If you’re looking for an adventure near Kona on the Big Island, hiking along the Captain Cook Monument Trail may just be the perfect activity for you. Along this trail, you’ll hike through lush grasslands, past sweeping ocean vistas, and end at a secluded bay that offers the best snorkeling on the Big Island. So what are you waiting for? Put on your Tevas and let’s hit the road- here’s everything you need to know about the Captain Cook Monument Trail.
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The Captain Cook Monument Trail is one of the best hikes on the Big Island, taking you down through an impossibly green forest and through a craggy volcanic field to the shores of Kealakekua Bay.
This bay is the largest Marine Life Conservation District in Hawaii and, in my opinion, the very best place to snorkel in the entire state. The pristine marine sanctuary is home to vibrant coral, 400 species of fish, sea turtles, and even spinner dolphins.
What makes it even cooler is that you can’t simply drive here- the only way to get here is via boat, like on one of the snorkeling tours of Kealakekua Bay, or, alternatively, hiking via the Captain Cook Monument trail.
So are you sold on the Captain Cook Monument Trail? Let’s get into it!
About the Captain Cook Monument Trail
1,256 feet. It’s worth noting that you’ll be hiking down to the bay during the first half of the hike, so literally allllll of the elevation gain is in the latter half. It can be a bit of a butt kicker!
No, sadly, you’ll need to leave your furry best friend at home for this one. Since you’ll be snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay at the endpoint (or, at least, you definitely should be!), it’s probably best that they stay at home anyway.
How long does it take to hike the Captain Cook Monument Trail?
To actually hike roundtrip along the Captain Cook Monument Trail (also called the “Ka’awaloa Trail”), I’d plan for the hike to take somewhere between two and three hours.
That being said, you should absolutely go snorkeling at the endpoint in Kealakekua Bay, so I’d carve out at least an extra hour (or more!) in your Big Island itinerary for that as well.
Honestly, my husband, Justin, and I had just planned to snorkel in the bay for about an hour or so and were kicking ourselves that we hadn’t budgeted more time here to enjoy the incredible marine life. So if anything, I’d plan to budget more time here than you think you might need- and if you return to the trailhead quicker than you anticipated, you’ll just have some extra free time to grab a shave ice!
What is the Captain Cook Monument?
You may be wondering, who is this Captain Cook dude you keep blathering on about and why is there a monument dedicated to him? Well, I’m so glad you asked!
Captain Cook was a famous (or “infamous”, depending on who you ask) British explorer from the 1700s and is believed to be the first European to navigate to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.
When Cook originally landed on the islands, everything was friendly between his men and the Native people.
However, by early 1779, the Brits had overstayed their welcome. Amidst rising tension with the Native Hawaiians, Captain Cook’s men attempted to sail back to England in February 1779 but quickly had to return to the shores of the Big Island when one of their ships’ masts broke while at sea.
The Native Hawaiians were, to say the least, displeased to see Captain Cook return and in retaliation, stole one of the Brits’ cutter boats. Captain Cook decided to, like, really up the ante and attempted to kidnap King Kalaniopuu, the Big Island’s high chief at the time. This did not bode well for Captain Cook—he was stabbed during the kidnapping attempt and bled to death on the shores of Kealakekua Bay.
In 1874, the British erected an obelisk-shaped monument for the explorer, just a few hundred yards away from the spot where he perished. A Big Island trivia fact for you– the land immediately surrounding the monument was deeded to the United Kingdom for $1 in 1877 and has been considered sovereign non-embassy land owned by the British Embassy ever since.
How to Get to the Captain Cook Monument Trail
Now that our history lesson for the day is complete, the Captain Cook Monument Trail starts here, in the town of (surprise!) Captain Cook. It’s about a 20 minute drive south of Kona or, alternatively, you can take an hour-long bus ride.
There’s only a handful of parking spots along the shoulder across from the trailhead, with limited options if those spots are taken. Accordingly, I’d highly recommend getting to the trailhead early so you can snag a spot.
If waking up early doesn’t work with your version of island time (no judgment!), I’d suggest taking an Uber or bus from Kona so you don’t have to stress about finding parking near the trailhead. Just make sure your phone is charged up for the ride home later; we always keep a battery bank in our backpacks to power up our cell phones, just in case.
What to Expect Along the Captain Cook Monument Trail
To start this trail, you’ll start hiking steeply downhill through lush grasslands, with sweet tropical flowers, bamboo stalks, and ancient trees stretching overhead. You may hear rustling in the grass occasionally, but don’t be alarmed—it’s almost certainly one of the many cute goats that live along the coastline.
About one mile into the Captain Cook Monument Trail, you’ll notice that the green landscape around you will transition to an exposed rocky volcanic landscape, with views of Mauna Loa (the world’s largest active volcano!) to the left and sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see.
This portion of the trail is absolutely stunning, but be careful! The volcanic rock somehow manages to be crumbly, slippery, and very stabby all at one time, so I’d recommend wearing some kind of shoes with traction to prevent slipping (like these hiking sandals for men that Justin wears or these Tevas that I swear by).
Once you’re 1.6 miles into the trail, the path will flatten out and you’ll finally get some blessed shade from the Hawaiian sun beating down.
If you care to see where Captain Cook took his last breaths along the coastline, follow the trail straight ahead to the coastline until you see a small, subdued marker peeking out of the volcanic rock.
Otherwise, the trail will curve slightly to the left and you’ll see the white stone obelisk of the monument through the trees. The area directly in front of the monument is where you’ll enter the water to enjoy the best snorkeling on the Big Island.
But be careful of where you get into the water- the only place you should really enter is by the right corner of the concrete wall bordering the bay, where you’ll find a small foothold. Otherwise, the shallow rocky areas in the bay and even the concrete wall itself is covered with needly sea urchins that would be decidedly not fun to step on (in fact, we met a tour guide who said he needed to have one the sea urchin needles surgically removed from his hands!). Beyond not being nice to the sea urchin, you’re going to need those feet to hike back out of here!
Once you’re done snorkeling at the Captain Cook Monument, just retrace your steps back to the trailhead. One more important note, though- you may have noticed above that I keep referring to the Captain Cook Monument Trail as taking you steeply down to Kealakekua Bay. Which, of course, means that you’ll need to hike the latter half completely up the sloping hill.
Between the elevation gain, the extreme sun exposure along the trail, and the humidity of the Big Island, hiking back uphill kicked my butt waaaaay more than I had expected—expect for it to be a booty burner, for sure!
Luckily, it’s only two miles back to the trailhead, but still, be prepared with reef safe sunscreen and have LOTS of water on hand. Justin and I both use these comically enormous Nalgene bottles to stay hydrated while on the trail—plus reusable water bottles are better for the planet!
Tips for the Captain Cook Monument Trail
Bring your snorkeling gear on the hike.
This may be obvious but there’s no snorkeling shop or gear rental at the base of the trail at Kealakekua Bay, so you’ll need to bring your own snorkeling gear on the hike. Justin and I each have this snorkeling set that we love and have taken on a bunch of tropical getaways (including to snorkel at Kealakekua Bay!), so considering including a set of your own on your Hawaii packing list!
Treat the coral reef with respect.
The bay has so much incredible and diverse marine life, in large part, because of its vibrant coral reef.
Coral may essentially just look like a bunch of rocks, but it’s decidedly a living organism that’s incredibly important to the bay and our planet as a whole. And, in order to keep the reef and all of the animals that depend on it thriving and healthy, visitors to Kealakekua Bay, like you and me, must treat it with care.
For example, do not, under any circumstances, kick, stand on, or otherwise touch the coral. The slightest touch can cause the fragile coral to break off and it can take up to a year for some types of coral to just regrow 0.3 centimeters. So treat kicking coral as the equivalent to kicking a puppy—just don’t!
Additionally, chemicals in “normal” sunscreen can effectively cause coral cancer, so be sure to slather on the reef safe stuff instead. I’m lowkey obsessed with Sun Bum, which rubs in smooth and smells like a Hawaiian vacation in a bottle (you can find me later, huffing a bottle of it in the corner).
If you hit the trail early, not only will you have the benefit of snagging a parking spot, it’s also likely that you won’t be hiking straight uphill during the very hottest portion of the day.
Have a blast hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail—it’s definitely one of most unique hikes I’ve ever had the pleasure of completing! Do you have any questions about hiking the trail? Let me know in the comments below.