VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK (VNP) BACKCOUNTRY HIKING: KA'AHA and PEPEIAO-- BIG ISLAND


Difficulty: INTERMEDIATE

Time: 2-3 DAYS

Distance: 15 MILES

Elevation Gain: 2300 FEET

Foot Traffic: VERY LOW

Challenges: Trail Navigation, Shadeless, Uneven Footing, Very Overgrown in parts, Backpacking Gear

Sights: Ka'u Coastline, Ka'u Desert, Sea Arch, Tidepools, Lava Tubes

What to Bring: Backpacking Gear, Long Sleeves and Pants, Gloves, Rain Jacket, Compass

Located on the Big Island in Volcanoes National Park (VNP), the trail to Ka'aha is one of several backcountry adventures available in VNP's vast wilderness. This trek begins down a series of swtichbacks as you descend towards the beautiful Ka'u coastline. Here, you can spend the night in a coastal shelter, with your own private tidepools and ocean view. The next day, you have the option to return the way you came, or loop through the Ka'u desert wilderness by the Pepeiao Cabin, observing the unique diversity in landscape created by this volcano. One thing is for sure, no matter which route you choose to take, you are sure to find solitude on this adventure.

I've officially acquired the backpacking bug. While I'm still learning some of the basics, my adventures on the Kukui Trail, Waimanu Valley, and Haleakala Crater over the past year have definitely boosted my confidence. And with my work schedule giving me a three day weekend for Veteran's Day, I found myself itching to make the most of it, and take on my first solo backpacking trip. After perusing some routes described in Stuart Ball's Backpackers Guide to Hawaii, I decided to hop on a plane and head to the Big Island for a little trek through the VNP Backcountry.

My route ultimately looked like this. Day 1 (RED), after hiking along the pedestrian only Hilina Pali Road, I hiked from the Hilina Pali Overlook down a series of switchbacks to the Ka'aha Shelter. Day 2 (Blue) I followed the remainder of the Ka'aha Trail to Pepiao Cabin, and then followed the Ka'u desert back to the Hilina Pali Overlook. This route was not my original plan... but more on that later.

My journey started with some mishaps almost immediately. My morning flight from Oahu had some malfunction, causing us to rapidly turn around right after takeoff and return to Oahu to switch planes. Never have I been in a plane so eager to get back on the ground! Then, likely a result of the delay, the rental car line was much longer than anticipated. I finally got into VNP at about 1230.

After obtaining my permit at the Backcountry Office and talking to the park ranger, I determined my best route would be to make my way directly to the Ka'aha campsite on Day 1. Given the daylight remaining and trail conditions, the ranger said this was the most doable. Unfortunately, to get to the trailhead, you are required to hike several miles along the closed Hilina Road (pictured above). It's pretty flat, but to me, walking on a road doesn't really feel like hiking. I parked my car off the road right before the closure, and had no issues. (There is actually a real parking lot nearby at the Kulanaokuaiki Campgrounds). After double checking I had all my gear, I was off.

The road was interesting at first, you are hiking through old lava fields after all. But soon, it's charm wore off and I began drifting into thought. My first solo backpacking trip. While I was excited, some of the things ranger did make me start second guessing. Mainly, when he asked me to check the water tank levels at the Ka'aha shelter and Pepeiao Cabin because "nobody's been out there in awhile, so I'm not sure if there's any water in them." Reassuring... was I in over my head?

After 45 minutes of hiking, I reached the end of the road and made it to the Hilina Pali Overlook. This was a nice spot, with a picnic table, bathroom, and all. Unfortunately, the views of the coastline were impeded by the low hanging clouds. This is where a split in the trail occurs. (Facing the ocean) veering left will lead you towards the Hilina Pali Trail and the switchbacks. Veering right will lead you along Ka'u Desert Trail and a direct path to the Pepiao Cabin.

My original plan had been follow the trail described in the Backpackers Guide-- take the Ka'u Trail to the cabin on this first night, and then stay at Ka'aha the second night. Because of my late start and the fact that Ka'u Trail had not been cleared in awhile, the ranger advised me to head to Ka'aha tonight. I heeded his advice and split left at "this junction." Turns out, finding the trail to the switchbacks was quite challenging as well. There was a semblance of a beaten down path, but it quickly got overgrown, with brush about 6 feet tall. I decided to fight my way through the brush towards the coastline, knowing I would at least reach the cliff where I figured it was less overgrown.

And I was right... kind of. Once you get near the cliff, the brush is significantly shorter, but the path was still not that obvious. Eventually, I did find a pile of rocks (here called ahu) that served as a trail marker. I followed these ahu the best I could, but it wasn't easy. It would take some time to find the next ahu and continue on the trail. And we weren't even on the switchbacks yet!

As I got closer to the cliff edge, I gained more confidence since I felt like I was on the right path. And now I had a much clearer view of the coast. I spotted part of the coast which I assumed to be my destination. You can sort of make out the tidepools by Ka'aha where the coastline cuts in.

But we gotta get there first. Last picture of me alive in case I don't make it out... spoiler alert I did :)

After considerable time trekking through the grassy part of the ridge, I made it to the switchbacks. Supposedly, there's 22 switchbacks in total. Now it's just a zig zag trail to the base with the beautiful coastline on your side.

Even these switchbacks weren't as straightforward as I expected. While there were some ribbons tied to trees, there were a couple instances where I wasn't sure if the trail was actually cutting back or not. In the end, my gut served me well, but my confidence in my navigation abilities was slightly shaken. The switchbacks themselves are full of loose rock and the trail can get a bit narrow at points. But I'll take loose rock and narrow trails over 6 foot tall brush any day.

It took me about an hour fifteen minutes to get to the base of the cliff from the lookout. I quickly came upon another junction in the trail. Left (that shattered sign on the ground) would lead us to another campsite-- Halape. But we will be going right towards Ka'aha.

To get to the campsite, just follow the ahu lining the field. Feels like you're zig zagging a bit, but those little rock piles made me confident I was going the right way.

Just watch out for the holes! These are lava tubes and are all over this field. Pretty neat to see. They are big enough to walk in... but the park doesn't advise doing so...

After 50 minutes hiking through the field, I reached the edge of a cliff. There I finally set eyes on the Ka'aha shelter. Good thing too, because it was starting to get dark. Just one quick little scramble and...

Home sweet home! It was pretty nice to know I'd have a roof over my head in addition to my tent, especially when it started raining. The NPS website actually advises not to stay in the shelter, due to mice and cockroaches. I'll say that I never saw or heard any throughout the night. The only creatures to deal with were the ants. There were thousands! But despite looking like fire ants, they don't actually bit. They just like to crawl on things

After making a little dinner and doing some reading, I listened to the rain patter on the shelter roof. At some point I drifted off to sleep only to wake during the night to see a clear sky and a bright moon, totally illuminating the space around me. Something about that sleepy-eyed moment, knowing I was the only human around for miles was simply blissful and eased me back into a dreamless sleep.

I woke up at first light to see the horizon start lighting up with a nice yellow hue. I put on my hiking boots to make the short trek (about 1/4 mile) down to the water's edge to watch the sun come up.

And what a sunrise it was! The strong ocean surf shot up some spray that hovered above the horizon, allowing the sun to reflect off those small water particles.

And soon the cliffside began to illuminate with that morning golden glow.

As I continued to snap pictures of this landscape I was reminded yet again, I was completely alone. No one else enjoying this natural show but me and the ants. After getting my fill of photos, I took a quick dip in ocean. The rocks create a nice calm little pool, around waist high and was a perfect morning bath before getting myself stinky yet again.

Because today is going to be HOT! After some breakfast, coffee, and a poop in one of the world's most scenic toilets (pictured on the left), it was time for day 2!

The journey to Pepeiao Cabin along the Ka'aha Trail. This trail follows a lava field along the coastline before cutting inland, back up 1700 feet in elevation, to the Pepeiao Cabin.

And we're off yet again! One last glimpse of those beautiful cliffs.

Because this is our landscape for the next several hours--black lava rock. Not only does that color retain the heat, but there is zero shade. It was scorching! Heat aside, there is something so raw about walking along this surface. Fresh new land created by an incredible force of nature, only in the infant stages of its life.

This section of trail does give you some pretty amazing perspectives of this area. Venture towards the ocean and get a clean view down the coastline. With the heat, I would loved to have taken another swim. But, given that I would have had to scramble down a cliff and the dangerous break, it probably wouldn't end well.

The highlight of this part of trail was definitely when I discovered this sea arch. It's around the section of the trail pictured above, near a dirt patch on the cliff. If you're a curious trail wanderer like me, I'm sure you will stumble upon it.

Soon after the arch, comes the most miserable part of the hike. The trek through the Ka'u desert. Apparently this isn't technically a desert because it gets too much rainfall, but some of the volcanic characteristics of the area inhibit significant plant growth. Up until this point, the trail had been mostly flat, just some slight up and downs. But now we have to head back up the ridge...shadeless...in mid day....

It was a difficult slog. But luckily this tree was here! This was essentially the only shade I'd see until I got closer to the cabin. But man did I make the most of it. I enjoyed that small amount of shade as I munched on some trail mix, observing all that we had accomplished up to this point.

I continued following the ahu up the cliff until I reached some more shade. I will say that following the markers were not quite as easy as it was down on the flat lava rock. Oftentimes I'd be walking towards what I thought was a marker and it was just a natural pile of rocks. But with a little trial and error, I managed to continue along the correct path.

And then I finally Kipuka Pepeiao and the cabin was in sight! Just a bit more...

And there it is, Pepeiao Cabin! It took me about 3.5 hours to reach get here from Ka'aha, so naturally I treated myself with a little lunch. I now had a decision to make. The cabin itself isn't really in the condition to use as shelter.. the floor is dry rotted so it's unsafe. I could set up camp in the surrounding area, but the hard surface presented a challenge. Not to mention, it was only 1pm, so I would really need to find something to do to kill time.

So I decided to continue along the trail, I figured worse came to worse, I would camp somewhere along the trail. Continuing on the trail past the cabin proved more difficult than anticipated. I circled the cabin a few times before finally finding the trail on the mauka (mountain side) of the cabin. This is a shot looking back towards the cabin. That struggle in finding the trail proved to be a premonition.

And shortly after finding the trail I came to a crossroad. Take a left and to head towards Mauna Iki and the Footprints trail which would ultimately lead back to the starting point. Or take a right back to the Hilina Pali Lookout, attempting to venture through the overgrown brush the ranger had warned me about.

Wanting to explore a new trail, I went left. And I quickly found myself in over my head... literally. I lost the trail in minutes due to brush about 7 feet high. On top of that, the skies began to open up, bringing on an ever increasing downpour of rain. Realizing the rain may not stop I decided to back track and instead take the right fork back to Hilina Pali Road. I figured I could hunker down in the shelter at the overlook for the night.

The rain continued (and as a result no pictures were taken), but I was able to follow the Ka'u Trail for almost two hours without running into the tall grass. And then, just as I was gaining confidence...Boom! Tall grass. This time almost 10 feet high! There was no way I'd be able to navigate my way back to the lookout before dark and the rocky, sloped, and very wet landscape made setting up camp along trail and not so appealing option

So I called another audible, I made my way towards the ocean and decided to follow the cliff line in the direction of the cabin. I figured I'd run into it eventually... assuming I didn't run out of light before I got there. The skies continued their relentless downpour as I paralleled the cliff through waist high brush and scrambling over sharp lava rock.

And after over 4 hours, just as I lost last light, I finally got back to the lookout. I planned to fully strip out of my wet clothes... until I discovered two guys hunkered down in the shelter. I think they were just as shocked to see some dude appear from the heavy rain. After chatting a bit, I found out they worked for the park service in Alaska, were here for temporary work, and they told me they were planning to go down to Ka'aha tonight during their time off. When the rain finally lightened they decided to go for it and wandered off in the darkness, leaving me alone yet again.

Still shivering from the rain, I made myself a little dinner and then treated myself with some homemade pumpkin bread, courtesy of my hiking buddy Indre. I paired that with some rich coffee. I could literally feel the warmth return to my body and my spirit uplifted.

Ultimately, I made the decision to trek back to my car that night, where I blew up my sleeping pad and spent the night under my partially damp sleeping back in the backseat of my rental. Not quite the finish to my backpacking journey I had hoped...

But even waking up in the back of the car, I was already satisfied with my adventure. Even if it was only two days, I proved to myself that I am capable of backpacking. I overcame a few obstacles and made it back in one piece. I saw some incredible landscape and felt a connection to the island that for me, can only be experienced in such solitude. It amazes me that, at the beginning of this year, I had never actually been backpacking. But now, there's no doubt in my mind there are many future backpacking adventures yet to come.

Enjoy this post? Leave a comment below!

Also Check Out:

- The NPS website about Ka'aha and Pepeiao

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