Some Hawaii guidebooks rank the 5-mile-roundtrip trek to Shipman Beach, otherwise known as Haena Beach, outside the town of Keaau to be the most underrated hike on all of Big Island.
This might be because its often a muddy tromp through jungles as dense as they get in Puna District, rewarded at the end with a small, but supremely beautiful and secluded white sand beach. So secluded, in fact, that often the gaggle of sunbathing animals, including sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and nene – the Hawaiian goose – outnumber the sunbathing humans.
So, its underrated nature has become part of its appeal; after all, there aren’t many white sand beaches in East Hawaii that visitors can have all to themselves in a district only know to have black sand. The hike out is moderately strenuous, and gets ever-more difficult based on the amount of recent rainfall in the area. But for the adventurous types, who come prepared and willing to do a bit of tromping in order to enjoy a place of true isolated beauty unlike anywhere else on the island, the reward at the end of the trail is worth the effort many times over.
Haena is usually calm, protected by a breakwater of lava boulders sunk several hundred feet offshore. This creates a large, mostly flat swimming area around 3 or 4 feet deep with a sandy bottom. Families often come here as it’s a shady, private spot with a sandy bay ideal for wading. The water is brackish – a mixture of warm salty seawater and cool fresh water fed by a nearby ground spring and lagoon.
Shade is provided by a beachfront of mature coconut palms planted in a column, and a large bushy shrub growing on a rock outcrop which splits the beach in two. Although the sand is white – the remains of broken down coral – the seacoast bordering the beach in both directions is purely black lava cinders, creating a unique mixture of the two contrasting sands.
Sinkholes can be found while sloshing around in the bay, usually with a sudden one or two-foot drop in the sand beneath your feet. On a calm, sunny day this is a great spot for snorkeling, as many different species of colorful tropical fish can be seen darting about in the bay when the sunshine illuminates the water into a rarely seen electric blue. Many hikers have slogged along the entire outbound trail only to realize they’ve forgotten their mask in the car. So, remember to pack all the gear!
Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles love to frequent the beach, and they come as an added bonus for visitors hoping to do some wildlife watching. But please remember to give these animals their space; the monk seals are endangered and federally protected, inhabiting a very limited habitat on the island. Disturbing them can result in a criminal charge from the state, with a huge fine of up to $50,000. In the recent past, hapless swimmers have even gotten too close to nursing mother seals and been attacked. So it’s best to check your surroundings upon arriving to Haena and make sure to swim and relax in an unoccupied part of the beach. The animals will thank you!
Behind the beach sits the historic Shipman Estate, an impressively landscaped and manicured property belonging to one of the island’s first white missionary families. It’s comprised of two large houses and a three-acre lagoon, which recently has been transformed into a wildlife refuge for the nene, which was hunted almost to extinction and only survived with the help of Shipman family members. The property has been featured in everything from Hollywood films to hula songs to the travel itineraries of legendary figures like Amelia Earhart, Cole Porter and Paul Newman. Everything beyond the beach is private property, however, and these rules are strictly enforced with ample signage fronting the shoreline.
The biodiversity seen in the range of plants along the 2.5-mile trail is astounding. The hike begins in pastureland of tall, overgrown grasses and ferns interspersed with young ohia trees. Hawaii Island’s famous wild purple orchids bloom in fields on either side of the road, coloring the vibrant green landscape. Then the hike turns into jungle, with mango trees, ironwoods, strawberry guava patches, ti and noni plants, and stands of the Hawaiian mangrove called “hala”. It’s here that the route can get muddy, and where waterproof boots can really come in handy after one of Puna Distict’s ubiquitous rainstorms.
Hikers pass by ruins of ancient mortared lava rock walls, in some places reduced to little more than a scattering of stones being consumed by moss. There’s even the remains of a traditional Hawaiian fishing village, which can be spotted off in the distance overgrown with jungle vines. All of these ruins are on private property, but beach-goers can get very close – offering visitors a truly unspoiled glimpse of what ancient Hawaii once looked like.
The trail follows the route of a centuries-old regional footpath, known as “ala hele”, which connected several coastal villages along the Kalapana Coast and is known as the “Old Puna Trail” in English. The Kingdom of Hawaii upgraded this trail in the middle of the 19th Century into a carriage road locally known as the “King’s Highway”, which connected the coast’s villages to the essential port of Hilo. Funding for the project ran out, though, and villagers began using an inland road that would one day become Highway 130, leaving that stretch of the coastal “highway” all but abandoned.
After the fishing village, the trail crosses a crumbling lava tube jutting out of the jungle. Then there will be another set of ruins, these the site of the Keaau School operated there in the 1840s. The ocean will come into view through the trees after passing the school, and the trail will end at a flat field near the shoreline bordered by black lava boulders.
Following along a rock wall marked private property will pass hikers by an overgrown World War II concrete bunker partially sunk into the coastline built at a time when Hawaii was under threat of invasion. Finally, the inviting white sands of Haena beach will roll out below, and weary trekkers can ditch their muddy boots and go wade in the tepid bay. It’s a truly relieving sight to see the electric blue water emerge from the jungle, and to feel the cool onshore breeze after sweating in the humid jungle heat for the better part of a morning.
How To Get There:
The trailhead for the Shipman (Haena) Beach Hike begins at the bottom of Kaloli Drive in the neighborhood of Hawaiian Paradise Park – what many locals simply call “HPP”. The neighborhood is located just outside of the town of Keaau in East Hawaii Island, along Highway 130 leading to another small rainswept sugarcane town called Pahoa.
From the highway, take the left turn onto Kaloli Drive and follow it for a few miles until it ends on Beach Road. Then turn left, and there will be a gravel parking lot surrounded by large boulders and reader boards marking the trailhead. These displays have some value information about the hike, advice on safely swimming at the beach and rules for respecting wildlife.
There are no facilities at the trailhead or the beach, so be sure to bring all necessary supplies and, mostly importantly, enough drinking water. There are mainland-style supermarkets in the towns of Pahoa and Keaau, where visitors can stock up on high-energy snacks, sunscreen and see some of the local sights. For hikers arriving at the trailhead in rental cars, it’s smart to bring a second pair of shoes to keep in the car and change into at the end of the muddy trek back from the beach. On a typical day, this hike requires some level of getting dirty!
The gate to the parking lot is usually open during daylight hours, but the posted signs warn that it’s to be locked at 5pm daily. Smart visitors will give themselves enough time for the trek out, a solid hour of relaxing and rejuvenating at the beach, and the trek back well before the cut-off. Hikers have had their vehicles locked in the parking lot before after spending more time on the trail than expected – don’t let this happen to you! It’s smartest to start the hike around 9am or 10am on a clear, breezy day. Fast hikers say they can do each leg in 90 minutes, but it’s better to go slow, cross the muddy parts with care and stop for multiple water breaks.