Summary of Big Island trip
March 8 – 15th, 2016
Flight, drive from Kailua-Kona to Hilo
Drive to Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea Iki loop, Hike to Keauhou
11 miles backpacking
Return from Keauhou, hike to Napau
13 miles backpacking
Return from Napau, drive to Kona, Manta Ray snorkeling
6 miles backpacking
Honokohau Beach, drive to Fairmont Orchid
2 miles hiking
Lay on beach, snorkeling
Puu Waawaa Cinder Cone, A-Bay
9 miles hiking
We had an uneventful flight from SJC to KOA. The security line at SJC was long enough to finally spur us to register for one of the TSA pre-clearance programs.We arrived in Kailua-Kona in the afternoon and drove east across the island to Hilo to get an early start backpacking the next day (daylight hours and permit office closed at 4 pm).
This was our first backpacking trip that required flying to the destination. We each brought a backpack and a duffel bag for post-backpacking hotel time. One novelty was that we left our fuel canisters, lighter and multitool (security) at home in addition to our hiking poles (limited space). Online reports indicated that we could pick up Jetboil canisters from Sports Authority, but we had no such luck at the Hilo location. Fortunately, there is a Jetboil dealer located in Hilo, KapohoKine Adventurs.
There were quite a few vegan-friendly food options in Hilo, and we opted to visit Prabha's, which was delicious. Hilo was not particularly photogenic, and so I didn't take any photos.
After our Iceland trip, which was similar to this trip in many respects, we enjoyed the perks of traveling within the United States: English, Starbucks, and no SIM card swapping for data. The Iceland trip involved a significant amount of driving and we mostly did short day hikes, with the exception of a long day hike in the hills above Akureyri. The Hawaii trip was planned to address those issues via relatively short drives (<2 hours each day) and a significant amount of mileage as originally planned, before the weather interfered.
We arrived at the Volcanoes National Park backcountry office after a short drive from Hilo. Our original plan was to do a one-night trip to the coast before a two-night climb to the summit of Mauna Loa, stopping one night each at Red Hill Cabin and Mauna Loa Cabin. It was a fairly ambitious plan, averaging 15-20 miles per day. The mountain was closed above Red Hill Cabin due to high winds, but the ranger thought that it would reopen the next day, and so we headed to the coast and planned to return the next day to check on Mauna Loa.
One interesting aspect of backpacking in the park is that water is only available from rainwater collection at cabins/shelters, and the availability of water can drive your trip itinerary. For the coast trip, we originally planned to visit Halape. However, the rainwater storage was nearly empty because it is a popular destination, and so we opted for nearby Keauhou. In addition to rainwater collection, the shelters provide protection from the sun and high winds on the coast.
Before heading out, we decided to visit two popular nearby destinations: Thurston Lava Tube and Kilauea Iki. The lava tube was underwhelming compared with the rest of the trip, but makes for a popular tourist destination - our walk through it preceded the arrival of multiple full tour buses. Kilauea Iki, on the other hand, was a fantastic short hike (~3 miles) and we would highly recommend it.
Afterwards we drove to the trailhead of the Keauhou Trail and headed down towards the coast. The first portion was through lava fields marked by cairns before transitioning to grasslands. It's worth noting that hiking through the lava in the dark would be fairly treacherous due to the lack of trail markings except for the cairns, which would be nearly invisible (black-on-black). The trail tended to follow the lava flows, and so it was consistently rocky and windy.
We reached the Keauhou shelter, set back 1/3 of a mile from the ocean, after about 2.5 hours. We did not encounter any other hikers on the Keauhou trip (either out or back), which was fortunate because the shelter would have been a cozy fit for two tents. We explored the beach and took some photos before returning to the shelter to wrap up for the day. Although the lack of the usual bears was great (cook near your tent, no bear canister required), the ground was absolutely swarming with ants, and so food preparation required some care. The wind howled all night, and camping outside of the shelter would have been madness.
The hike back up from the beach was even windier than on the way down, and so we were not feeling good about our chances of hiking Mauna Loa. This was confirmed when we reached the backcountry office. We decided to do another out-and-back to Napau, but decided to drown our sorrows in Thai food before heading out.
The first half of the Napau hike was in a lava field and the scenery was reminiscent of Mordor - gray and rocky to the horizon with steam rising from the ground. We passed by several enormous craters and ventured as closed as we dared with the high winds, but photos don't capture the sense of scale. The last several miles transitioned to a lightly traveled jungle trail. Hiking through it with shorts and sunburnt legs was character building, and I would highly encourage anyone reading this to take the time to pull on pants before entering the jungle.
The endpoint was a small clearing with a short walk to another excellent crater view. We encountered a few dayhikers but the trail was relatively empty, and we did not encounter any backpackers. Unlike Keauhou, there was no shelter at the endpoint and hence no water. We each carried 4L though, and water was not a problem. Overall, we would recommend skipping Napau and instead sticking to the coast or to the summit if it is open.
Besides the other various differences between backpacking in Hawaii and the Sierras (weather, scenery, terrain, wildlife, water), it is worth commenting on the bathroom experience. Every backpacking destination that we visited in Volcanoes National Park had a composting toilet, which was unexpected. The Keauhou facilities were amazing - between the raised height and the open sides it represented the pinnacle of the bathroom experience. In contrast, the Napau facility was a closed building with a horde of spiders living inside, and only a crazy person would use it.
Besides the Napau bathroom spiders and the Keauhou ants, the only other wildlife that we encountered was a Small Asian mongoose who tried to eat our food at Napau. Surprisingly/fortunately there were no enormous spiders inhabiting the very narrow jungle path that we took to Napau.
It rained sporadically in the morning as we hiked out of Napau. At the backcountry office we found that Mauna Loa was still closed, so we decided to grab lunch at Cafe Ono (meh) and decide on our next move. The park ranger had recommended a trip to Pepeiao in the Ka'u Desert, but after perusing photos online it was hard to get excited about it.
We decided to cut out one night earlier than planned from the park and stay at the Sheraton in Kailua-Kona to snorkel with Manta Rays. Before leaving the park, we drove to the end of Chain of Craters road and saw the sea arch.
We took the south route around the island towards Kona, and although there was traffic at several points it was a pleasant drive. The snorkeling experience with My Kona Adventures was great. We would highly recommend the experience in general and that snorkeling outfit specifically (friendly, stayed out on the water longer than planned waiting for a manta ray to show up, fresh pineapple afterwards).
We drove up the cost from Kailua-Kona to the Fairmont Orchid, stopping at the Lotus Cafe for lunch. The food and gelato were both great, and we would recommend it as a good food/gas stop on your way to or from the airport. We also stopped at Honokohau Beach for a short walk and saw numerous sea turtles. The rest of the drive was uneventful.
After arriving at the hotel, we walked one mile to a nearby shopping center to grab dinner at Under the Bodhi Tree. We ate the majority of our meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) over the next few days. Besides the lack of vegan options at the Fairmont Orchid, the food was far more reasonably priced, delicious, and it was a pleasant walk. Dishes that were particularly exceptional: french toast, Reuben sandwich, and the veggie burger. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and enjoyed mixed drinks while watching the sunset.
After enjoying some french toast, scrambled tofu and french press at Under The Bodhi Tree, we read on the beach and snorkeled for most of the day. Snorkeling was a success and we encountered a sea turtle and an eel in addition to the swarms of fish. Afterwards, we did some more reading on the beach and enjoyed the sunset again.
We got back to hiking after a day of laying on the beach. First up was a Cinder Cone hike, which was reminiscent of Mission Peak in the Bay Area. Afterwards we picked up Starbucks and Thai food, then did a few miles of hiking at A-Bay.
On our last day in Hawaii, we had a lazy morning and then drove down the highway to the airport.
I used some new gear on this trip.
- Peak Design Capture Pro
- Ultrapod II
- Canon 6D with 24-105L and Rokinon 14mm
- Sony RX100 iii
The Capture Pro and Ultrapod were fantastic and I will bring both of them on every trip in the future. The 6D was a bit heavy, and carrying it on my shoulder with the Capture Pro resulted in some numbness that persisted for about a week after the trip. For future trips I will either bring it and mount it in a different location, bring the RX100 instead, or invest in an APS-C mirrorless to save a few pounds.