Kekaha Kai State Park
Round Trip Mileage: 8.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 350 feet
Kekaha Kai State Park is a large and relatively undeveloped beach park north of Kailua-Kona. Formerly known as Kona Coast State Park, the name Kekaha Kai comes from the Hawaiian phrase ke kaha kai, meaning "the shore line." This state park has some of the best beaches on the island. The long tour of Kekaha described below allows you to visit three world-class beaches, a black sand beach, two ponds, and also climb a 342 foot high pu'u (cinder cone). This is a long hike and a way to visit the entire Park in one big push, but it's possible to visit these locations individually. See our other pages on Makalawena Beach, Makole'a Black Sand Beach, and Pu'u Ku'ili to visit those spots on their own. You can also simply drive to Kua Bay and Mahai'ula Bay. Kekaha Kai State Park is open 8am - 7pm every day except Wednesdays.
Trailheads: All three trailheads are between mile markers 88 and 91 on Hwy. 19 north of Kailua-Kona.
Trailhead #1 (Kua Bay): Take Hwy. 19 north of Kailua-Kona and Kona International Airport. The paved road to Kua bay is between mile markers 88 and 89, closer to mile marker 88. Follow this paved road for 1.2 miles until it ends at a parking area. The turn is signed. There are restrooms and picnic tables behind the beach. There is no water available.
Trailhead #2 (Makalawena Beach): Take Hwy. 19 north of Kailua-Kona and Kona International Airport. The dirt road to Makalawena Beach is located just south of the paved road to Kua Bay, between mile markers 88 and 89. 2WD vehicles can park just off of the highway before the road begins to get rough. 4WD vehicles can continue for 1.6 miles of very rough road to a gate and small parking area just north of Makalawena Beach. There are no services of any kind at either trailhead.
Trailhead #3 (Mahai'ula Bay): Take Hwy. 19 north of Kailua-Kona and Kona International Airport. Find the road to Mahai'ula Bay between the 90 and 91 mile markers. There are restrooms and picnic tables at this trailhead. There is no water.
Gear: Standard gear for a long hike. Bring plenty of water and sun protection. The trail is rough and rocky, so wear your boots.
Hike: Although you can obviously visit Kekaha Kai in several ways with several trailheads, this hike allows you to visit every major beach and sight in Kekaha Kai from a paved road trailhead. In over eight miles, you'll visit three world-class beaches, two inland ponds, the only black sand beach in the Kona area, and climb a shoreside cinder cone for commanding views of the entire area. Begin this hike at the parking area for Kua Bay, referred to as Trailhead #1 above. Refer to the topo map while reading the directions below. It's possible to do this hike in the reverse.
Kua Bay: Simply walk a few hundred yards down the paved road to access Kua Bay. Kua Bay is also known as Manini'owali beach. Kua Bay has easy access and beautiful white sand so it can be pretty popular on weekends. If you're using this hike to do the Kekaha beach tour, you might want to take a dip here earlier in the day to avoid crowds. Or, you could save a dip here as the cherry on top of a long day of hiking. Either way, make your way to the southern end of Kua Bay and find the Ala Kahakai, the ancient shoreline trail, which will take you to Makalawena beach. The trail is difficult to follow at times, but you can usually safely hike just above the ocean. Keep an eye on the ocean as you hike here and watch out for rogue waves. Pass Kahoiawa Bay that has some nice tidepools and continue on the Ala Kahakai. Near Awakee Bay, the trail will intersect the 4WD road for Makalawena beach. Walk the 4WD road until it ends at the southern end of Awakee Bay at a gate and parking area. This is Makalawena beach. It's 1.8 miles from Kua Bay to the gate.
Makalawena Beach: From the gate, it's about a quarter-mile to the center of Makalawena Beach. It's really tough to find a more perfect beach anywhere in the Hawaiian island chain. Swimming is usually pretty safe when waters are calm. The land behind Makalawena is private, so stay near the beach. The most northerly bay has a protected spot that's very calm. ʻŌpaeʻula Pond is behind Makalawena and its twelve acres are a National Natural Landmark that protects nesting and breeding areas for some native Hawaiian birds. It's surrounded by private property, so stay out. Decide whether or not you want a swim at Makalawena, then walk south and find some large sand dunes covered with pōhuehue, beach morning glories. At the north end of the dunes, you'll find another small brackish pond in a small stand of palm trees. It's a small and delicate ecosystem, so stay out of the water. The trail travels through the high dunes until it crosses a rough ʻaʻā lava field with big views all around. Arrive at Mahai'ula beach after 0.8 mile from the center of Makalawena.
Mahai'ula Beach: Another stunning beach landscape appears after the hike through the lava devastation. An amazing set of white sand bays backed by high palm trees make the scene at Mahai'ula. Swimming is usually pretty safe when the surf isn't too rough. It's possible to drive to this beach by following the directions to Trailhead #3 above. There are picnic tables and restrooms, but no water available. After visiting Mahai'ula, walk to the southern end of the beach and find a trail heading to the parking at Trailhead #3. From this parking area, you can continue south to Makolea'a black sand beach. Technically, this is the end of Kekaha Kai State Park.
Makole'a Black Sand Beach: A black sand beach near Kona? Admittedly, Makole'a beach is much more of a novelty beach than a primo swimming spot (especially compared to the beaches above) because it's the only black sand beach in the region. The small black sand beach north of Makole'a point is only about 40 feet wide and has a steep slope. It's often quite rough. To get here from the parking area for Trailhead #3, find a four-way intersection of dirt roads near the parking area. You want to take the continuation of the main road from the highway that heads toward the sea (west). Near the sea, find an extremely rough 4WD road/trail marked with white spray paint over rough lava. Hike 0.6 miles along the coast until you find Makole'a Black Sand Beach. This is the halfway point of the hike. Retrace your steps all the way back to Makalawena beach. After hiking past the gate on the north end of Makalawena where 4WD vehicles park, don't get back on the Ala Kahakai coastal trail that you took earlier from Kua Bay. Instead, stay on the rough 4WD road that would eventually take you back to Trailhead #2. Halfway back to the highway, you'll pass a faint trail that traverses around the western side of Pu'u Ku'ili. Leave the 4WD road and get on this faint trail.
Pu'u Ku'ili: This 342 foot cinder cone between Kua Bay and Makalawena beach offers an incredible view of the entirety of Kekaha Kai State Park. After you leave the 4WD road from Makalawena beach, hike the faint trail that traverses the western side of Pu'u Ku'ili. The loose trail traverses the cinder cone toward a small saddle between the two summits. Find another faint trail that climbs steeply toward the 342 foot summi. Enjoy the views. To descend, find a faint trail that leads directly west from the summit toward the paved road to Kua Bay and Trailhead #1. Hike down to the paved road and follow it back to where you parked. A swim in Kua Bay to end the day?