South of the small town of Captain Cook, and two and a half miles along a one-lane road winding downhill to meet the ocean, the soft grey sands of Ho’okena Beach Park come into view for the first time.
Flanked on either side by walls of sea cliffs, the crescent-shaped beach of protected waters is like an oasis springing out of an otherwise rough and unforgiving terrain of sloping lavafields. Much of the South Kona coast is similarly wild and rocky, with few decent, easy-to-access beaches to speak of until reaching the bottom of Ali’i Drive. So Ho’okena is a diamond in the rough, immensely popular because of its isolation and frequented by everyone from fishermen to kayakers, sunbathers to boogie boarders, swimmers, hikers, snorkelers, campers and more.
Scattered rows of broad-leafed trees planted along the beachfront offer shade, and create a cool understory of flat, sandy ground which on any given day is crammed with a rainbow of tents and pop-up shelters. The sand is amazingly soft, piled up in pillowy drifts, and makes the idea of sleeping on the ground much more inviting. And nights at the beach park are often clear, as it sits in the rain shadow of Big Island’s two massive mountains – Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa – giving some campers the confidence to ditch the rainfly altogether. All of these ideal conditions, along with the fact that there are few easy alternatives for beach camping in the area, make Ho’okena one of the most popular destinations for spending a night outdoors on Big Island.
Those opting to stay under the stars here are usually lulled to sleep by the gentle, lapping waves of Kauhako Bay – a formidable notch carved out of Big Island’s western coastline, which has been used for centuries as a steamship harbor and an ideal spot to launch fishing canoes. Even today, visitors can see the traditional watercraft strewn along the beach belonging to fishermen who continue to ply the waters around the bay looking for suitable catch, just like their ancestors have done for centuries.
The lucky beach-goer could even spot a launch in progress, or a crew returning with a hull overflowing with a bounty of fish. Then there are the more modern vessels – fiberglass kayaks available for rent from a well-outfitted concessionaire located at the near-end of the beach. There’s even camping and snorkeling gear for rent, basically ensuring that all visitors need to bring for a day and a night at the beach is their towel. This is an ideal resource for visitors who don’t want to lug bulky beach gear around in their suitcase, and can’t justify buying it new to use only for one weekend.
All that remains of the old dock at the center of the beach are a mound of rocks being lapped at by the lazy waves rolling in from beyond the cliffs. This makes for great snorkeling grounds, as a wide range of Hawaiian sea life has taken up residence in the nooks and crannies of the pier’s old foundation, and at high tide the typical group of bobbing, snorkel-clad heads can be spotted milling around the submerged stones, exploring coral labyrinths and their schools of colorful tropical fish. For West Hawaii visitors keen on embarking on the island’s “snorkeling tour”, Ho’okena makes a great tour stop as an add-on to a visit to Two Step, located just a few miles up the highway, which is arguably the best snorkeling ground on the island.
One Of The Last Canoe Fishing Villages In Hawaii
Ho’okena Beach Park and its adjacent town were not always the sleepy beachside neighborhood that they are today. Native Hawaiians spent centuries launching their fishing canoes from the beach, taking advantage of its gently-sloping bottom of grey sand. It was one of the main coastal villages in the area, and remnants of the old days can still be found all over town. The fishermen would trade their catch for other needed crops grown by upland farmers, most importantly the starchy Polynesian staple taro, otherwise known as “kalo”, from which the dish poi is made.
The village’s growth was accelerated in the late 19th century when Ho’okena Beach became a primary landing for Hawaii’s inter-island steamship trade, seeing everything from passengers to livestock to foodstuffs to tools land on its shores on a weekly basis. Over time the town grew into a proper port – one of the busiest along the Kona Coast – with a wharf, a school, a jail, a horse stable, a courthouse and a network of roads.
Sadly, in the 1930s severe storms and high surf destroyed the pier, and many living in the village opted to move away from the unstable shoreline and reestablish their lives higher up the mountain and closer to the main road. Today, the beach park is run by local residents gathered together in an organization called Friends of Ho’okena Beach Park. The group manages the park as a micro-enterprise providing employment opportunities for the community and funds for conservation work so that the natural and cultural resources of Kauhako Bay can be protected for generations.
So campers, kayakers and snorkelers can feel good about where their fees are going, and Ho’okena Beach Park gets to be a beautiful, well-outfitted and clean one-of-a-kind destination for locals and visitors alike. Due to the park’s popularity, though, camping must be reserved at least three days in advance of arrival, and it is common during high season to see campsites fully booked for weeks at a time. Camping fees for adult beach-goers are roughly $20 per person for visitors, and significantly less – around $5 – for Hawaii state residents. According to Friends of Ho’okena Beach Park’s website, to receive the discounted resident rates, campers will have to show either a State of Hawaii Drivers License of State of Hawaii ID card.
Amenities at the beach park include a concession stand selling ice, food, cold drinks, ice cream and camping and beach supplies, as well as modern restroom and outdoor shower facilities, a large scattering of picnic tables, a covered pavilion and racks of equipment rentals. However, there is no lifeguard tower at the beach so swimmers must be vigilant about keeping an eye on ocean conditions and knowing when to not go out.
How To Get There:
Ho’okena Beach Park is located roughly 20 miles south of Kona Town, or 8 miles south of Captain Cook, along Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road or Mamalahoa Highway. This stretch of highway is very windy and has a cliffside shoulder without guardrail in some places, so follow the speed limit and stay alert. The highway runs through downtown Captain Cook, and a few miles south of town passes by the locally renown Fujihara Store, which is the last stop for snacks and refreshments before Two Step and Ho’okena Beach Park.
Drivers will pass Ho’okena Elementary and Intermediate School on the right, and immediately after the school the road will fork. Turn right at the fork, following signs for Ho’okena, onto Ho’okena Beach Road. This road quickly turns into a switchback-heavy one-lane road that skirts down the bluff for two and a half miles. The ocean starts to appear in the distance as a thin blue line, but as drivers get farther down the road the ocean becomes more and more pronounced. Ambient air temperature creeps up a few degrees as the cool mountain slopes of Mauna Loa give way to the hot, thick wet air of sea level.
After one final hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill, the village of Ho’okena appears with its spattering of humble homes and a handful of vacation rentals. Keeping left at the bottom of the hill will bring visitors to the beach park’s main gravel parking lot, and the concession stands, gear rentals, showers, restrooms and campsites are all a short walk away.
In general, winter months bring the highest surf and strongest rip current to Big Island’s leeward beaches like Ho’okena. This is exacerbated by windy ocean conditions also more frequent in the winter, which is also tourism’s high season. While most days of the year see the typical conditions of gentle waves, gentle breeze and slight current at the beach, this is not always the case. So, it’s best to check conditions beforehand and schedule your beach trip for a safe day, and to always abide by the State of Hawaii’s ocean safety motto: “if in doubt, don’t go out.”
Very seldom, populations of stinging jellyfish known as Portuguese Man-o-War can wash up on the beach and linger in the waters offshore. Those concerned can check with the concessionaire or campground attendant about swimming conditions upon arrival, or simply observe whether other swimmers are out that day or not. Also, do not leave any valuables in your car while its in the parking lot as break-ins have happened in the past.