8 Big Island Hikes for Beginners and Experts
PHOTO: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park along the Puna Coast Trail. (photo by Will McGough)
Hawaii Island (aka the Big Island) is about the size of Connecticut and built on the shoulders of five volcanoes, meaning there’s plenty of elevation change to go along with great coastal walks.
Whether you’re an advanced or beginner hiker, there are many opportunities to traverse Hawaii Island’s diverse terrain, which includes almost every ecosystem in the world. There are many easy and moderate hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that take you to lava tubes and craters (including the visibly-active Kilauea Crater), so it’s a good place to start if you’ve never been to the island. If you’ve already seen the basics, or crave something outside the mass circuit in the Park, here are a few to go one step farther:
Malama Ki Forest Reserve Trail: Just a few minutes from the hippy town of Pahoa — the one that was nearly steamrolled by lava a year ago — is the local-oriented Mackenzie State Recreation Area. The Malama Ki Forest Reserve Trail takes you on an easy 3.5-mile round-trip stroll through the island’s largest collection of ironwood trees. It’s also a great place to find a seat and watch the waves bash into the lava rocks, as the Puna Coast is notorious for its churning surf. Despite how warm it might be, this is one place where you’ll happily stay out of the water.
The Ha'ena Trail (aka Shipman Beach): Speaking of the Puna Coast, the Ha'ena Beach Trail is a 5-mile roundtrip hike to Ha'ena Beach, also known as Shipman Beach. It is not possible to drive there; so most hikers find they have it pretty much to themselves, a nice change of pace from crowded hotel beaches. Bring a backpack with lunch and beach gear for lounging, and settle in for an afternoon of seclusion. The trail can be muddy, which can increase the difficulty to tedious, so keep that in mind as you watch the weather forecasts leading up to your hike.
South Point: Barely a hike, this is more of an “arrive-and-wander” type of afternoon. Ka Lae is the southernmost point in the Hawaiian Islands and the United States, known for its extremely windy conditions. You will literally feel like you might be blown over at times, and you’ll want your sunglasses to protect your eyes from it.
On that note, you may not want to stay very long (plus it is not exactly unknown). But it is worth taking a walk to see the effect that same wind has had on the environment, namely the trees that have been bent over. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to watch people cliff jump. Or join in yourself.
Kealakekua Bay: Kealakekua is one of Hawaii Island’s most historical areas, the place where Captain James Cook first made contact with native Hawaiians, and also the place he was killed. The only way to reach his monument by foot is via a 3.8-mile round-trip trail.
Getting there is all downhill, so be prepared to climb 1,300 feet back up in the exposed sun, which can be less than fun if you aren’t in shape. My advice is not to rush the return. Kealakekua Bay is one of the island’s best snorkeling spots, clear and calm and filled with healthy reefs and colorful fish. Be sure to wear close-toed shoes and put pack your snorkel gear in your backpack.
Waipi’o Valley: This is one of the most inspiring view points on Hawaii Island. The lush green valley, black sand beach, and flowing waterfalls are what Hawaiian postcards are made of, and if you’re looking for that unmistakable, jaw-dropping Hawaiian photograph, this is where to take it.
Drive to the Waipi’o Valley lookout, take some photos, and read about the 1946 tsunami that wiped out most of the valley. As you roam, think back to a time when it was filled with villages, taro farms and tight-knit communities. Walk down the steep road (descending 800 feet in .6 miles) and make your way to the black-sand Waipi’o Beach.
From there, you can either relax and enjoy, or continue to the right along the coast to Kaluahine Falls. Hiking back up that steep incline will get your blood pumping, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have gathered enough inspiration down in the valley to push you through the climb.
Halape via the Keauhou Trail: Halape is arguably Hawaii Island’s most scenic backcountry beach campsite. In 1974, an earthquake dropped a chunk of the coast a few dozen feet down, creating a beautiful, slightly-sloping coastal paradise, a mixture of palm trees and lava rock. You can still see the fault line where the land broke away during the earthquake.
Hiking to it via the Keauhou Trail is a pleasant, 2,680-foot descent down to the coast within Volcanoes National Park across lava fields and through tall grass. There’s always a view of the ocean and the coast, giving you a sense of place and purpose as you hike through the hills. Halape’s campsites are tucked in around a grove of coconut palms, a peaceful place where you can put your feet up for a night. There is a protected pool where you can swim and snorkel, but the draw here is isolation and relaxation. Be sure to bring a good book. Camping at Halape requires a permit from the backcountry office, located in Volcanoes National Park. Permits are free.
To avoid going back uphill the same way you came down, hike the relatively flat, somewhat tedious volcanic Puna Coast Trail to Chain of Craters Road near the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs (about eight miles), where you can then hitch a ride back up to your car at the Keauhou Trailhead. There are lots of people driving Chain of Craters Road during the day, so getting a ride shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes and a nice smile (hitchhiking in this manner is common in Hawaii, but if you are not comfortable, hike back out the way you came). In addition to avoiding climbing back up the long uphill, hiking out of Halape via the Puna Coast Trail allows you to see how the lava flowed down to the sea during previous eruptions and also witness the rough sea smash into the rocks.
Mauna Loa Summit Trail: The granddaddy of hikes on Hawaii Island is the Mauna Loa Summit Trail. Why? Well, for starters, Mauna Loa is the world’s largest volcano, occupying 50 percent of Hawaii Island’s total area. By the end of the first day, you’ll be above the clouds and find it hard to believe that there are people down there in bikinis. The exposed, windy, cold ascent takes you over lava flows dating back more than a hundred years, the rocks red and black and green and grey. The sunset you get above the clouds is one few visitors to Hawaii experience, and the stargazing is even better. When you arrive at the summit, you will look out in wonder at the six square-mile caldera, seeing the steam rise from the cracks in the crust. Adding to the aura is the fact that Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times in the last 172 years, or once every five years, but its most recent eruption came back more than 30 years ago in 1984.
Starting from the Mauna Loa Lookout in Volcanoes National Park, the trail climbs more than 18 miles and 7,000 feet to the summit, topping out at 13,678 feet. Just below the summit is the Mauna Loa cabin, where you can spend the night.
There is also the Red Hill Cabin 7.5 miles into the hike, which allows you to split up the hike and adjust to the altitude. Although you can come back the same way, many people arrange to be picked up on the other side of the volcano at the Mauna Loa Observatory, located at 11,150 feet and only a little more than five miles from the summit cabin. Many also ascend to the summit via this observatory trail. It definitely cuts down the trip in terms of time and mileage, but keep in mind that you will reach maximum altitude much faster, in one day instead of two, which can lead to altitude sickness.
Staying at the cabins is free but requires a permit from the backcountry office in Volcanoes National park. Be prepared for the boot-tearing terrain of volcanic rock to go along with near-freezing nighttime temperatures.
Mauna Kea Summit Trail: The Humu’ula Trail, or the Mauna Kea Summit Trail, is 11.5 miles round-trip and takes you up to 13,796 feet, with a total elevation gain of 4,500 feet. It is the highest peak in the Hawaiian Islands, and the famous site of the world’s largest observatory, a cooperative between 11 countries.
Most people drive to the top, fueling the appeal for hikers to conquer it on foot. The terrain, loose and crunchy under your feet, resembles that of another planet, so much so that NASA called it the best example of otherworldly terrain on the planet, and tested its Mars Rover nearby. So, don’t expect to see much wildlife or greenery, but do take pride in that you’re one step closer to being an astronaut.
Unlike the Mauna Loa hike, this trail is meant to be done in a day. As a warning, this rapid rate of ascension makes altitude sickness is a real threat and proper precautions should be taken, such as frequent breaks, strong hydration, and if possible, training hikes and overnights at altitude for acclimatization. Winter gear, including layers, hats and gloves, are essential, and of course you should never hike alone.
More by Will McGough
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