Why have we chosen this trail?
This is one of our favorite coastal hikes in Hawaii. At about three miles in length it is very manageable, and there are several options available for where to park and how little or how much to walk. The trail is part of Ala Kahakai, the 175 mile, almost complete coastal trail which covers about 2/3 of the coastline of the island of Hawaii, roughly following fishing trails used by the original Hawaiian people.
If you take this hike or any other remember to take lots of water and hats. It may seem tempting to leave the water bottles at home because there is a hotel en route but it gets hot and a portion of the trails is over lava in the open!
Background – Ala Kahakai
Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175-mile (282 km) long trail located on the island of Hawaii. It is not yet a continuous “trail”, but can be accessed at several broken segments along the coastline of the Big Island. The trail was established to access the traditional Ancient Hawaiian culture along with the natural geology of the island. The trail was established in 2000 as a National Historic Trail which is managed under the National Park Service. “Ala kaha kai” means “shoreline trail” in the Hawaiian Language The Northern end of the trail is the North Kohala District at the extreme north end of the Island; it passes along the entire west side of island and round to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the Southeast.
Remember that ALL coastline, beaches etc in Hawaii are public property and, while it can be difficult to park sometimes, you cannot be denied access to any piece of shoreline or beach.
Spencer Beach Park and Puʻukoholā Heiau
We normally begin the trail here. It is the northernmost point of this section, and has plentiful and free parking.
Puʻukoholā Heiau, one of the most prominent and best preserved ancient Hawaiian temples, lies just north of the park, and is easily accessible from the north end of the parking lot, although it also has its own dedicated parking. The Heiau has an excellent Visitors Center and an interpretive trail, although for religious reasons visitors are not allowed in the temples themselves. In 2014, the National Park Service began running interpretive outrigger canoe rides in the bay. These are offered free on a first-come, first-served basis, and are well worth doing if they are still available. You will need to sign up. Our Hawaiian guide was interesting and had plenty of comments about how people are treating the land and how volatile the land can be. We agreed but some of the people on our trip seemed thrown by the comments!
Spencer Beach Park
Spencer Beach Park is a county park named for Hawaiian politician Samuel Mahuka Spencer (1875–1960), who was a judge in the area from 1893 to 1901. If you are ever in Hilo and notice the banyan trees lining the ” Hilo Walk of Fame” on Banyan Drive you may (or may not) not be interested to know that on July 18, 1935 Spencer planted one of these trees.
Another fact not visible is that the beach is the terminus of the major submarine communications cables which carry digital data to and from the island. As you stand on the beach you can imagine you are connected by cable to Takapuna, New Zealand or Morro Bay, California.
The Beach Park is a favorite camping and snorkeling location. The beach is protected by a large reef and the breakwater of the harbor. The water is usually calm and good for swimming . You can enjoy a swim after your walk. In case you find the walk plus the swim exhausting and are worried about having enough energy and coordination left to swim without drowning there is a life guard available during the day who can help as needed. Camping in Hawaii has different aspects – holidays, family gatherings and permanent / transient residency. Some camps are the primary residence for families and are not always what visitors expect. We have never camped in Hawaii but Spencer Beach seems to have mainly tourists and is state run.
Spencer Beach Park to Mau’umae Beach (0.5miles)
The trail begins at the south end of Spencer Beach Park, next to the large structure which houses the toilets and kitchen.
Immediately you leave the park, you are in a coastal kiawe forest, which is shady and cool, and offers wonderful views of the coastline. Kiawe is the most common coastal vegetation on the dry side of the island, although introduced in the early 19th century it is now considered native. The branches have long and sharp thorns which can penetrate the sole of most shoes so be careful walking over fallen kiawe twigs. After about 0.3 miles, the coastline opens up and we leave the kiawe forest behind, crossing a small shingle beach.
About 0.2 miles further on, we reach the much larger, sandy Mau’umae Beach.
This will often have 20 or fewer people, as there is a small amount of beach parking on the road just above the beach, which is only accessible through the Mauna Kea resort. The beach has plenty of shade at the back, and calm, reef-protected waters. It is a very peaceful beach to spend half a day at and have lunch.
Mau’umae Beach to Mauna Kea Resort (0.7 miles)
At the trail marker at the south end of the beach the trail turns inland, perpendicular to the shore, winding briefly through the kiawe and up a set of steps, turning right (south) again at the top. At this point, the trail runs behind some beachfront property, in this case one beautifully situated blue-painted home.
After about a quarter mile, the trail reaches the shore again, this time winding along rocky and exposed lava. There are several trails here leading away from the shore so just stick to the shore line trail. On a clear day the views of Maui, to the northwest (over your right shoulder) are tremendous.
About 0.4 miles from Mau’umae, the trail reaches a beautiful, sandy double beach, backed on the south side by some very expensive property, as this is the edge of Mauna Kea Resort.
The northern of the two small double beaches is, apparently, clothing optional. (The beaches do not appear to have been named).
To continue on past the south end, you have a choice.
- At low tide, you can walk straight across the last small section of beach to the rocks on the other side, in front of an expansive, private property, and continue the trail behind the property, to the left.
- At high tide, however, there may be only sea between you and opposite shore and it is easier, drier, and safer to turn inland and follow the trail up the hill, (the sign says ‘Area Closed’ but it is not). Follow this path for about 100 yards, and then take the paved road to the right. At a point behind the expansive, private property you will rejoin the main trail.
The trail continues, first in the shade, and then in open country behind the large house, and eventually emerges, after about a quarter mile on one of the roads running through the Mauna Kea Resort. The trail crosses the road through another kiawe grove towards the golf course.
If you miss the trail signs and take the road right then don’t be alarmed when a loud voice (speaker nicely hidden in the bushes) tells you that it is a private road. Yes – you are being watched! Following the main trail you will pass a number of bougainvillea-draped private houses on the left and then the trail emerges after a short distance at the famous Mauna Kea golf course.
A short side trip to see how the other half lives (0.5 miles)
The trail turns left across the golf course, but there is an interesting side trip to be made; if you continue walking 50 yards before the turn, you will reach the shoreline, from where you can walk (right) about a quarter mile along the shore and in front of the large expensive property the trail goes behind (Ignore the signs that say “no trail”) . There is a small and charming beach at the end. It appears that this is all one property, about 6 acres and about a quarter mile of oceanfront.
For what it is worth, the largest single residential property lot in the county is 216,000 square feet (about 6 acres) and is situated in Mauna Kea. It belongs to Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com. Whether this is his property or not I don’t know. If, like us, you hear loud music and notice about 10+ people running around opening doors, removing covers, cutting lawns, cleaning the swimming pool, and pulling up weeds etc., then you know the house is about to be occupied. We were told that the owners were coming for a 3 day visit. I wonder if they need a house-sitter? I could find alternative accommodation for the few days it was occupied. I would love to spend a few hours reading in this seat.
To Mauna Kea Beach (0.5 miles) and along the Beach (0.3 miles)
The main trail meanders across the cart track on the golf course (you can walk along the shore if you wish). Just before the tennis courts there is a short track off to the right to the original first tee of the golf course, where a plaque marks the spot Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hit the inaugural shots across the ocean to the first green in 1964. The trail meanders along the ocean front to the famous Mauna Kea Hotel. Built in 1965 by Lawrence Rockefeller, it was at the time the world’s most expensive and luxurious hotel; it’s now an archetype of 1960s tropical architecture. Just before the hotel is an observation platform from which, at dusk, you can observe manta rays.
Mauna Kea Beach
Mauna Kea Beach, more correctly called Kauna’oa Beach, is one of the most famous in the world. It is a quarter of a mile long, lightly curved and gently sloping. Snorkeling is excellent on the north end, near the hotel. The waves are normally the right intensity to allow people of all ages to body surf. While often busy, it is rarely if ever crowded. From above the beach can look very colorful with it’s orange umbrellas and orange beach towels.
Mauna Kea Beach to Hapuna (1 mile)
The last stretch of coastline goes from the south end of Mauna Kea beach to Hapuna. The trail (well marked) goes inland and up hill from the south end of the beach, briefly skirting the golf course again, and giving great views of Mauna Kea beach and the rest of the coastline. The trail winds along the shore, in front of a number of expensive and rarely used beachfront properties. This part of the trail is quite open and exposed, but has wonderful coastline views all along its length. As the trail begins to descend in front of the Hapuna Prince hotel, there is a small cove on the right, which is only accessible (by a series of steps) at low tide. If the tide is out, and it’s not too crowded, it’s a great place for lunch.
This portion of the trail ends right in front of the hotel at Hapuna Beach.
Hapuna Beach and Hotel
Hapuna Beach (0.2 miles)
Hapuna is the second highly famous beach on this part of the coast. It is said to be the largest beach in the state, as it is wide (300+feet) as well as long. It tends to be crowded as it is easily accessible and has plenty of facilities, though not much shade. Although it consistently wins ‘Best Beach in Hawaii’ awards, there are better.
Plants and Birds
Alternatives for parking
While the round trip from Spencer to Hapuna is about 6 miles, one alternative, if you have 2 cars, is to park one at the end, or part way along, and only walk one way. There is roadside parking close to Mau’umae beach. This is accessible from the Mauna Kea resort entrance off the highway. It is rarely if ever full. Also accessible from here is the Mauna Kea hotel beach parking lot. This tends to fill in the middle of the day, especially at weekends. The lot is close to the south end of the beach. Hapuna Beach park has two public parking lots. The main, lower lot is to the south, while the upper lot is less busy, and closer to the end of the trail.