Backpacking the volcano coast
Backpacking the volcano coast Hawai’i 2019.
As I was on the trek you are about to read about a familiar reoccurring thought was consistently on my mind; “It is imperative that we respect and cherish our natural world, especially the more fragile and remote environments. The rare and beautiful treasure of nature must be treated with care and love, each action should represent the impact for generations to come. I doing so we show love and respect to ourselves and others.”
I believe that as information and access to our world grows it is vital that each venture into nature is respected and the land is better for each visitor. A gem like the volcano coast is rare and ephemeral and should be treated with care, as should this intense hike. I have no doubt that many people get carried or helicoptered from this trail, do not attempt this if you have no back country experience and are not properly prepared.
There are several routes to access the volcano coast.
My destination was halape beach though there are four total camping areas along the coast, all are exceptional and worth the trip.
I decided to take the keauhou trail from the mauna loa o mauna ulu parking lot as the hilina pali decent was closed due to nene. I highly recommend the route I took for experienced and in shape hikers only, it is 8 miles and approximately 3,000 vertical feet. I am very glad I got to experience the keauhou trail.The longer but flatter coastal trail might serve some hikers better.
Portions of the trial system here are part of a great network of ancient trails that ancient Hawaiians used to travel around the island.
This was one of the most grueling and incredible experiences I have had on the big island of Hawaii. One that I can’t wait to repeat. This is a technical trail that requires preparation,experience and flexibility but offers sweet rewards. As the eruption of 2018 shows, this land is living and is subject to change in an instant. During my first night I awoke to my hammock swinging vigorously when there was no wind, which was soon followed by the disturbing sound of multiple avalanches along the slopes of the large bluffs above the campsite. Many people have lost their lives along the volcano coast, many to tsunami. This is a dangerous place. My route this time required even a little more flexibility, not from the volcano but from nene. The wonderful hawaiian goose was in breeding and access to the trail I expected to ascend and descend was closed miles out. My desitination: Halape beach on the volcano coast in Hawaii volcano’s national park.
I began just before dawn at the mauna loa o mauna ulu parking area and began my descent along a hardened river of lava tinted orange and rose, as if it were flowing again, by the dawn light.
I descended through multiple tiers steadily downwards towards the coast. Each tier had its own unique and special characteristics, I was grateful to take this trail, hard though it was, as it provided the experience of each type of landscape from black lava flow still dusted with cloud, to stands of ohia, steep overlooks and expansive grassland, it descended from a gentle misting rain through the clouds to the clear hot beach. This took some timing and a good pace as the south facing trail has no shade for its entire length. Exposure is a real concern on this trail, every precaution to avoid being in the direct sun for extended period of time Must be taken, there is no shade or water anywhere along this trail. The timing gets even trickier as the trails within the volcano park should Not be attempted at night. This isn’t just a casual rule as I found. With few landmarks and most trails not having much of a footpath but instead being marked by cairns of black rock on top of black lava distinguishing the trail becomes impossible in the black of night. Getting lost out here is a serious concern. I took this seriously and started as soon as there was light enough to follow the cairns and did my best to keep a good pace as the forecast for the day had only scattered clouds and a little breeze. My pack was heavy from all the water and the 3,000 feet of vertical descent over approximately 8 miles was hard on my body and then there was the persistent sun. However I found myself constantly amazed by the views, because of the somewhat gentle decline there were striking expansive views of the whole coast along almost every footstep from beginning to end. It was hard to not go slow and stop often to take in the sights, but I felt the pressure to move forward, to get to the beach, the shade and access to fresh water.
Stepping down through the geological tiers it felt like walking through the rhythms of time, each eruption pushing out a wall of new land which is then covered over by the next eruption. Incredible to walk in such a vibrantly alive piece of mother nature.
Once making the descent to the tier just above the coast line I met with the trail junction which turns either towards keauhou (another oasis along the rocky coast with camping and water access), and farther apua point or over hilina pali bluffs to more beautiful locales as well as down to halape beach. After taking the descending trail and walking another mile the shelter and water tank came into view, a welcome sight as the sun and constant downhill movement was beginning to take a toll.
I rested here, checked the water take, refilled my canister and ate a bite of lunch. I also enjoyed the ‘loo with view’, the composting toilet with a multi-million dollar view. Tsunami warning signs were present everywhere and while the beach and ocean beckoned with open arms the power of the elements was easily felt almost as a lingering scent in the air. Soon I gathered my belongings and strolled to the beach. A multitude of special campsites awaited me with the one set of neighbors being hardly in sight I choose my location and strung up my hammock in the shade for a nap.
Endangered sea turtles nest here and part of the beach is closed to camping for that reason. A magical experience it must be to see turtles crawling their way up this lush coral sand under the moonlight, one that was easy to imagine swaying under dappled light in my hammock. After a nice lunch and quick swim the sun was beginning to set, lighting the sky up in a dazzling array of colors. Sunsets are exceptional along the volcano coast of the big island.
That evening and the next day were spent exploring the area, chatting with the friendly neighbors, swimming in the bay and checking out the incredible shrimp filled brackish ponds.
The brackish ponds can be found in the cleft in the rock along a little pathway reached from the lagoon side of the beach and are absolutely magical, some swim in them I hear but I found sitting and watching the large number of prawns entertaining enough. The water looked clear, clean and fragile.
The days were intensely sunny and hot, I found a siesta schedule worked nicely here. A nice nap in the afternoon during the hottest part of the day allowed for a nice early morning and a late enough night to soak in the absolutely mindblowing stars.
Another blessing of the volcano coast is the coconuts, there were coconuts everywhere, and most of them were truly delicious, so much so that I truly wish that I would have added the weight of a machete to my pack to more easily enjoy this bounty. What a relief after a long sunny hike, fresh coconut water!
I absolutely loved my time exploring the area around the beach, napping, swimming in the fertile waters with living coral, walking barefoot over the black lava and white sands, pounding open coconuts and socializing with my friendly and excellent neighbors. Being awoken by an earthquake in the middle of my first night added to the excitement but also to the contemplation. I found my time at halape to be a little more introspective and philosophical than the image of white sands, coconuts and hammocks might elicit in the imagination. This is living place, one that isn’t afraid to show it’s alive and move with the full power of nature.
My hike out began as my hike in did. I decided instead of trekking along the coast, adding several miles to my journey and hitch hiking back to my car to return the way I came in back up the tiers towards mauna loa o mauna ulu. The hike was slow but was I found truly pleasant after I got into my pace. The sun provided a nice motivation to keep moving and make it to the next tier and soon I found myself back on the incredible raw black lava flow. Returning through the lava flow to my car from the peace of my trip the rapid cycle of tourists arriving, snapping a photo and driving off felt almost foreign even after such a short time under the quiet stars of the beach of dreams, halape.
MSR pocket rocket stove (the classic)
black diamond cosmos headlamp
Temperatures at halape were generally quite hot and swim trunk were often enough during the day, however beginning the trail at mauna ulu in the rain was made vastly more comfortable with a warm jacket to throw over. I use the sherpa nangpala. Also hiking through tall grasses and sharp lava called for good lightweight and breathable pants.
A good wide-brimmed sun hat and long sleeve sun shirt is crucial.
The sun is not your friend on this hike, do everything you can to minimize exposure!
Solid footwear is highly recommended, though I did the journey in these trail running shoes and was very happy except for the lack of protection on the uppers. I would recommend sturdy hiking boots with ankle support/protection.
Things to know before you go
Watch out for falling coconuts, bring a machete if you can to enjoy this bounty.
Plan ahead, use good timing! Be mindful of the su and exposure! Don’t hike at night! Don’t swim when it looks rough! There is a somewhat protected bay at halape as well as a very sheltered lagoon, even still the currents out here are Strong and the hope of rescue should one get stuck is nonexistent. I personally wouldn’t recommend swimming anywhere along the volcano coast.
Bring plenty of water and treat the water from the catchment tank, especially if it hasn’t rained in awhile. At the time of my visit the lit to the tank as well as the spigot at the bottom were broken, one had to crawl on top of the water catchment tank and scoop from the top. Even if the spigot gets fixed I would probably recommend scooping from the top as all the sludge and older water will settle towards the bottom. getting sick from a waterborne illness is the real deal in the tropics and must be taken seriously. Check with the rangers for the current water level in the tanks before embarking. I easily drank 3 liters of water along the hike.
Pay plenty of attention to and follow the rules and tips outlined here. These guidelines are important and worth studying. Each camper must register with a back country permit before hiking. This is a great opportunity to talk to the wonderful park ranger staff, get up to date recommendations and current conditions. They are the experts and can help you get where you are going safely.
Oddly enough there is cell phone reception along the coast. Handy should you run into trouble.
With changes to the park from the eruptions of 2018 as well as shifting conditions things are always changing in Hawaii volcanoes national park. Be sure to check current conditions and plan accordingly.
A permit is required for back country camping in volcano national park. In addition to the park entrance fee there is a 10 dollar non refundable fee per trip. The fee is good for up to 12 people and 7 nights per permit. The permit is picked up in person at the back country office inside the park. I found the rangers to be incredibly helpful and kind, talking to them about current conditions is invaluable however I would recommend planning for this check in time into your agenda, I found it to be wise to acquire my permit the day before I planned on entering the back country so that I could have the extra early start I required for this trip. All information on permitting can be found here.
There is quite alot to see along the volcano coast in the Hawaii Volcanoes ational park. Apua point, keauhou bay, halape, ka’aha, even pepeiao cabin. This is rugged sand open terrain that speaks to a really incredible part of the island of Hawai’i that extracts a price to get to but offers solitude, expansiveness and a truly unique camping experience. I will be back.
Aloha, Safe journeys and remember to always respect the land.