Rob Pacheco of Hawai‘i Forest & Trail takes guests off the beaten path, into mostly untrodden areas that highlight the beauty of the islands.
When Rob Pacheco first landed in Kailua-Kona in the early 1990s, he was just like many of us — in need of a job but so enraptured by the island that he immediately knew he wanted to somehow make it his home.
Taking a beekeeping position in South Kona with Kona Queen, he spent hours tending to hives, all the while thinking about the magic of Hawai‘i and how best to share its natural history with others. Surely, many of them desired a unique way of experiencing the beauty of the island that hadn’t been done before.
“I saw lots of tours on the island for tourists, but I didn’t see any with a natural history focus,” Pacheco recalls.
Starting slow at first, he and wife Cindy (whom he met at Kona Queen) quit beekeeping and launched “Summer in Nature” day camp for kids ages 9-12.
But the couple never gave up their idea of doing nature tours for visitors, and eventually started Hawai‘i Forest & Trail.
Despite their great vision, they ran into obstacles right away securing tour locations. Permits and fees were too expensive for tours on state or conservation lands.
The idea of contracting with private landowners came about quite accidentally, and, as it turned out, quite successfully. Popularity grew by word of mouth, and soon the Pachecos were leading small, natural history-focused groups in areas untrodden by the typical tourist, such as Old Kohala Trail or Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, in addition to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and other mainstay attractions.
“I didn’t come into this as an interpretive naturalist, not as an eco-guy, not as a hiker or anything like that,” says Pacheco. “I approached this business as a way of wanting to create a form of communication and connection for the visitor.”
Hawai‘i Forest & Trail’s main goal is to provide resources and information to help people relate to the natural world and make the transition from a visitor who knew nothing when they arrived to someone who becomes a genuine stakeholder in Hawai‘i. And, Pacheco adds, every program has a science, art, culture and history component added in.
Growing up in the Sacramento Valley of California, Pacheco always loved nature as a kid and spent lots of time in the country. As an undergrad at University of Colorado, he created an individually designed major that combined the study of environmental issues with history, economics, sociology and geology — a fitting mix for what he would later do.
Dropping out of college, he journeyed to Central America to experience the rainforest and later ended up on a plane to Hawai‘i.
Captivated by the islands, he stayed and never left.
In the beginning, Pacheco was the only tour guide for Hawai‘i Forest & Trail, and over the years has led thousands of tours with his unique approach that combines his passion for the beauty of Hawai‘i with a strong, natural interpretive focus.
And yes, there have been some famous guests. In addition to leading CEOs and other captains of industry, he has personally led tours for Bill and Melinda Gates, The Rolling Stones, Bill O’Reilly, Don Henley, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Now, the company employs a staff of about 100 qualified guides, most of whom are hired for their personality, passion, love of nature and ability to learn information quickly. The tours are not high luxury, but they are designed to remove as many of the obstacles, distractions and discomforts of an outdoors adventure, while aiming to surpass guest expectations so that the vital connection with nature is more easily made. In addition, group sizes are kept small, so that more focus can be on the experience and connections.
As a natural extension of the tour business, Pacheco feels an obligation to serve the community.
“From day one, we asked ourselves what can we give back to the community,” he says. “Our vision is to serve the community, while helping people discover the wonder of Hawai‘i nei.”
To that end, Hawai‘i Forest & Trail recently donated a van to Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative, which will be used by Waikoloa Elementary’s fifth-grade class for its Future Forester program.
The ‘I‘iwi Fund, meanwhile, provides grants to several organizations involved with nature, conservation and Hawaiian culture. For each tour guest that goes on an educational journey with Hawai‘i Forest & Trail, it donates $1 to the fund and encourages donors to match it. According to Pacheco, ‘I‘iwi Fund’s first donation was $25,000.
Lastly, the biz’s Ho‘omālama programs are dedicated to promoting the responsible management and stewardship of Hawai‘i’s natural resources.
“For me, an interpretive naturalist, it is such an honor and a privilege to be able to do this in Hawai‘i,” says Pacheco. “It’s such a powerful land imbued with story, beauty and an enriching sense of purpose. We are honored to be allowed to help tell those stories.”
To learn more, visit hawaii-forest.com.