“Leave only footprints.” This cliché becomes fact when visiting the Hawaiian Islands. It is known to be bad, bad luck to remove any rock, shell, or grain of sand (just ask the post office who receives packages from mainlanders mailing back whatever “stolen” goods they took off the island). I remember hearing about this on my first trip to Hawaii a little over 15 years ago. My family was at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island hoping to check out the lava flow at Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and I’m sure you heard about the major eruption last year.
HIKING THE BIG ISLAND
The day had been spent exploring and we had completed the Kilauea Iki Crater hike and wanted to end with the Big Island’s main attraction – active lava. As nature is often unpredictable, we arrived at the flow site to learn it would be an additional two-mile hike to see the lava. It was August, in the middle of the day, and the sun was showing no mercy. We walked over jagged, black rocks with no shade- what I imagine the moon looks like, except it was hot… made hotter by the fact that we were literally looking for active lava. Why couldn’t it have been white sand dunes? We made it out there and witnessed a natural phenomenon: land being formed.
After the excitement of this wore off, the realization of walking back to the car under the beating sun set in. During the walk back I took a pretty bad spill, cutting my knee. I was left wondering what I did to anger Hawaiian fire goddess, Pele, who is known to be present at active lava sites, as she is the one to cause the eruptions.
Over time, I have come to embrace this scar; it is like carrying a piece of the island with me. The Big Island has become a second home to my family, and, despite my first experience with hiking there, I have come to do many more of the beautiful hikes the Big Island has to offer (with no accidents… knock on wood). Below are some of my favorites I look forward to doing every time I visit.
KILAUEA LKI CRATER AND VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Despite my above “incident”, I still love Volcanoes National Park. Even though this hike is currently closed due to the eruption of Kilauea last year, it has always been one of my favorites to do when visiting. Just to clarify: yes, you are actually going to be walking through the crater. When you arrive at the starting point, the descent into the crater looks steep, the distance across looks far and it comes off as a little intimidating. However, it’s not as bad as it seems. You start by entering the forested part which takes you down a winding path that opens onto the crater.
When you emerge, it feels as if you have landed on the moon. It is really a great place to let your imagination take over. Even though it is flat, there is no shade (remember you’re in a crater) and the terrain is rocky and uneven, so it is important to watch your step and to wear sturdy shoes. When you make it to the other side, begin the trail up that will take you back through the rain forest. This portion of the hike is what I found to be the most challenging, as it is uphill and can be steep at certain points. This hike is approximately four miles and should take about two to three hours to complete. I would say it is moderately difficult.
GREEN SAND BEACH OR “PAPAKÕLEA”
In the southernmost tip of the U.S, you will find one of four green sand beaches in the entire world. The Hawaiians refer to this beach as “Papakōlea”, and everyone too scared to attempt to pronounce that calls it “Green Sand Beach” (so creative). However, reaching the beach is not free. You either have to actually work for it by doing the hike or opt to pay one of those guys with the big jeeps to drive you there (hustlers trying to make those dollars are really everywhere).
If you decide to hike, be ready for about two and a half miles each way amongst sand dunes, along with the ocean. It is relatively flat, but the terrain is often uneven. The wind might be strong and it might feel like it’s working against you, and you might not have realized how long two and a half miles could feel. You might learn how much it hurts to get pelted with sand (goggles to protect your eyes honestly isn’t a bad idea here), and you’ll definitely wonder why you didn’t just pay for a ride from the big jeep guys… keep trucking because the prize is so worth it. It also always makes it that much better knowing you earned the view.
When you reach the beach and see the green sand amongst the black cliffs, and the crystal clear water it will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before, unless of course, you’ve actually been to one of the other three green sand beaches. Do the extra little bit of the hike (literally, two minutes down) to actually get to the beach so that you can say you dipped your toes into some green sand. Some people even make a beach day out of it. The way back is much better as the wind is now working in your favour. I would say this hike is moderate and can be more strenuous depending on the wind.
Once you finally make it back to your car, and if you’re feeling adventurous, cool off by doing the cliff dive down the road from the green beach, back towards the highway. Or just get an Instagram pic at the cliff dive so you can location tag “the southernmost tip of the U.S.A.”
Makalawena is one of those perfect Big Island beaches with crystal clear blue water you most likely think of when someone says “Hawaii.” In order to reach it, you need to do some walking (it amazes me how often this deters crowds). There are two trailheads that take you to Makalawena. I did the one from mile marker 90 off highway 19. Follow signs for Kekaha Kai Beach. You’ll drive down a paved road to a parking lot. If your vehicle is the only 2WD, park here. If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can continue a bit farther over some rough terrain to reach a closer parking lot.
When you get out of the car, you’ll be at Kekaha Kai Beach which is where most people choose to stay. Trust me, this beach, even though it’s in Hawaii, is very, for lack of a better word, lame. Makalawena is infinitely nicer and doing the two-mile trek there is worth it.
Even though you’re headed to the beach, you will be walking over lava rocks so wear sturdy shoes and leave your flip flops in your bag until you arrive. Eventually, you’ll hit some sand dunes which means you’ve almost made it. Just follow the ocean until you reach what is the perfect beach – a horseshoe of white sand and sparkling turquoise water. Your reward for this one is a beautiful beach day. I would say Makalawena is relatively easy, just watch your step on the lava rocks.
Kiholo Bay is a series of protected tide pools amongst a beautiful bay. It has gorgeous stretches of beach and is one of the best places to spot honu, or Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. It has become a more popular hike so, as you approach mile marker 82 off Highway 19, you’ll probably see some other cars parked there.
The trail is a bit hard to spot, but walk over the lava rocks towards the trees (if you haven’t noticed by now, lava rocks are a big part of Big Island hiking). Once you make it to the trees, you’ll walk through a forested area and you might see some local wildlife in the form of goats! Not the most exciting, but they’re very cute. Eventually, the path will open up to the beach. From here, you can walk for as long as your heart desires along the coast, passing some pretty impressive beachfront properties, #goals.
My personal favorite is the “Bali House”, you’ll know it when you see it. You’ll also walk past the mansion of Wilson Greatbatch, the man who invented the Pacemaker – I’m still waiting for my million dollar idea to come to me. Once you pass the Bali House, keep your eyes open for another hidden gem: the Queens Bath.
The Queens Bath is a lava tube filled with fresh water. It can be hard to spot and I completely missed it the first time I did the Kiholo Bay hike. If you want to take a dip, try to get as much sunscreen off your body as possible to preserve the water inside. The water is super cold; don’t say I didn’t warn you if you decide to jump right in. Kiholo Bay is a relatively easy hike by Big Island standards and, once you hit the beach portion, you can go on for as long or as short as you want.
The way I like to describe Pololū is “short but steep.” The entire hike is only about two-and-a-quarter miles (yes, round trip), but the incline is real. I couldn’t tell you if it is worse going up or down. It makes you appreciate the idea of using a walking stick for a two-and-a-quarter-mile, round trip hike. Usually, when it comes to hiking, you are ascending to the top. With Pololū, you are descending to a gorgeous valley and a black sand beach. Reaching the bottom (and knowing what you’ll have to do to get back up) is almost the ultimate payoff.
I would have to say heading back into the town of Hawi, after completing this hike and having lunch at Sushi Rocks and ice cream from Tropical Dreams (hello toasted coconut) is actually the real payoff (no offence to the views). Pololū is probably the most challenging of the Big Island hikes listed here because of the sharp incline.
The Big Island offers many other stunning hikes, these just happen to be my favorites. Appreciate the beauty through observation, photographs, and memories- unless you want to literally test your luck (I wouldn’t). And, as always, be prepared and watch your step – you don’t want to learn the hard way as I did.
We hope that this article has inspired you to hike in Hawaii. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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We Are Travel Girls Contributor Kim Fenster
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