Alava. The 7-mile round trip Mt. Alava Trail is rated “challenging” which means it is most likely easy to moderate for anybody who is in decent shape.
9/21/17 - After a hearty breakfast, we drove back up to Fasama Pass to begin our hike to the top of Mt. Alava. The trail is actually a rugged road that once led up to a banana and coconut plantation. It would take a strong effort by a burly 4-wheel drive vehicle to navigate this deeply rutted roadway up to the summit; however, those of us with 2-foot drive and a sturdy set of hiking boots did just fine. Unlike many of the more crowded trails in other parks, here we were the only ones hiking Mt. Alava.
The ridgeline trail leads you through a paleotropical rainforest – the only one of its kind in the National Park system. Most of the trail is sheltered from direct sun by the rainforests canopy. About halfway to the summit, we encountered a troupe of Hermit Crabs scurrying about the trail. I was under the impression Hermit Crabs hung out by the seashore…and not at 1000 feet above sea level. Yet, here they are.
This hike is divided into three sections. The first section includes a steady incline with an occasional segment of the steeps. The middle section is the reverse of the first. You will find yourself losing all the altitude you’ve gained during the first section. The final third is uphill culminating with a climb up a 69-step metal stairway leading to the towers and shelter.
If you choose to trek to the top of Mt Alava, be sure to take plenty of water, some snacks and expect to get wet! The elevation at the summit of Mt Alava is 1610’ – the same height as Rainmaker Mountain. And like Rainmaker, this peak creates its own weather. It did not rain a drop until we reached the summit shelter. Just as we sat down to eat our snacks, the sky opened up and it rained steadily for 15 minutes.
On our way back down the mountain, we stopped at Starstruck for a cappuccino! As you may gather by its name, Starstruck is the Starbucks of American Samoa. If you’re looking for a good cup of coffee in Pago Pago, Starstruck is the place to go!
At dinner that evening, we reviewed our visit to American Samoa. Hands down, the most gratifying experience we encountered were the three people we met at the Visitor Center. Pua, Pai and Andry made our lengthy journey well worthwhile. Terry and I are thankful that we were able to end our quest of visiting all 59 parks with meeting these three delightful people.
Our National Parks are truly “samoa” - sacred earth. They represent treasured landscapes that people from all over the world come to experience and enjoy. It is our hope that you too will become inspired to visit these extraordinary recreational resources. And we hope and encourage our nation’s leaders to have the presence of mind to preserve and protect the integrity of the parks now and for all future generations.
Happy trails everyone.
For those of you who’ve asked us “What’s next?” we’re happy to report that our next Life Plan Goal is to visit all the parks in the Four Corners States. We’re talking the monuments, historical sites, recreational areas as well as revisiting the National Parks!