Photo by Lloyd Wallin/Shutterstock
Photo by Danita Delmont/Shutterstock
Mount Alava is one of over 40 mountains in the National Park of American Samoa.
One of the newest America the Beautiful quarters will feature a fruit bat family in honor of the National Park of American Samoa. Here’s what you need to know about this gorgeous and lesser-known park.
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People are going batty about a new quarter design (pictured here) entering circulation in February that commemorates the National Park of American Samoa. Part of the America the Beautiful Quarters Program—which features national park sites from every state, D.C., and the five U.S. territories—the coin depicts a mother fruit bat and her pup and was designed to promote awareness of the species’s threatened status. Fans of bats, vampires, Batman, and wordplay have taken to social media to celebrate the news with jokes and puns.
But whether you think the winged mammals are adorable or you love the Gothic turn U.S. currency has taken, you might be forgetting that the design actually honors the national park these fruit bats call home. You wouldn’t be the first to overlook the National Park of American Samoa, which is situated in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Not only is it one of the most remote parks in the United States, but it’s also—according to National Park Service statistics—one of the least visited parks in the system. Only 29,000 people visited in 2018.
It is also a tropical paradise filled with rain forests, secluded sand or coral beaches, and colorful reefs. You might recognize the parks’ most famous beach, Ofu Beach, a lonely stretch of white sand bordered on one side by clear, deep blue water, and tilting palm trees on the other. There are never any beachgoers in these photographs, but it’s not because the photographers are patient—if you make the trip, you really are likely to be the only traveler around. Here’s what you need to know about the National Park of American Samoa.
Authorized by Congress on October 31, 1988, but leased from the Samoan village councils in 1993, the National Park of American Samoa is the only National Park Service site south of the equator. It covers 13,500 acres—4,000 of which are ocean and coral reef—and includes sections of four of the five volcanic islands of the territory of American Samoa, Tutuila, Ta‘u, Ofu, and Olosega.
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The park’s total land area of about 76.8 square miles is slightly larger than Washington, D.C. and includes 9,500 acres of Old World, or paleotropical, rain forest draped over more than 40 mountains. It is the only U.S. park that’s home to the fruit bat. Here you can go bird-watching and spot some 350 species of native birds including colorful tropical pigeons and the Samoan starling. Off the coast, you might be able to view sea turtles and humpback whales, or you can go snorkeling to look for some of the 950 species of fish and 250 species of coral protected here. There are even important archaeological sites dotting the parklands, such as Old Vatia, a prehistoric village site believed to have been inhabited from 1300 to 1750.
But the National Park of American Samoa isn’t just flora and fauna. In partnership with the native communities, the park also helps protect the customs, beliefs, and traditions of the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture here, Faasamoa. Interacting with locals is a big part of a visit. Many travelers opt to participate in a homestay, book a tour with local guides, or go trolling with a local crew aboard a fishing boat. But even if you stick to hiking, you’ll likely end up connecting with park neighbors to ask permission or pay a toll to access certain trails or parts of the park that run through private property.
The National Park of American Samoa may be blissfully tourist-free, but that comes with some downsides. This isn’t your Yosemite or your Grand Canyon. There are park rangers, but you won’t find the usual facilities or a packed calendar of programs and events here. The National Park of American Samoa advises potential visitors that they’ll need a “bit of the explorer’s spirit.”
The park is open 24 hours and there are no fees or reservations. There is also no camping in the park.
Most visitors explore the national park area on Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa. They fly into Pago Pago, the capital of—and the largest city in—the territory. The park headquarters and visitor center, with exhibits and a park store, are located in Pago Pago. In this portion of the park, you’ll find the best hiking options such as the easy, 0.1-mile Pola Island Trail, which leads to a rocky beach, or the more difficult Mount Alava Trail, a seven-mile round-trip hike that passes a banana and coconut plantation and summits Mount Alava for panoramic views. Outside the park, you can also visit a number of National Natural Landmarks highlighting recent volcanism, as well as World War II–era historic sites.
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But more than half the park is actually on the Manua Islands (Ta‘u, Ofu, and Olosega), which are 60 miles east of Tutuila. These islands can be difficult to reach, so prepare to be flexible when it comes to making your way over. Rest assured, they’re more than worth the effort—Ta‘u contains 5,400 acres of parkland including Lata Mountain, which, at 3,170 feet, is American Samoa’s highest peak. Ofu, which is only accessible via small fishing boats from Ta‘u, is also considered the most beautiful part of the park. Here you’ll find that famous beach, which has graced the cover of many guides to American Samoa and, off it, a 350-acre reef that boasts some of the best snorkeling in the area. Though, you’ll want to bring gear from Tutuila: While there is accommodation on Ta‘u and Ofu, life here is slow and traditional, and you won’t find restaurants, bars, or shops.
Mikah Meyer, the youngest person to visit all 417 U.S. National Park Service sites, wrote about his experience at the National Park of American Samoa and strongly advises booking your trip with a local guide—he recommends Tour American Samoa—to smooth the planning process and get the most out of the lesser-known park.
A guide will also help you navigate cultural norms. The park Visitor Guide has a number of tips that will help you be respectful, but know that you should always ask villagers for permission to take photos, use a beach, and engage in other activities such as swimming or fishing, however unobtrusive your actions may seem. Also, Sunday is a day of rest, so the islands tend to be quieter and certain activities, like swimming, may not be permitted.
Finally, as with many tropical regions, the sun here is intense, so pack sunscreen and reusable water bottles. According to the National Park Service, American Samoa has had outbreaks of chikungunya, dengue, and zika—although none recently—so you’ll want to pack insect repellent too.
American Samoa experiences warm or hot temperatures year round and high humidity. The drier season runs from June through September, when temperatures dip slightly, but expect frequent short or long rain showers no matter when you visit. There are often tropical storms in the wet summer season, which runs October through May.
If you’re interested in whale-watching, consider visiting in August or September. Humpbacks pass this area from August to November and often come really close to land.
Hawaiian Airlines flies to Pago Pago twice a week from Honolulu. Once on Tutuila, you can reach the park by car, taxi, or local bus. There are no buses or taxis on other islands. Small planes fly from Tutuila to Ta‘u, but you’ll need to take a small fishing boat from Ta‘u to Ofu.
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