Ka'aha (Big Island, Hawaii) - June 22, 2010

My first hike on the Big Island of Hawaii turned out to be one of the hottest trails I ever did. If it wasn't for the constant presence of tradewinds, Mark and I probably would've passed out along the 8-mile round trip route. Aside from several ohia trees and lava tubes, the trail offers no shade at all except for the Ka'aha shelter along the coast. Although the route is hot, it still left me in awe of the desolate landscape. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing: no houses, no buildings, and not one person in sight. To some people on the Big Island, a vast area of undeveloped land, as exemplified on the Ka'aha trail, is nothing new, but for me, being born and raised on populous Oahu, the sights were new, and the feeling was surreal.

Upon arriving on the Big Island, Mark and I had an ideal place to stay during our visit. Mark's father resides in quaint home in the town of Volcano, just a three minute drive from the entrance of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, an area where we planned to do all of our hikes. The park attracts visitors from around the world. With a fee of $10, one can view volcanic sites, museums, and hike the many trails that exist around the massive park. Lucky for us, Mark's dad let us use his car that had a sticker on the front windshield that allowed us free access into the park. The sticker is primarily used to pick up Mark's father's mail in his P.O. Box on the park grounds, but roaming elsewhere is prohibited. But that didn't stop us from accessing the trailheads. What more could we have asked for? No rental car fee, no hotel fee, no park fee, and free home-cooked meals: it couldn't have been any better.

To get to the Ka'aha trailhead enter into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Take Chain of Craters Road and head south. Turn right on Hilina Pali Road and follow the road to its end and park in the parking lot. Walk towards the covered picnic shelter. Look towards the ocean's horizon and follow the trail leading to the edge of the pali (cliff).

The trail begins to make a long descent on a number of switchbacks. The view along the switchbacks is incredible. It is advisable to watch your footing along the switchbacks because much of the descent is along sharp and loose lava rock. A few ohia trees provide shade along the way.

Once at the bottom of the pali, the trail reaches a signed junction. Take the right junction signed the Ka'aha trail. From this point on the trail is level, passing several small lava tubes that come into view sporadically. These lava tubes are the only natural shade along the dry and barren landscape.

The view of the ocean gets closer with every step. Eventually the Ka'aha shelter is reached. It is the only man-made shade along the coast. The shelter is three-sided with a water catchment system in back. The water in the catchment system should be treated before drinking. There are also two pit toilets near the shelter. Inside the shelter is a log book of other hikers that have made the trek as well, some that have taken our route and and some that have taken the backpack route from the Ka'au Desert trail. The earliest logs date back to 2003, and the most recent log before us was a month prior.

From the shelter we made our way to our destination: Ka'aha Cove, a large, shallow cove protected by the rough, windswept waves breaking just outside of the reef shelf. The cove harbors an abundant variety of reef fish and eels. We actually spotted a couple of eels basking in the extremely shallow waters, only to be startled by our presence, swimming swiftly to deeper water and out of sight. Because of the eels, Mark and I decided not to swim in the cove. Instead we headed half-a-mile southwest along the coast to explore the reef and its surroundings. The contrast of green vegetation growing on top of lava rock was an awesome sight. We could hear the sound of waves crashing against the reef shelf, and the salt water mist gently coated our skin making for a cooling effect in the blazing sun. We stopped at a certain point and returned to the shelter to have lunch and begin our debate on when to leave.

It was 11am. Mark wanted to head back to our car in the scorching midday sun. I tried to sway him into leaving around 2pm, when the sun was less intense, but he insisted we leave earlier so we wouldn't waste our day and have enough time to do something else when we got home. Keep in mind that it was the second longest day of the year, the sun would be over our heads longer than any other time of the year, there was no cloud cover, there was virtually no shade on the way back, and we had to ascend the pali along the switchbacks in the blazing sun: suicide! But Mark thought of it to be an addition to our already scalding adventure, something we could tell our children in the future, that we had opted opted to hike in the midday summer sun along a lava desert on the Big Island.

The hike back was brutal. What I thought had been level coming down was actually a gradual ascent. My head started pounding, my hydration pack was emptying at an alarming rate, and the sun showed no mercy. We stopped at the several lava tubes to cool off and dry our skin. Also, the lava tubes actually had a cool breeze: kind of like natural air-conditioning.

We reached the base of the pali about an hour-an-a-half from the shelter. By now the sun was at its peak, directly above our heads. A lone ohia tree off the trail provided another rest spot with some shade, and the rest was needed for the ascent up Hilina Pali's switchbacks. As we ascended sweat poured out of every inch of my body. I could hear and feel the beat of my heart in my head, and my water was getting warmer. What took 45 minutes to go down at the beginning of the hike took us an hour-and-a-half to go back up. Once at the top of the pali, the picnic shelter at the trailhead was a sight for sore eyes and body.

A typical 8-mile hike usually takes about five or six hours to complete; Ka'aha took us seven hours. Although it's not entirely difficult, the heat is a major factor in lengthening the total hike time. It is definitely not a trail to take lightly, and I highly recommend doing the trail in winter. The summer heat in this area is ridiculous. Water is another factor. I had three liters in my hydration pack, an extra 1.5 liters in a bottle, and two small water bottles. At the end of the hike I only had about half a liter left. With that said, bring lots of water. Another important thing to know about hiking on trails similar to Ka'aha is to follow ahu (cairns). Ahu is a pyramidal rock pile used to mark the trail because there is no vegetation to tie ribbons to and the trail is sometimes hard to distinguish, so keeping an eye out for ahu is essential. If there is ever a time I'll do the trail again, it'll be from the Ka'u Desert backpack route, and it'll be in the winter. Other than that, June 22nd, 2010 will be the last time I ever set foot on the Ka'aha dayhike trail. It's unbelievably torrid.

Checking out the view from atop Hilina Pali.  (photo: M. Seto)

Looking back at Hilina Pali.

On our way to the coast.

Almost there.

The view along the coast near the Ka'aha shelter looking towards Apua Point.

Cooling off at the Ka'aha shelter, the only real shade along the entire trail.

Exploring further down the coast.