On an island seemingly overflowing with natural splendor, it’s no surprise that locals and visitors alike have become so fond of going on nature hikes.
Hawai’i Island is, true to its nickname, a “Big Island”, and boasts a range of climate zones that simply cannot be found on any other island in the chain. The two massive mountains in its middle – the dormant volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa – cast a rain shadow over half the island, making for a extremely wet and jungly East side, and a parched, scraggly West side.
It’s possible to hop in a car and within a two-hour drive go from Hilo’s towering jungle and incessant rain, up the flanks of Mauna Kea into icy alpine tundra, back down through the cowboy town of Waimea and its rolling green hills of pastureland, and finally to the desolate lava-rock deserts and brilliant white sand beaches of North Kona.
This astounding breadth of different climate zones, when paired with Big Island’s sparsely populated and largely rural character, makes for some highly varied hiking opportunities with a little something for everyone. So, with this unique diversity of natural beauty in mind, here’s our list of four very different hikes on the island which have come to be some of the Big Island’s Best Hikes:
Ka’u Desert Trail: Those who are fond of the rocky desert trails of the American Southwest will find a familiar experience along the Ka’u Desert Trail. This nearly 20-mile-long footpath starts at Kilauea Volcano’s crater rim within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and descends through swaths of old lavafield and dry shrubland toward the ocean. Volcanic gasses escaping from the crater mix with water vapor in the air and fall back to the earth as acid rain, preventing most plant growth and creating a desolate, almost eerie moonscape.
The trail takes hikers through some of the most remote areas on the island, and brings them up close to many fascinating geological formations: fields of cracked, ropey lava known in Hawaiian as “pahoehoe” with innumerable black cinder cones looking like ominous mini-volcanoes dotting the horizon. At times the path is strewn with patches of fluffy golden ash that crunches underfoot, or with shiny black droplets known as “Pele’s tears” and delicate thread-like tufts known as “Pele’s hair”, named so for the ancient Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele.
HOW TO GET THERE: The vast majority of people start the Ka’u Desert Trail at the highway pullout between mile markers 38 and 39 along Highway 11, which is roughly 15 miles west of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park’s entrance towards the town of Na’alehu. There’s a decently large parking area with well-marked trailhead, emergency telephone and trash can, but no other services. Bring cool clothes, plenty of water and sun protection.
Shipman Beach Trail: Alternatively, for those wanting the full jungle-to-beach experience, the Shipman Beach Trail outside the town of Kea’au is a great highlight of all the natural beauty Hawai’i Island’s east side has to offer. This route is comprised of a portion of old horse carriage road dating back to the 1800s, which itself overlaid an ancient Hawaiian coastal footpath, and winds through forests of ohia and ironwood trees, climbing vines and broad-leafed shrubs.
After roughly 2.5 miles, the path ends at Shipman Beach, also known as Ha’ena Beach – a small crescent of white sand and peaceful water tucked into a coastline of unforgiving black rock cliffs and crashing waves. A reef of lava boulders arcs out into the ocean, creating a shallow pool of still water that’s safe for children and those learning to swim. On any given day, sea turtles can be spotted sunning themselves on the banks, while small flocks of “nene”, or Hawaiian geese, make their rounds along the shore.
HOW TO GET THERE: From the town of Kea’au south of Hilo, follow Highway 130 to the subdivision of Hawaiian Paradise Park, often simply called “HPP”, and turn left onto Kaloli Drive. Follow Kaloli Drive all the way to the bottom of the hill until it dead-ends at Beach Road. Turn left and follow Beach Road to a gravel parking lot with a boundary of large boulders that’s open from 8am to 5pm. There’s a nearby information kiosk detailing the hike, but no other facilities are available. Depending on season the trail can be extremely muddy, so pack boots, rain jacket and extra drinking water.
Papakolea Green Sands Beach Trail: The two downsides to Shipman Beach Trail is that the surrounding jungle can make for a very hot and humid hike during summer months, and the path itself sometimes becomes mired in mud after the all-too-common East Hawai’i downpour. Not quite the steepness of the Waipo Valley Hike but can be a bit of work for the non hiker. So if you find yourself in Puna District on a hot, wet day, with your heart set on hiking through some idyllic tropical beauty, consider taking the drive south along Highway 11 to the town of Na’alehu and the island’s southern tip known as South Point.
Here’s where the trailhead is found for the 6-mile-roundtrip windswept coastal hike across sometimes-rutted 4-wheel-drive roads to Papakolea, known commonly as “Green Sands Beach”. The beach was formed after the flank of a 50,000 year old volcanic cinder cone collapsed into the ocean, releasing its core of a brilliant green mineral called olivine that has colored the beach and surrounding cliffs. Papakolea is a geological oddity, among a very small handful of “green sand beaches” around the world.
HOW TO GET THERE: Between mile markers 69 and 70 along Highway 11, turn onto South Point Road. Exercising caution, drive down this road for roughly eight miles keeping in mind parts of the road narrow to one-lane. At the bottom of the hill stay left where there’s a sign for Green Sand Beach, and park in the large gravel parking area. There are usually portable toilets at this trailhead. Head down the hill and keep left at the boat ramp, and then follow the criss-crossing 4-wheel-drive roads along the coast. At every intersection keep to the road closest to the ocean, and eventually the remains of Papakolea’s massive, ancient cinder cone will come into view. Pack sturdy hiking shoes and warm clothes for the constant heavy winds.
Pololu Valley Trail: We’ve saved the best for last! The path of cliffside switchbacks leading down into Pololu Valley is hands-down the best hike on Big Island. The trailhead located a few miles outside the small, charming town of Hawi overlooks one of the island’s most eye-popping vistas: the mouth of a massive green valley with towering cliffs falling down to meet a churning royal blue ocean. Pololu is the last of a chain of valleys that have been carved out of the island’s northern Hamakua Coast by eons of erosion, the most famous of which is Waipio Valley – known for its own breathtaking lookout and steep switchbacks.
But the difference is that Waipio can be accessed by road, while Pololu can’t. The only way to see the latter’s full beauty is to trudge down the short (less than a mile) but sometimes perilously steep winding trail to the valley floor and its sprawling forest of ironwood trees. A stream flows through the valley and widens as it meets the ocean at a beach of large black lava boulders. Swimming is possible here, but only at low tide when patches of sand are exposed making it safe to get in and out.
A walk to the far end of the beach reveals another trail going back up the neighboring bluff. For the more intrepid day hikers, it’s possible to climb up this next ridge, through thick jungle that turns into steep scrubland of wild guavas and meadow grasses, and onto its summit. Here at the top there’s a much-welcome bench overlooking the next valley in the chain. From this spot, at the right time of year, humpback whales can be seen breaching offshore with tiny clouds of white sea spray giving away their position.
This is one of the truly wild places on Hawai’i Island, where you can look in all directions and see only cliffs and sky and ocean. The trails are steep and rocky, and the beach of lava boulders at the bottom can be intimidating, but the view from this spot at the top of the ridge makes the Pololu Valley Trail Big Island’s best hike in our book.
HOW TO GET THERE: From the town of Hawi on the island’s northernmost tip, continue along Highway 270 through the town of Kapa’au and for several more miles along a sometimes one-lane road. Keep right at the intersection for Keokea Beach Park, and continue on to the small parking lot for Pololu Valley Overlook. The trailhead has no services at all – not even cell service – so plan accordingly and stock up on supplies in Hawi. Be sure to pack good shoes, raincoat, drinking water, snacks and a beach blanket.
For more Big Island Fun check out our Island Map