I have ridden horses at several places in Hawaii including Waipio Valley on the Big Island and Kualoa Ranch on Oahu, but one place I have always wanted to ride was on the Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii. My wife and I finally had that chance in November of 2005 thanks to Cowboys of Hawaii at Parker Ranch.
Brief History of the Parker Ranch
Why the Parker Ranch, you may ask. The Parker Ranch was once the largest ranch in the United States and today, despite the sale of some of its land it remains one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States and the largest private ranch under single ownership, spreading approximately 175,000 acres across the Big Island of Hawaii.. Parker Ranch is an active cattle ranch with approximately 90% of its lands utilized for cattle grazing and related activities.
Parker Ranch is also deeply rooted in Hawaii's history. The ranch's history dates back to 1809 when nineteen year old John Parker jumped ship and found himself on the Big Island. Over time he became a loyal friend and subject of King Kamehameha I who hired him to cull the herd of wild cattle which began as five cattle given to the king 21 years earlier in 1793 by British Captain George Vancouver.
In 1815, Parker married Kipikane, the daughter of a high-ranking Hawaiian chief, who took the Christian name Rachel. The couple had a daughter and two sons and the Parker dynasty began.
The Ranch Today
Today the ranch is owned and operated by the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust which was established by Richard Palmer Smart (1913-1992), a sixth generation member of the Parker family and last direct descendant of John Parker.
The ranch is operated quite differently today than it was almost 200 years ago. Instead of producing full grown cattle, today the ranch focuses on producing calves for shipment to the mainland to continue their growth. The ranch's Hawaii-based slaughter operation has been closed. Open range has been replaced by 850 miles of fence, 275 paddocks and 45 corrals.
Despite the changes, however, it is still easy to get the feel of what it was like to ride across the plains and hills of Waimea during the early days of the ranch. Paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) whose families have been working the ranch for most of the last two centuries continue to bear responsibility for maintaining the herds.
Cowboys of Hawaii at Parker Ranch is managed by Steve Wilson, whose family also operates the Mendes Ranch on the northwest part of the island of Maui.
Horseback Riding with Cowboys of Hawaii at Parker Ranch
The day of our ride was a beautiful November day with blue skies dotted with puffy white clouds and a pleasant breeze. Only three riders were scheduled so Steve's assistant escorted a young woman from western Canada who lives on a ranch and had considerably more riding experience. Steve escorted my wife Eileen and I for our two hour ride.
This is a very good thing about Cowboys of Hawaii. They'll tailor the ride to the ability of the rider. I have more riding experience than my wife, so for the first part of the ride I went with Steve's assistant while Steve rode with my wife. About 30 minutes in I joined up with my wife and the other rider went off with Steve's assistant for a more spirited ride.
Steve Wilson is a superb horseman and paniolo. In addition to managing Cowboys of Hawaii he operates a small ranch of his own on the eastern part of the Big Island. Steve's knowledge of the Parker Ranch, it's history and current operation is top notch. One of the experiences of riding with a paniolo is to just ride and let him do most of the talking. You'll hear stories that will keep you enchanted as you imagine how those first paniolos must have felt riding across this amazing land.
If You Go
Cowboys of Hawaii offers rides three times daily at 8:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and a special sunset ride at 4:00 p.m. Morning and noon rides are 2 hours duration, the sunset ride is 1 and 1/2 hours. The cost is $79.00 per person for each of the three rides offered. The minimum age requirement is seven years.
For those who want to explore the ranch in a more modern mode of transportation, ATV tours are also available. Two-hour morning and afternoon ATV rides are offered along with a 90-minute sunset tour. Cost is $95.00 per ride. Riders for the ATV tour must be at least 16 years old.
If you want to explore a place where old Hawaii and new Hawaii meet there's no better place than the historic Parker Ranch with its beautiful landscapes, rolling hills, cattle and wildlife. For more information contact Cowboys of Hawaii at (808) 885-7655 or visit their website.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of reviewing Cowboys of Hawaii. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.