Last week my husband Ron and I did some hiking on the Big Island. Our first venture was the Hilina Pali Trail, inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
My quick summary?
Spectacular scenery, but not a pleasant hike. I’m glad we did it, but I doubt we’ll do it again.
(There are a lot more photos at the end of this write up!)
Here’s the longer version:
Volcanoes is a huge park, with extremely varied terrain that runs from the shoreline to Mauna Loa’s 14,000-foot summit. Hilina Pali — and “pali” is the Hawaiian word for “cliff” — is an escarpment on the southeast coast. The trail begins at the end of a nine-mile-long spur road that branches off from Chain-of-Craters Road. Starting elevation is about 2,260 feet. The trail descends a steep 1,200 feet through sometimes difficult terrain. It then crosses a wide bench, slowly descending another 800 feet. From here, it’s another 200-foot drop to near sea level. Roundtrip mileage is only around eight or nine miles according to the map, but I believe it’s significantly longer than this, by another mile or even two.
This is a tough hike! Not so much for the mileage, but because of the heat, the terrain, and the monotonous landscape. The initial descent is the hardest part of the hike. It can be quite steep, and the footing is treacherous in parts. It crosses an `a`a lava flow and some of the trail is paved in `a`a “clinker”–loose stones that can easily roll out from under your boot. I skidded several times on the way down and fell down once. The trail doesn’t seem to get a lot of use. Grass and weeds are overgrowing it, so it’s often hard to see where you’re placing your feet. And it’s hot. Did I mention it’s hot?
We were actually lucky, because a very strong wind was blowing all day. Now and then while on the cliff we would find ourselves in the lee, and it was sweltering!
To descend this trail safely, I highly recommend hiking sticks. If you’ve never used sticks before, um, well, get over it. They’re great, and they will save a lot of strain on your knees. Other absolute necessities are good hiking boots, sunscreen, clothing that will protect you from the sun, and LOTS OF WATER. I don’t usually drink a lot of water when I hike, but this time was an exception. We had enough water with us, but just barely. It would have been a good idea to bring more.
Once at the bottom of the cliff, there is a long, slow descent across a bench covered in grass and low-growing shrubs. The trail is marked by stacked rocks known as ahu. The stacks can be small or tall. You have to keep an eye out for them or you will lose the trail. This matters particularly on the way back, because I suspect it would be hard to find the bottom of the cliff trail if you didn’t have the ahu to lead you to it.
The terrain in this section is monotonous. Ron and I are interested in plants, but there were maybe half a dozen weedy species here, nothing at all interesting. Also, while I didn’t use GPS to map the hike, I am sure the mileage for this section was significantly more than what the map showed — although the hiking here was easy.
Did I mention it was hot?
When we reached the seaside end of the bench, we wanted to take a spur trail down to the coast, but we couldn’t find the trail, so we made our own way down the two-hundred foot cliff. We did find the trail later on. Facing the ocean, it’s to the right of the trail junction sign. Look for an ahu. But better signage would be helpful.
The coastal area was gorgeous, with extensive tide pools. It’s a beautiful spot for lunch.
So, what was the most amazing thing about this hike? It was the isolation! We were the only ones on the trail. So far as I could tell, we were the only ones in the entire coastal area. We saw no one until we hiked out to the parking lot. Oh — as most experienced hikers will tell you, prolonged downhills are the hard parts of most hikes. The hike up Hilina Pali was surprisingly easy.
A lot of photos with captions follow. I hope you enjoy them, and please let me know if you’ve ever hiked this trail, or if you plan to.
For those interested in another, even more difficult trail, this time on Maui, check out my write up on Haleakala Crater Rim to Kaupo Ranch.