Round Trip Mileage: 3.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Kealakekua Bay is a place of both great natural beauty and historical significance on the Big Island. It's natural beauty is provided by sheer sea cliffs, a crystal-clear bay, and abundant wildlife including Hawaiian spinner dolphins. The historical significance of Kealakekua spans more than a thousand years and includes the site where famed sea explorer Captain James Cook made the first recorded European contact with the Big Island and also later met his death in a bizarre twist of fate. Kealakekua means "the pathway of the god." It's possible to visit the southern end of Kealakekua Bay by car, but the only way to visit the northern end of the bay and the Captain Cook Monument on foot is a moderately strenuous hike. Over three hundred acres of Kealakekua Bay were designated as a Marine Life Conservation District in 1969, and another 180 acres of the land behind the bay were added as a Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Fishing is restricted in much of the bay, resulting in abundant marine life.
Trailhead: On Hwy. 11 south of Kailua-Kona, find Nāpō'opo'o Road or Hwy. 160 near the 111 mile marker. Drive about 500 feet down Nāpō'opo'o Road and park near telephone pole #4, in a small and unmarked pull-off. There is more parking uphill on a wide shoulder. Don't block traffic on the road or block residents' driveways. This isn't really a public parking area, so be sure to respect the people who live here. The surest way to restrict access to places like this is to anger residents by leaving trash, being rude, or creating inconvenient or dangerous driving conditions on the road. If you'd like to visit the southern end of Kealakekua Bay and Hikiau Heiau (see below), follow Nāpō'opo'o Road past the parking area for the hike until you reach an intersection with Middle Ke'ei Road. Stay on Nāpō'opo'o Road and pass a large coffee mill. Stay on the road until you reach a T-intersection where the ocean and a wharf are right in front of you. Hang a right (to the north) and reach Nāpō'opo'o Beach Park. There is an obvious parking lot, limited services, and usually a few small vendors.
Gear: Even though this hike leads to a great spot for snorkeling, you'll want to wear a pair of sturdy boots for the hike down and back. Snorkeling gear is a must, as is some kind of bootie or water shoe to avoid the sea urchins all over the entry points to the bay. Bring lots of water for the hike back up -- don't underestimate how taxing gaining 1300' in direct sun and coastal heat can be on the way back to the trailhead. Except for the very beginning of the hike, almost the entire route is exposed to full sun.
Hike: From the roadside parking area, find an old four-wheel drive road to the right of telephone pole #4. Don't use the private driveway at telephone #5, or any other private driveway in the area. If you're stepping over a chain or ignoring a 'No Trespassing' sign, you're not going the right way. Follow the old road for about one and a half miles until it abruptly turns south and heads for the shore. Along the way, you’ll find eight numbered signs that don’t really correspond to a distance measurement. The beginning of the trail can be very overgrown with grasses and trees. There is one slight switchback along the mostly-straight trail. At this slight switchback, look north for a very eroded heiau (ancient temple). This temple, Puhina o Lono Heiau, is the location where the body of Captain Cook was taken for ritual desecration, which included stripping of the flesh and the separation of major body parts. See below for more information on Captain Cook.
When the road/trail breaks south, follow it all the way to the edge of Kealakekua Bay. If it is near low tide, you'll find a small rectangular plaque that marks the spot where Captain Cook supposedly fell. The plaque is under a gnarled tree in an overgrown area. To find it, follow the direction of the main trail toward the shore. It's just a few feet from the shoreline in a small tidepool.
The large, white obelisk of the Captain Cook memorial isn't apparent when you first reach the bay because the foliage is so dense. From the trail, hike east (toward the cliffs) for less than a tenth of a mile. You'll easily find the obelisk of Captain Cook's memorial at the water's edge. It was erected by Princess Likelike in 1874 and later deeded to the United Kingdom in 1877. The chain around the memorial is supported by four cannon from the HMS Fantome. The chains denote the land that belongs to the United Kingdom. You'll also find a few other memorial plaques and signs placed by Australians, another place where James Cook made the first recorded European contact.
If you choose to swim or snorkel, use extreme caution.
Captain Cook: Although James Cook explored much of the globe, he has become forever intertwined with the history of the Big Island of Hawai'i, both because he made the first recorded European contact there and because he later died there under strange circumstances. After initially making landfall on Kauai in 1778, he later visited the Big Island in 1779 and landed in Kealakekua Bay. (I don't use the word "discovered" because one can't discover a place where people are already living). Captain Cook's arrival at Kealakekua coincidentally aligned with several aspects of the Hawaiian religion. He arrived during the festival of Makahiki, dedicated to the harvest season and the god Lono. Several shapes of his ship and the fact that he traveled clockwise around the island were other coincidences that fit with traditional Hawaiian religion. Although it is not proven, there is evidence that the Hawaiians may have initially deified Cook as the god Lono. Whether or not that is true, when Cook returned to Hawai'i after the festival of Makahiki to repair damage to his ship, some petty theft by Hawaiians prompted Cook to attempt to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu-a-Kaiamamao, King of the Island, for ransom. When this attempt failed and a skirmish ensued in Kealakekua Bay, Cook died at the hands of the Hawaiians at the bay's edge. They took his body to Puhina o Lono for ritual stripping of flesh and cleaning of bones.
Pali Kapu o KeōuaPali Kapu O Keōua: The "forbidden cliffs of Keōua" are the scenic sea cliffs behind Kealakekua Bay. Historically, the bones of chiefs, kings, and other persons of importance were interred in small caves along these steep cliffs. The ancient Hawaiians feared theft of dead ancestors, so these steep and dangerous cliffs offered a perfect way to protect them. They would lower honored suicide volunteers on ropes over the edge of the cliffs from above to hide the bones, and then cut the ropes to ensure utmost secrecy. The creation of these cliffs is also fascinating. An extremely large piece of the island cleaved off and slid into the sea as a whole creating the bay, the cliffs, and also a large tsunami that hit neighboring islands.
Ka'awaloa Village: The ruins of this ancient village surround the northern portion of Kealakekua Bay. This overgrown ancient site contains many significant ruins, including several heiau (temples). Ka'awaloa means "the distant Kava," referring to a plant used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. If you choose to explore this area, be sure to tread lightly and leave no trace. Stay off the walls of ancient sites.
Nāpō'opo'o Beach Park and Hikiau Heiau: This beach park is at the end of Nāpō'opo'o Road (find directions above in "Getting to the Trailhead"). Although this beach and nearby Manini Beach were severely degraded by Hurricane Iniki, it's still a great place to visit and a decent place to swim. Hikiau Heiau (literally "moving current") is a very well-preserved ancient temple near the bay. It is also the site of the first Christian service on the island, where Captain Cook performed burial rites for a fallen crewmember in 1779. Hikiau Heiau was a luakini temple (for the purpose of human sacrifice). Stay out of the heiau and off of its walls.