It’s a “must-see” on everyone’s list. You don’t go to the Big Island and skip Volcanoes National Park. This place has some serious gems and we were fortunate to find a few.
After a day of dodging tour buses brimming with buzzing Japanese tourists while vainly attempting to find some semblance of solitude with which to enjoy the steam vents, lava tubes, and the massive Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, we decided it was time to check out the backcountry. Our friends had told us about a remote white-sand oasis, lined with palm trees and tucked away on a rugged part of the coast, with some of the best snorkeling on the island. We secured our backcountry camping permits and set off on the 8 mile trail.
Within the first 10 minutes of the hike I was transfixed by the beautiful architecture of the hardened lava flows. The sinuous patterns are reminiscent of the linear flow of a glacier through a remote Alaskan valley. Seeming to guide the way, the pāhoehoe (pah-hoy-hoy) lava rock is bordered by the harsh ʻaʻā (ah-ah) rock, leading the hiker along the path of least resistance.
After about a half-hour of hiking on this desert landscape of barren lava rock, the trail turned abruptly and we found ourselves descending toward the ocean through waist-high grass. Bowing in the constant breeze, the grass obscured the uneven trail at times, and completely hid the ahu (Hawai’ian cairns). Five miles of gradual descent later, we could finally see our destination. The temperature continued to rise as we quickened our pace and made our way to the shaded oasis below.
After establishing our beachfront campsite, we spent the next few hours snorkeling in the nearby protected lagoon. Late afternoon set in and we went for a stroll to explore the area and take some pictures of the sunset. That evening we enjoyed some fantastic stargazing in one of the darkest places you can be, complete with shooting stars!
The next morning we awoke before the sun, as had become our norm in Hawai’i. Jillian graciously made the coffee while I ran around taking photos of the dawning day. With caffeine in our veins and beautiful morning light shining upon us, we hiked east along the coast to a rocky point, pausing to admire dozens of tidepools and watch the rock crabs hurriedly scatter when each wave came crashing onto the rough lava rock.
Geared up for a day of snorkeling and exploration, we headed to another white sand cove we’d discovered the previous evening. Here we found much more protected water, and spent the day swimming with dozens of species of tropical fish. Oh, and coconuts. Our breaks from snorkeling consisted of harvesting and snacking on mature coconuts while sipping from our Margarita jug. Solid day.
Thoroughly satisfied with the day, we headed back to camp late in the afternoon. While waiting for the water to boil, the sun dipped below the horizon and kicked off what would become a truly amazing sunset. First came the blinding reds, oranges, and yellows, like staring into a raging bed of coals in the heart of a bonfire. As the sun slipped further below the horizon, the fire began to fade and purples and magentas took over.
The first stars showed themselves behind long wispy fingers of clouds highlighted with the purest pink hues, the kind you only see during those few precious minutes at the beginning and end of each clear day. Finally, the colors faded and the blackness set in, punctuated by ancient, distant light twinkling far above.
The next morning marked our final hours at Halape. This place wouldn’t let us go without yet another unforgettable experience. Walking to check out the sunrise, I saw that a Hawai’ian Monk Seal had taken up residence on the beach. NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources states that “the Hawai’ian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world.” It is estimated that their entire population is comprised of about 1,200 individuals. Only 3-5 individuals are known to frequent the Big Island (Learn more about the Monk Seal). So you can imagine our surprise/delight/curiosity when we realized that one of these endangered creatures had chosen this time and place to shore up! We did our best to sip our coffee and enjoy the sunrise without disturbing our new friend, and by mid-morning we were on our way to ‘Apua Point.
We decided to break up our day by stopping off at Keauhou, not quite the half-way point between Halape and ‘Apua. We hiked down to the water to see what this camping area had to offer and discovered a huge network of pristine reef. The biggest and best snorkeling we’d yet seen. We immediately set down our packs and got in the water. The coral was so vibrant, the fish so numerous, the water so protected. Even after visiting several other renowned snorkeling spots on the island during the rest of our trip, this spot held as hands down the best snorkeling on the Big Island.
Reluctant to leave, but super excited to have experienced such amazing snorkeling, we hit the trail and continued on to ‘Apua. After another 3 miles of hiking over nothing but barren lava rock, we arrived at yet another palm tree-lined oasis. We set up camp and ventured over to the namesake point. Huge waves exploded against the cliffs, sending spray 30 feet inland. We got a bit excited and got a little closer than we should have, when a particularly massive wave hit and we got completely drenched, head to toe. Laughing our way back to camp, we dried off in the afternoon sun, ate more coconuts, and photographed another stunning sunset.
The next morning we woke early (as usual), had some quick coffee and granola, and hit the trail by 8. We had 6.6 miles to go before we got back to the road, though this part of the road was not where we’d left our car. That was a 15 minute drive up the road. We had hoped to hit the road early, get a ride early, and be back at the car before the hottest part of the day hit.
The hike only took us 2 hours, which was great because we finished walking early, but then we waited another 2 hours before a nice Canadian gentleman from New Brunswick picked us up (Thanks Peter!). He couldn’t believe so many people had passed us by (neither could we). Alas, we arrived back at the car around 12:30 pm and promptly headed to the swanky Volcano House for a celebratory beer and to plan our next move.
This concludes part 2 of our trip report. Stay posted for the final installation: more snorkeling, hiking to a green sand beach, and climbing the highest mountain in Hawai’i (13,796′).