Descending 2,700 feet from Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu trailhead, on the Chain of Craters Road, to the coast is a backcountry trip for intermediate to advanced level hikers with terrain ranging from smooth pahoehoe flows and level trails of cinder, to some fairly steep slopes of rugged 'a'a.
Beginning at the Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu trailhead, a series of ahu leads across pahoehoe flows from the 1969-74 eruption of Mauna Ulu. The flows have a fresh appearance, with an almost infinite variety of ropey waves that swirl and twist into eddys. A smooth ribbon path bridges the flow, resembling thick black varnish applied with a brush.
The edge of the flow empties onto sparse woodland of 'ohi'a trees and bushes of pukiawe and 'a'ali'i on ancient flows of pahoehoe and 'a'a. In the crevices of the 'a'a are deposits of green reticulite, a very light, inflated "foam" of lava, thrown onto the older flows by fountains in the more recent Mauna Ulu eruptions. The trail takes a more marked descent through Ainahou Ranch land, and soon the shoreline comes into view, with Hilina Pali and Pu'u Kapukapu with Halape at its foot.
After a fairly steep descent down Polio Keawe Pali, there is a split in the trail at the 4.8 mile mark. The Keauhou Trail continues straight through grassland of 'a'a and cinder for another 2.2 miles. The shelter at Keauhou comes into view over a small cliff, and the beach is another 0.3 miles beyond. At trail's end is a small sheltered tidepool area with coconut palms providing welcomed shade. A small unmarked trail to the right leads to a larger tidepool area bordered by smooth black sand, and bordered with hau and milo trees.
The trail to Halape starts back at the Keauhou shelter, and follows the shoreline to a sudden and steep fault scarp, which finally surrenders the approach.
Strong offshore winds can at first make the area seem almost hostile. There is a line of coconut palms planted by volunteers following the landslide and tsunami of 1975. There are also low walls of lava rock and bushes acting as windbreaks for the campsites. Native trees here include kou and milo.
A sheltered cove with a tiny white sand beach offers a pleasant and cool swim after a day's hike, along with good snorkeling and fishing. Directly opposite the cove is a small freshwater pool in a deep crack in rough lava. It is perfect for a quick rinse after swimming, but not recommended for drinking. The area should be explored with caution, as there are fragile lava tubes that can collapse under a person's weight. Beyond the cove is a habitat restoration area where camping is not permitted.
Skies here are usually clear, and nightfall reveals an astounding firmament of stars. The winds can continue heavy through the night, then lessen by morning.
Just up from the beach is a shelter with fresh water and adjacent to it, an old unrestored heiau. Beginning at the shelter, the return trail ascends rapidly for 1.6 miles, affording some dramatic views of Halape and the District of Ka'u in the distance. After another 1.3 miles the Hilina Pali trail rejoins the Keauhou Trail. A morning ascent towards Polio Keawe Pali can bring welcomed encounters with cool mists or light rain. Garlands of purple koali'awa, one of the Hawaiian morning glory, will guide you onward as rainbows follow you back up to the trailhead.
Photos and text by David Bonsey
Last updated: October 5, 2018