Friday, March 19, 1999

Kaaha-Halape Backpack Trip (1999)

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 22:25:32 -1000
From: Dayle K. Turner (>
Subject: Ka`aha-Halape Backpack Trip Report 

If the dictionary folks ever need a picture to help define the word "beautiful," a snapshot of one of the camp spots along the Puna/Ka'u Coast in Volcanoes National Park on the the Big Island will suit their needs nicely. Pat Rorie and I had a chance to visit several beautiful spots along this coast on a recent backpack trip and what follows is a narrative of how things went.

We arrived in Hilo on Tuesday morning (3/23) and after stops for supplies (Walmart) and a camping permit (VNP Visitor Center), we were trailbound at the end of Hilina Pali Road, a narrow, winding, nine-mile thoroughfare that stems off of Chain of Craters Road.

About 11:15, we trudged off from our rental station wagon southwest on the Ka'u Desert Trail. Initially, the hiking was easy since the trail descended gently through old lava fields covered with grass and dotted occasionally with Ohia trees. The day was warm and clear, and we could see the Ka'u Coast spread before us to the left and massive Mauna Loa to the right.

After hiking 4.8 miles (the Park Service provides ample signage at trail junctions and a nice backcountry map with point-to-point mileages), we made a short lunch stop at Pepeiao Cabin. Actually, the cabin is off-limits because of a "toxic chemical spill" (or so said a sign next to the cabin), but we checked out the structure anyway to sate our curiosity. We also ate lunch in the shade in front of the cabin before continuing to hike.

The next leg had us descend toward the coast for two-plus miles to the southeast on the Ka`aha Trail. This stretch was all downhill, some of it over rough sections of lava that had us watching our footing constantly to avoid an ankle turn or fall. The descent terminated at the shoreline at a sandy-brown pu'u called "Hills of the Old Men" (Napu`uona`elemakule). I'm not sure why it's named this but small head-shaped dirt mounds pepper the pu'u, each mound with a tuft of grass that looks like hair. Maybe ancient Hawaiians thought these mounds resembled the heads of old men, hence the naming.

While taking a break at Hills of the Old Men, Pat and I snapped some shots of the area, including several of an impressive sea arch. We then continued northeast along the shoreline for a half mile, exploring tide pools, admiring the sea cliffs, and just enjoying the day.

After the seaside exploration, we veered inland to continue along the ahu-marked trail (ahu are rock piles) for three-plus miles to the Ka`aha Shelter. Because of the heat of the day and the endless parade of small undulations in the pahoehoe fields, this segment was a grit-your-teeth grind. At the shelter were a handful of other backpackers who planned to spend the night at Ka`aha. We exchanged greetings with them, made small talk, and then bid them well as they marched down the trail toward the shoreline in search of campsites. After replenishing our water supply at the shelter, Pat and I set out toward the shore to find a site for ourselves.

At an elevated spot maybe 20 to 30 meters from the water's edge, we found a fairly level site amongst thick clumps of Naupaka Kahakai. This wasn't a frequently used location but a low wall of stones indicated that someone had camped at the spot prior. Brisk trades from the northeast made tent set-up a challenge, but in due time we had our shelters up and anchored adequately.

While setting up, it was hard not to notice the wild beauty of Ka`aha. A small cove opened up to the ocean near where we were camped, and the rays of the setting sun bathed its waters and the shoreline landscape a pretty orange tint. The other campers had found sites about a hundred meters to the east across the cove, and several were exploring tidepools while powerful walls of whitewater crashed onto the lava-strewn coast.

For me, dinner was add-boiling-water Cheese Enchilada Ranchero (rated a 5 on a scale of 10), a couple of English muffins, and two liters of Crystal Lite fruit punch. I can't recall what Pat ate, but it was also of the add-boiling-water ilk.

Tired from the eleven-mile hike, I was in my tent and asleep by 8:30. Considering the substandard backpack mattress I'd brought along (an accordion-like thing called a Z-Rest), I had a restful night and awoke at 6 the next morning ready for another day on the trail.


We decided not to linger at Ka`aha, and after a quick breakfast, we packed up, resupplied H20 at the shelter, and were off on the 6.2 mile segment to Halape, a spot as beautiful as Ka`aha but with more opportunities for activities and exploration.

The hike to Halape took 2.5 hours, with the three-mile stretch that skirts Pu'u Kapukapu needing some trail maintenance. By late morning, we were at the Halape Shelter, where we filled our water bottles and scanned the coconut tree-lined shoreline for other campers. We spotted several, most who had set up at sites to the far left (east) side of the camping area.

Pat and I deposited our gear at the westernmost campsite, and then walked west down the shoreline toward Halape Iki (Little Halape), hoping that no one was camped there. If so, we'd retrieve our gear and claim Iki as our home for the next two days. Prior to setting out for Iki, we saw a group of six heading west. Were they camped at Iki or just wandering down the coast to explore? We'd find out shortly.

The distance from the Halape camping area to Halape Iki is about a quarter mile, and there are white stones atop the shoreside lava bench to indicate the best line to make one's way to Iki. Along the way on the right are a couple very nice brackish pools that can be used to rinse off, swim, or just relax. Pat and I paid a visit to the biggest of these pools the next day.

Before that, though, we had to find ourselves a camping spot. As it turned out, Halape Iki was ours for the taking since none of the ten people there when we arrived were camped at the site. I should add that four of the ten were traipsing around without clothes. Well, I should correct myself. One woman was wearing a bikini bottom but nothing else while three of her companions (another woman and two guys) had nary a stitch on. The other six wore traditional beach attire--shorts, swimsuits, etc.--but the four clotheless ones commanded much more attention.

When I announced our intention to camp at Iki, one of the nudist guys protested/pleaded that we have some compassion and share the shady clearing under the Milo grove. "We're kind of using it as a hangout when we're not swimming," said Mr. Nude, who bore a resemblance, facially and bodily, to the pro golfer, Craig Stadler, aka "The Walrus."

With an understanding of the strategic value of the shady spot under the Milo, Pat and I retrieved our gear from the Halape camping area, returned to Iki, and just hung out under nearby trees until the nudist foursome and the traditional six had had enough swimming and shade-dwelling and had departed. While waiting, I took a dip to cool off, and Pat followed suit not long after. He had brought along snorkel and mask and did some exploring of the nearshore waters.

With the coast clear (literally), we staked out spots in the Milo grove, Pat occupying the primo spot in the shade and I one nearby. After getting my tent up, I continued west down the boulder-lined coast in search of opihi to supplement my evening meal. Within 100 meters of our campsite, I had gathered a couple dozen half-dollar-sized specimens, using a plastic baking spatula as my opihi-scraping tool. The fact that the waves were small and it was low tide at the time made gathering low-risk.

For my evening meal, as an appetizer I had opihi/cucumber/onion soup and a 1-lb. bag of poi, (Pat sampled the soup and liked it but passed on the poi), and for a main course had some add-water cheesey-pasta thing.

After dinner, we stretched out in a sandy clearing near our tents and checked out the night sky, spotting heavenly features such Orion, Gemini, the Seven Sisters, the Big Dipper, and the Star of Gladness (Hokulea). It was a gorgeous night, to say the least.


Having prepped my fishing gear before dinner the night prior, I was up at 6 a.m. to try my luck. I did catch a handful of opala (rubbish) fish (sand gobies) but no omilu (a kind of papio) or anything else fit to plop into a frying pan (I had packed a bit of cooking oil for such an occasion). I did have a backup meal plan though--namely a can of pink salmon, half a round onion, and some poi. This I chowed on later for a mid-afternoon pre-dinner snack.

Prior to that, Pat and I hiked east 1.6 miles to Keauhou, another splendid camping area that features a lovely cove for snorkeling. As we neared Keauhou, we explored some lava tubes makai of the trail. We found some bones in one, probably of an animal, but we didn't hang around long enough to inspect the remains more closely to ascertain that for sure.

Once at Keauhou, Pat spent a bunch of time snorkeling and reported seeing a phenomenal array of fish. Meanwhile, I just waded and swam while watching a group of four surfboard-toting teens fishing (perhaps illegally) nearby (a sign at the midway point between Keauhou and Halape warns that fishing from Keauhou to Kalapana is restricted to only native Hawaiians from Kalapana).

On the way back, we found some nice shaded campsites along the shore at Keauhou and made mental note of these for future trips. We walked along the rocky, windswept coast for a while then veered inland to pick up the trail heading back to Halape. On the way to Iki, we stopped at the biggest of Halape's brackish pools and spent 30 minutes enjoying its warm, relaxing water. Because of mineral deposits (I think), the rocks in the pool are tinged greenish-blue, making for some colorful, interesting snapshots. There's also a large tree next to the pool, well-situated for resting and lounging if the sun is beating down.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we returned to our campsite at Iki, and we spent the time napping and waiting for the arrival of a group of friends from the HTMC who were supposed to be hiking in to Halape after arriving from Oahu in the morning. However, by six, they hadn't arrived and we reckoned they had made a change in their plan and were either spending the night at Keauhou or Ka`aha, the former more likely.

Pat and I were bummed our friends hadn't arrived since we were looking forward to their company. But we made the best of it and spent time after dinner talking story and gazing at the night sky. We also talked about our plan for the next day. If our friends had come in, we had planned to hang out at Halape till mid-day on Friday and then hike out to Hilina Pali so we could catch a late flight to Honolulu that night. But since they hadn't arrived, we tossed around the idea of heading out of Halape much earlier. Whatever the case, we'd decide the next morning.


For me, the final morning of a backpacking trip is a downer because it marks the end. On our final morning at Halape, Pat and I ate breakfast without exchanging many words and then began the solemn business of packing our gear for the hike back to the real world. As he walked away from the campsite, Pat stopped many times to scan the place he had spent the past couple of days. There were the coves for swimming, the massive, boulder-covered pali towering above, the shady grove where we'd pitched our tents. All these things are part of what makes Halape and Halape Iki so beautiful and memorable. And to say goodbye to all of this is hard.

From Halape, the hike with big packs back to our car at the Hilina Pali trailhead was eight rugged miles. Also bound for Hilina Pali, the four surfing teens had departed Halape about 20 minutes before us, and at varying points on the hike out, we saw them in the distance. More exactly, we could see their white surfboards in the distance.

Six miles from Halape, we arrived at the base of Hilina Pali--the switchbacks ascending it an amazing piece of work and a testimony to the folks who labored to build it. When the teens started up the switchbacks, Pat and I were approaching a mile away from the southwest. Pat remarked how comical it was to watch the surfboards, much more visible than those carrying them, moving to and fro up the face of the massive wall. From a distance, the Pali appears too sheer to navigate, but a trail indeed is there, and with an hour of sweating and huffing, this trail can be completed from bottom to top.

The return to civilization included stops at the VNP Visitors' Center to check out, K's Drive-In in Hilo to devour plate lunches, and a waterfront beach park to get cleaned up. A 5:45 flight back to Honolulu returned us to soft beds, microwave ovens, TVs, newspapers, and computers with internet access. While I certainly appreciate the trappings of the real world, experiences at places like Ka`aha, Keauhou, and Halape--locales that rank high on the most-beautiful-in-Hawaii meter--perhaps point to things more worthy of value: appreciation of nature's wonderful design, for one.

Safe hiking to all,