Just east of the City of Hilo’s two-mile long breakwater sits Keaukaha Beach Park; a rocky shoreline of calm tidepools and swimming holes protected from the onslaught of rolling waves charging in from the open ocean. It’s a collection of unassuming windswept inlets and inviting tree-lined coves found just off of Kalanianaole Street – the main thoroughfare connecting downtown Hilo with the many beach parks found along the city’s broad eastern peninsula.
Keaukaha is the first stop on the curving coastal road which goes on to find other iconic Hilo swimming spots like Carlsmith Beach Park, Richardson Ocean Park and the kid-friendly Onekahakaha Beach Park and its shallow, boulder-lined wading pool. With so many great swimming options along the peninsula, the real significance of this first stop lies in its proximity to the two-mile long Hilo Breakwater. This is a crescent-shaped arc of massive stacked lava boulders stretching out into the bay and protecting its shoreline neighborhoods from the immense ocean power of Hawaii Island’s windward side.
These breeze-blown rolling waves make their way in from the open ocean and head into the bay, where they crash against the seawall in spectacular explosions of violent white foam and raining sea spray. Larger rollers strike with such intensity against the breakwater that a muffled slap can be heard from shore, with a slight sound delay due to the distance. It is a somewhat mesmerizing and quintessentially Big Island sight, great for any visitor looking for a dramatic example of the Pacific Ocean’s storied power.
And arguably the best place to see this explosive show is from the lava gravel shores of Keaukaha Beach Park, located roughly a quarter-mile from the shoreside terminus of the breakwater. Here, tidepool-goers experience the strange phenomenon of frolicking about in placid, shallow pools thoroughly protected from the onslaught of waves seemingly just a stone’s throw away from the churning sea that flings its towering white-capped walls of water against the unwavering rock pile. The park’s secluded and placid nature is thanks to the shape of Puhi Bay, which deflects much of the wave energy past its shores and sends it further west into Hilo Bay.
Those visiting the park and hoping to get as close as they can to its spectacle will find that Keaukaha’s western edge provides the best semi-up-close views of the waves. There are few swimming spots in this area of the park – the coastline here is mostly jagged outcrops of lava boulders leading along a similarly rocky coastline towards the breakwater. A large, dense forest of ironwood trees inhabits this edge of the park, with the faint impression of a seldom-used footpath running along its periphery. Songbirds inhabit the trees, and sing sweet melodies on breezy, sunny days that mix together with the music of rustling needles and the far-off thunder of the crashing surf.
From this spot, the neighborhoods of small, colorful houses spread across the hills above Hilo are clearly visible, and beyond that the flanks of Mauna Kea – Big Island’s most geologically and culturally significant mountain – rise up above the treeline. The great mountain’s summit is shrouded in a halo of thick rain-bearing clouds on most days, but this vantage point still affords a great classic Hawaiian nature photo op: smashing royal blue waves, wall of giant lava rocks, jungly hills dotted with modest homes, and the mountain slopes of an ancient, towering and almost-mythical volcano.
Shady Banyan Groves, Turtles and Breadfruits
Visitors making their way from the park’s western wave-watching area toward the coves of swimming spots nearer to its center will find several massive Banyan trees and an assembly of exceptionally tall coconut palms towering over ideal grassy sunbathing and picnic areas. The “beach” part of the park’s name can be a bit misleading since much of its coastline is completely devoid of beach to speak of. But here in the middle, beneath the palm fronds and the intricately woven trunks and broad canopies of Banyans, is a small stretch of somewhat rocky beach strewn with a mixture of black and white sand, smooth lava stones and fragments of coral. This sliver of sand is well-protected from the churning ocean beyond it, making it a popular place for picnicking families with young children, since even at high tide the water levels in the surrounding pools rarely gets to be waist-deep.
Swimming and wading here will bring park-goers up close and personal with Big Island’s myriad collection of tidepool sea life, including crabs, anemones, starfish, eels, seahorses, urchins and mollusks. The iconic Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is even known to haul their wide bodies up onto the rocky outcrops surrounding the park to sun themselves after a strenuous morning of perusing the coastline’s many nooks and crannies looking for seaweed morsels. Although these are fascinating creatures, visitors who are lucky enough to share a wading pool with them must keep in mind the fact that this turtle is critically endangered, and that state and federal laws prohibit approaching or bothering them. Sometimes their shells can mimic the looks of the surrounding rocks, so always keep an eye out and step mindfully while down at the coast hopping from rock to rock.
Up from the park’s quaint stretch of beach, the unmistakable smell of overripe fruit greets passersby. A large, sprawling mature breadfruit tree can be spotted beside one of the roadside parking lots, with its broad, serrated leaves and dangling, sap-covered yellow orbs giving off the fruity, if not slightly sickly scent. Beneath the tree is a neat pile of fallen fruit with the requisite cloud of hovering fruit flies, while many of the more ripe specimens still hanging from branches look like they could drop at any minute. This is one of the classic Hawaiian “canoe plants” – referring to the collection of flora brought by the first Polynesian settlers to the newfound island chain to serve as the staple crops with which they would build their new civilization.
Heading farther along the peninsula down Kalanianaole Street, visitors will come upon a group of wide-open, rolling grassy fields that make up the eastern edge of the park. These are some of the most well-maintained sports fields in all of Hilo town, making it a popular place for everything from pickup soccer games to frisbee golf to croquet. These handsome fields make the park a sort of one-stop-shop for athletes and sporty visitors, who can swim, snorkel, sunbathe and play ball all in the same place. Scattered between the fields are groups of picnic tables, and several restroom facilities outfitted with modern amenities are close-by. Less than a mile further along the peninsula away from downtown Hilo is the next beach park in the line: Onekahakaha Beach Park, with its beloved kids wading pools and the picturesque Chalk’s Beach, which is featured in its own article.
How To Get There
To see the crashing waves and placid pools at Keaukaha Beach Park, start from the intersection of Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road, and Kamehameha Avenue along Hilo’s bayfront, and take the right-hand turn onto Kalanianaole Street (KAH-LAW-NEE-AH-NAH-OH-LAY). Continue for roughly two miles, past the Port Of Hilo, Kuhio Kalanianaole Park, Big Island Motors and Keaukaha General Store, until signs come into view for the park on the left. There are several pull-in parking lots beside the main road providing access to the various different areas of the park, and the lots seem nearly deserted most of the time.
Keauhaka is open daily from 6:00am to 9:00pm. Signs posted around the park clearly state that pets, alcoholic drinks and any sort of vending is prohibited. The rugged footpaths leading along the rocky coastline are paved with uneven stones in many places, along with the occasional jutting tree root and half-buried lava cinder. So, visitors should wear proper foot protection (not flip-flops) if they plan on exploring farther afield or taking the walk out to the ironwood grove to get a better look at the waves crashing against the breakwater.
There are few amenities available once out on the peninsula, so be sure to stock up on beach snacks, reef-safe sunscreen and drinking water in Hilo. The supermarkets and chain stores of Prince Kuhio Plaza shopping mall are located just one mile south on Highway 11 from its intersection with Kalanianaole Street. There is also some exceptional dining options in the neighborhood of Keaukaha Beach Park, including well-renown local eateries like Verna’s Drive-In, Coconut Grill, Ponds Hilo, Millie’s Deli and Snack Shop, and Le Yellow Sub Vietnamese restaurant. One of Hilo’s most frequent recipients of “Best-Of” awards, Sombat’s Fresh Thai Cuisine, is located in this same part of town, and is a great place to stop for dinner after a long day of swimming, tidepool wading and wave-watching.