Editorial: Venture Big Island

A detailed guide to the Captain Cook hike at Kealakekua Bay

Staff Writer Trixie Croad
Photos Trixie Croad

A group of snorkelers in the ocean

If you’re like me, one of many reasons you find yourself attending UH Hilo is a connection to nature. This beautiful and diverse island has so much natural splendor, and to get amongst the flora and fauna, the waves, or to feel the rush of the river brings a sense of replenishment - washing away the stress of the week gone by, and resetting for the week to come. Exploring this island over the four years I have lived and studied here has become a weekend spiritual ritual for me.

This is why it blows my mind to overhear the conversations of those who have just arrived on the island saying, “There is nothing to do here.” It is true that most of my best experiences were discovered through word of mouth, so I can see how, at first glance, the adventure- beyond a white sand Kona beach- can be hard to see. This is why today I am the mouth, and these are the words that will hopefully will someone fall in love with this island as much as I have.

This adventure begins in the town of Captain Cook in the South Kona district. This may be a trek for many, but if you can find four wheels and a few friends, I promise you will not be disappointed. To get to Captain Cook, the fastest route is over Saddle Road, then a left once you reach the fork on the Kona side, and another left once you get to Highway 11. If you feel like taking the scenic route, which takes a bit longer, you can drive south from Hilo, through Volcano and along the south coast. Google maps puts these routes at two and two and a half hours, respectively.

Once you make it to Captain Cook, find the turnoff to Highway 160, Napoopoo Rd. near mile marker 111. Only a few hundred feet from the turnoff, you can park on the side of the road near the trailhead.

The trailhead will be on the right hand side of the road. You will know you are there if you see the sign for Kaʻawaloa Trail with a list of warnings. Head down this trail 3.8 miles, at which point you will reach the shore of Kealakekua Bay. The trail is marked with quarter-mile markers from one through eight throughout, so look out for these to know how far you have to go.

Once at the bay, straight ahead of the trail on the rocky shore is an “X” carved white into the black lava rock. This is supposedly the spot where British explorer Captain James Cook was killed by local Hawaiians in 1779. There is also a plaque (usually under water) near this spot stating the same thing.

If you head left at the end of the trail, after 50 feet or so you will find the Captain Cook Monument, which was erected by the Australian military in honor of Cook who supposedly “discovered” these islands (although I think the native Hawaiians who lived here for centuries before would beg to differ).

a school of fish in a coral reef

The small concrete jetty from the monument is the perfect jumping off point to the snorkelling spot of your dreams. The reef is teeming with tropical fish of all shapes, sizes and colors, and if you’re lucky a tako (octopus) or two. If you are a really early riser, there are often dolphins spotted in this bay, usually around 10 a.m. or so. You are especially lucky if you manage to miss the boat-fulls of tour groups, as only a few people each day actually make the trek by land, so you will have the reef mostly to yourself. The concrete jetty is also the perfect place to lay out your towel for a nap or to eat your packed lunch, refuelling you for the steep hike back up to the road.

The whole trip should take four to five hours, depending on how long you spend snorkeling and lounging at the bay. Allow almost double the time you took to get down for the way back up, don’t underestimate how steep the climb is, and be sure to take regular breaks in the shade. This hike is a great way to get outdoors and explore some of the island, see an incredible variety of wildlife, and visit a historical landmark in both Hawaiʻi and the Pacific’s colonial history.

Some things to remember…

  • make sure you have enough water and bring some food. There is no drinking water available at any point during the hike, so ensure you have enough for the time you will be out there.
  • Be aware Kona side is dry and hot. Be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, etc. Avoid reapplying your sunscreen when you reach the bay and opt for a shirt for protection instead. These fish get hundreds of tourists visiting a week, and the sunscreen they leave behind can damage the ecosystem of the reef.
  • Bring a snorkel and mask. If fins are too much to carry, these aren't really necessary because the reef is not very large.
  • Wear sturdy shoes. A lot of the trail is lava rock and is steep in places. Your feet will not be happy with you if you opt for your flimsy Old Navy slippers.
  • While snorkelling, avoid touching the reef. If you can’t stay afloat very long, bring a floatation device, the coral is delicate and there is nowhere rocky to stand while snorkelling. Also be cautious getting out not to step on any wildlife.
  • Be respectful of what mother nature provides. Take only pictures and leave only footsteps but otherwise, have fun! And enjoy the great outdoors this beautiful island has to offer.