Just a handful of miles south of the town of Hawi and Big Island’s northernmost point is Mahukona Beach Park – a rugged, rocky swath of North Kohala Coast shoreline inhabited by the dilapidated remains of a long-since abandoned sugar mill. For nearly a century the old buildings have sat boarded up, serving as a sort of open-air museum for visitors who venture out past the glitzy white sand beaches of Kona Town hoping to get an up-close look at the remnants of a once-bustling industry that changed Hawaii forever.
These intrepid history buffs can usually be seen climbing around on sections of the park’s ruined railroad track running down to its tiny harbor, or snapping photos of the rusted skeleton of a metal crane standing beside the pier that long ago undoubtedly loaded steamships with the mill’s sweet, highly coveted products. Exploring the landscape here is like taking a step back through the ages; to a time in Hawaiian history when sugar barons ruled the islands and inventions like railroads, steamships and electricity were regarded as modern marvels. Everywhere you look at Mahukona there are still more relics of these bygone days, especially just offshore of the harbor where pieces of old mill equipment lie scattered among the coral in seemingly every direction.
This makes the abandoned harbor area at the park a godsend for snorkelers and scuba divers, who gear up in the nearby parking lot zipping up wetsuits and strapping on fins. They are typically found beyond the mortared rock wall plying the crystal-clear waters of the shallow, protected bay, and exploring the seafloor that is littered with coral outcrops, old concrete pilings and a large collection of badly rusted machine parts.
This underwater landscape is inhabited by all sorts of tropical sea life, and ocean-goers peering through their masks might spot octopus, eels, urchins, sea horses, crabs and even the occasional Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. Moray eels are a common sight in the debris field here, who take advantage of the countless number of hiding places created by the field of rubble. Even the magnificent, graceful manta ray has been known to frequent these waters and use the artificial reef as a feeding ground.
The harbor shallows are warm and calm, with translucent turquoise water that affords a level of visibility not commonly found at other popular Big Island snorkel spots. The ocean here is so clear that swimmers standing atop the long rock wall jutting out into the bay can easily see the smooth grey lava boulders lining the seafloor, and even the gaggles of tiny orange and yellow fish darting to and fro. Typical fish found in the waters off of Mahukona Park include reef fish like frogfish, pufferfish, yellow tangs and parrotfish.
A steel ladder provides easy access to the bay when ocean conditions are calm and the waves breaking on the banks of the harbor are little more than ripples. On days like this (most typical of Hawaii’s summer season) swimmers and divers can safely explore all around the bay, which has a gently sloping bottom that only gets to be around 40 feet deep at its deepest point. These usually placid conditions paired with some truly one-of-a-kind underwater attractions makes Mahukona Park a great place to visit for those learning to swim, trying out snorkeling for the first time, or looking for a place to go for a dip with the smallest possible surf.
Even so, it is still important to observe ocean conditions upon arriving to the park, as strong swells are possible here especially in the wintertime. There is no lifeguard on duty, so watch out for rip tides and rogue waves, and always remember the statewide Hawaii ocean safety motto: “if in doubt, don’t go out”.
As an added bonus, during the winter months, Mahukona is one of the better places on the island to go Whale Watching and the sunsets are amazing
The Wreck of the SS Kauai – Mahukona’s Prime Attraction for Snorkeling and Scuba
Adding to the crowded seafloor off the coast of Mahukona Beach Park is a real life shipwreck. The remnants of an engine and propeller, as well as scattered pieces of cargo including railroad equipment and cables, can be spotted strewn across the rocky seafloor, partially engulfed in sand in some places and dissolved by corrosion in others.
This is what remains of the SS Kauai, an inter-island Hawaiian steamer that struck the reef off of Mahukona Harbor in December 1913 and sank. This was in the heyday of the Hawaiian sugar industry, and the steamer – which began its life hauling lumber up and down the U.S. west coast – was loaded with railroad parts and bulk sugar when it went down. During a heavy storm in the years since the wreck, massive thrashing waves washed the ship’s boiler to shore. For snorkelers and divers hoping to find the remnants of the Kauai, simply set out for the middle of the harbor and then follow a line of old mooring chains stretching across the bottom that leads to the ship.
The run-down condition of the harbor is a far-cry from its glory days, when in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century it was a bustling port and important steamship stop whose sugar mill eventually became part of the Kohala Sugar Company. Back then, Hawaiian sugar was an immensely lucrative business, driven by huge demand from the western U.S. states, so large monopolies formed and could afford to invest heavily in the infrastructure required to get sugar from the field to the market. What remains of this industry at Mahukona today is a testament to this.
Camping at Mahukona Beach Park
The campground at Mahukona Beach Park is located in a different spot than its sometimes crowded day-use area comprised of the old sugar mill, railroad track and harbor area.
It’s a few hundred feet away along a side-road that skirts to the left of the sugar mill complex. The road parallels the shoreline for a bit farther until coming to a wide grassy area that runs downhill and abruptly turns into a stretch of rocky coast. There are no marked tent spaces – this entire grass area is fair game for setting up camp, and is operated on a first-come first-served basis. There aren’t many shade trees in this open area, and the best place to keep cool while camping here on during hot summer days is right up against the forest of keawe trees that borders the campgrounds in the back.
There are a few groupings of picnic tables sprinkled around the grassy lawn, with some barbecue pits found on-site in various stages of decay. In the middle of the grounds is a sheltered pavilion that was once a popular spot for picnics and could be rented for special occasions, but these days is boarded up and off-limits to visitors
Amenities for campers are sparse here, with portable toilets serving as bathrooms and no running water available at the campground. So, it’s crucial for those opting to stay at Mahukona to bring enough water to drink, wash and bathe with, in addition to all other needed supplies considering there is no concessionaire at the park.
How to Get to Mahukona Beach Park
Mahukona Beach Park can be found roughly 14 miles north of the tiny Big Island port town of Kawaihae, located near the quaint inland cowboy town of Waimea on the way to the island’s northwest coast. From Kawaihae, turn onto Highway 270, otherwise known as Akoni Pule Highway, which runs roughly 20 miles north to the town of Hawi.
Between mile marker 14 and mile marker 15 along Highway 270, there will be a road jutting off to the left leading downhill towards the ocean with signage for the park. Turn left onto this road and follow it for half a mile before coming around a hairpin turn where the old sugar mill will come into view. Heading right here will take park-goers to the parking lot accessing the abandoned harbor and its collection of ideal snorkeling spots, while staying left at the mill leads to the campground.
Mahukona Beach Park is open daily from 6:00am to 10:00pm, making it a popular spot for sunset swims and night diving. The “beach” here is rocky and unforgiving with little sand to speak of, making the park only marginally popular with sunbathers and those hoping to dip their toes into the sand. But for swimmers, snorkelers, divers and history buffs, Mahukona is a one-of-a-kind destination very much off the typical tourism circuit with pieces of its intriguing history scattered everywhere you look.