The move to Seattle, Washington opened many doors for travel and so I decided my first big trip could be nowhere else other than Hawaii. I had my sights set on the Napali Coast, Haleakala National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s highest peak. It helped that I had a friend on the Big Island, but I wanted to see it all. Thanks to airfarewatchdog.com I was able to find cheap weekday flights to the islands of Kauai, Maui & Hawaii! Cheap flights, cheap rentals from Dollar, and free camping almost every night made this an affordable trip!
The Island of Kauai
The trip started at 9pm Tuesday, May 2nd in Lihue where I picked up my tiny Chevy Spark and headed toward the other side of the island. You can cover the whole island in about 2 hours but it seemed like there was a million beautiful places to stop. I wanted to start hiking on the Kalalau trail early so I camped only a few minutes away at Haena Beach Park.
My alarm was set for 5:30am but was rudely awoken at 4am by the unofficial bird of Kauai, the wild chicken. I couldn’t complain waking up on the beach! I was happy to get going on the notorious trail that starts just down the road at Ke’e Beach.
I was alone except for the tunes of Bob Marley as I walked along the most lush and beautifully green trail I’d even seen. When light first touched the rugged coastline I knew exactly why this place was named ‘The Garden Isle’. The below photo might just be my all-time favorite.
The trail is 11 miles (one-way) traversing over towering sea cliffs to the beautiful Kalalau Beach. I started with the trail to myself but quickly saw how popular it was. Helicopters flew overhead and Kayaks/boats were paddling by. Outside of hiking, paddling is the only other way to access the beach. That was quickly put on the bucket list.
To camp and hike past mile 4 you need a highly sought after permit: https://camping.ehawaii.gov/camping/all,details,1692.html
I did not have a permit so I took what I could get and that was enough to confirm I’ll be back for the full 22 miles! I mentioned lush and green but that doesn’t even begin to describe just how lush and green it was. Giant Aloe plants, crazy eucalyptus trees and everything tropically green you can imagine.
The weather of this tropical rainforest was something out of a dream.
I stopped about 3 miles in and finally ran into some other people. They were friendly and both flying drones to capture the magic that’s below. It was a glorious stopping point!
With a smile on my face I retraced my steps back to Ke’e Beach. I went from seeing 2 people on the trail to about 100 with only a hand full looking equipped to go the distance. Below is a friend I made who called it quits at Hanakapi`ai Beach.
The constant elevation change was grueling but ending back at the amazing Ke’e beach made me quickly forget. I had been recovering from a few different foot and leg injuries but I felt better than ever. Must have been the warm weather and unlimited supply of Vitamin D!
Still filled with energy, I did some snorkeling before taking a break to enjoy the view. As I sat and stared at the ocean I witnessed a whale breach! Luckily 3 times to confirm my original sight. I was in Heaven! That notion only continued while having an acai bowl with fresh papaya for lunch!
It was hard to leave that corner of the island but I was off to pick up a buddy from the airport in Lihue! He’d be joining me on these first 2 legs of the trip. I was so stoked to have him join me on another island adventure! With a little more time to kill I stopped at Wailua Falls. Apparently it’s featured on the opening credits of the television series Fantasy Island but I have never heard of it.
There was a little rainbow and a few people in the water below so I had to get down there. To do so you have to jump the fence and repel down a steep muddy hill. It was worth it seeing the epic geology from below.
From there I picked up my friend, got some poke and headed toward the higher elevation of Koke’e State Park. On the way you’ll pass Waimea Canyon which is basically the Grand Canyon of the Pacific!
It made for a perfect spot to enjoy sunset along with some local brews from Maui Brewing Co. and Hawaii Nui Brewing.
We woke up bright an early thanks to our neighboring chickens and started hiking the Awa’awapuhi Trail with some more chickens. (There’s a chicken below)
The trail descends 3 miles to an incredible viewpoint over the NaPali Coast and Pacific.
The sketchy scramble between two enormous canyons made this viewpoint one of the coolest I’d ever seen. Even sweeter, we began seeing helicopters fly into the canyon when you could hike to this view for free!
We celebrated with a beer before our 3 mile, 2,000ft ascent and as you could guess that was not a good idea. My buddy expelled the wonderful beer about half way up. Lightening the stomach got him up, and after three Gatorade’s he was back to life. From there, it was an easy decision to head back to the beach but not before exploring more of Waimea Canyon. We wanted to hike to Waipo’o Falls but didn’t bring enough water so we settled on the cliff trail spur.
On the way down we stopped at every pull out for a view into one of the craziest places on earth. Every part was like a scene out of Avatar.
It was a landscape photographers dream. We never wanted to leave but the beach and food was calling our name. It’s a 77 mile drive from Koke’e State Park to Ke’e beach although you’ll be scratching your head when you see they’re actually 8 miles apart. The drive is pleasant with many one-lane bridges and food trucks everywhere. I’d highly suggest Fresh Bite for a killer salad. After refueling the belly’s we set up camp at Haena Beach Park and enjoyed the beach. We finally got some rain but that didn’t stop us from snorkeling Tunnel’s Beach. My favorite fish just so happened to be the state fish of Hawaii, Humuhumunukunukuapua’a aka reef triggerfish. (Try saying that!)
To cap off the day we took a long non-romantic walk on the beach.
We were super jealous of the surfers taking on the sunset waves.
It was another early morning waking up oceanside/on the farm…
Similar to my first day we drove over to Ke’e Beach and hiked a mile along the Napali coast. I had to share the inspiring view!
Doesn’t get much better than this! We’d be heading to Maui later that day but we still had time for great snorkeling at Ke’e Beach and a stop for the most amazing food I’ve ever had. If you’re in Kauai you must stop for an acai bowl at Kalalea Juice Hale. It’s pure greatness!
Good bye Kauai!
The Island of Maui
After a 30 minute flight we on Hawaii’s 2nd largest island ready to drive from sea level to the highest peak of the island at over 10,000ft. I was very excited to camp in another National Park, Haleakala (Ha-leh-ah-kala). I struggled with about every Hawaiian name but I always seemed to screw this one up. It means ‘House of the sun’ and we definitely saw why!
Its summit is argued to be the most beautiful place to view a sunrise in the whole world but before we experienced that we were looking forward to sunset. Our drive started through a lush landscape with giant purple trees followed by miles trapped in clouds until about 8,000ft up at Hosmer Grove campground. Just above the clouds we claimed our patch of grass and took off towards the summit. We were just in time!
I have to say sunset may have been better than sunrise that next morning. To the west was the Pacific covered in a fluffy blanket of clouds and to the east were the craters and some unbelievable colors. We ended up being the last car to leave the summit as we waited for stars. Using the Skyview app we identified every constellation above the horizon. I felt like we learned a ton and even witnessed a nebula! Very satisfied we went back to Hosmer Grove for the night.
Luckily around 3am I had to pee and found the moon had dropped below the horizon so there was nothing stopping a star spectacle. There were more stars than there was sky. The Milky Way was clear as day and as I stood there alone counted 10 shooting stars! I could not sleep after that exhilarating experience. Our wake up call came soon after, and at 4:30am we set off to see sunrise from White Hill near the summit.
You’ll need to purchase $1.50 permit ahead of time as they try and limit traffic. We could see why as there was too large of a crowd to be just hanging out at 5am. As the sun rose natives sang tradition Hawaiian chants and it was just amazing! What made it extra special was meeting my girlfriend’s sister and her boyfriend who just happened to be visiting from Chicago. They had 2 friends on the island and they were gracious enough to team up for the morning! We had an excellent breakfast at Grandma’s Coffeeshop before taking on the road to Hana!
The entire road to Hana is pretty crazy but this section was the most rugged and narrow. Beauty was everywhere and it wasn’t until we entered back into Haleakala National Park that we saw another car. It was the same park but a totally new ecosystem. We took a hike on the Pīpīwai Trail which took us past a huge banyan tree, a giant bamboo forest and 2 incredible waterfalls.
The first fall was the 400ft Waimoku Falls!
We noticed another fall off to the left so a few of us scrambled our way over to it. We were surprised with another incredible sight! I even found a model.
From there we drove to the Venus Pool which is a great place for cliff jumping! I need to learn how not to land directly on my feet but it was so dang cool. Hawaii just continued to be exactly how I envisioned it to be!
From here we would part ways with our new awesome friends before continuing the road to Hana. We found a delicious barbecue food truck then explored the black sand beach of Waianapanapa State Park. The contrast from the black volcanic rock to the green and yellow plants was spectacular. It was a windy tropical paradise!
The volcanic coastline was stunning and the waves were wicked strong but it was time to figure out where we’d be resting our heads that night. There’s not a lot of option along the road to Hana and we did not want to back track so it was either the YMCA 30min away or beach camping near the airport 1hr 30min away. Before deciding we indulged in coconut ice cream from the nice lady at Coconut Glen’s.
Afterward, we continued on the winding one-lane road that lead us to the YMCA. It seemed like it was closed but we saw it was $20/night per person to camp. We first hesitated at the price until our new friend Dallas showed us around. Since there was no camp going on we had access to the whole facility! Hot showers, a basketball gym and a masterfully crafted landscape with a view like the Napali coast!
The basketball gym was a real game changer. I’ve mentioned it a few times already but I really thought I found heaven! We hooped it up along the coast in freaking Maui! Later Dallas came back out and mentioned we could stay in the cabin since a heavy rain was expected. We gladly accepted the offer and since the only other group opted to stay in their tent on the deck we had the place all to ourselves! We had two fans and enough outlets to feel luxurious in our little bunks. That night I think I heard the loudest and hardest rain of my life. We were so lucky and grateful for such nice hospitality.
In the morning we took showers, got some shots up and took off towards West Maui. There was one beautiful view after the next and no traffic! We looked to hike the Waihee Ridge trail in the West Maui Forest Reserve. Our local friend suggested it and it was gorgeous!
There was a good bit of elevation gain but we had an almost clear view of Haleakala and some incredibly lush valleys dotted with waterfalls!
After the hike we drove to Po’olenalena Beach Park in Kihei. There we found the best snorkeling of the trip! Tons of fish, healthy coral and turtles half my size.
After swimming and relaxing on the beach we grabbed some teriyaki while witnessing an epic sunset across the street.
The rest of the night was spent with great company and Maui brews until bedtime when we found a nice beach pull off spot.
In the morning we took our last Maui stroll before parting ways. My friend would fly back to Atlanta and I would fly to Kailua-Kona.
The Island of Hawai’i (The Big Island)
From the air you could see the summit of Haleakala peaking through the clouds and within 20 minutes we were touching down in the largest Island in the United States. The beautiful volcanic landscape has so much to offer and holds some insane accolades. Crazy that only 13 percent of Hawaiian’s live on the Big Island. When you see the amount of volcanic activity you start to understand.
I’m lucky to have a friend on the island that picked me up so I did not need a 3rd rental! They have an amazing house with wonderful rescue dogs to play with. That afternoon we drove down a gnarly gravel road through a lava field to get to Mahai’ula beach in Kekaha Kai State Park. It did not feel like this planet. The beach was a drastic change. Soft white sand, clear blue water and a couple Kona brews!
The beach was perfect for a nap as shown by this turtle and Hawaiian Monk Seal!
The Hawaiian Monk Seal is an endangered species and the Ke Kai Ola is an organization that is dedicated to caring for them. If you’re lucky to see one you should call (808) 987-0765. Sylvester will be on the scene to educate people and ensure the seal is not bothered. After sundown we left and decided to hike/crawl through the lava tube in the backyard. It was spooky but very cool to experience what felt like total darkness. They believe it goes all the way up to Mauna Kea but we didn’t want to find out.
I certainly wasn’t expected all this hardened lava. It was freaky but very interesting! That night was my first in an actual bed and for some reason I was more tired that morning than any other. I’m sure it had nothing do with starting work at 2:30am. Luckily the work day ended at 11:30am HST so there was plenty of time to explore! We started in the sacred Wiapio Valley also known as the Valley of the Kings!
The overlook is spectacular and the road to the valley floor is insanely cool with a 25% grade. We ended at the black sand beach and walked along the shoreline past a river crossing to the other side of the valley to hike up the Z Trail. We certainly respected the area as people are still there living off the beautiful land. The hike was the steepest of the trip but worth it for some killer views!
The next plateau was covered in rich vegetation and giant trees. On a return trip I’d like to backpack to all the way to Waimanu Valley. It’s the next valley over so just an easy 16 miles with 7,300ft of elevation gain. Having done part of that we needed a break on the beach with some more Kona brews.
We relaxed and tossed the baseball until my buddy stubbed the same toe twice on lava rock. It looked mangled but he powered through like a champ. We then drove back up the steepest road in the US, grabbed a marlin sandwich and headed to the highest point in Hawaii!
Waipio Valley happens to be the lowest point in Hawaii so my ears where popping like crazy as we approached 13,803ft. You can drive almost the entire way up but there’s a short trail that leads to the summit of the tallest mountain on Earth! Yup that’s true when you measure it from its oceanic base where it’s over 33,000 ft! 4,000ft taller than Everest.
It’s a totally exposed dormant volcano covered in cinder cones. We even saw snow in freaking Hawaii!
There are thirteen telescopes funded by eleven countries all near the summit as Mauna Kea is also considered one of the world’s best places for astronomical observation.
We stayed at the true summit and took in the amazing views while short of breath until the sun went down. You could see Mauna Loa the most massive volcano on the planet containing 19,000 cubic miles of lava which is larger than the entire Sierra Nevada! It’s still active and only 100ft lower than Mauna Kea also making it taller than Everest.
I really enjoyed the peak as it was unusually nice at the summit. Normally there are 30+ mph winds so once again luck was on my side! The moon tasted like cheese by the way.
Once the sun disappeared below the horizon we rode the brakes back down to sea level. Near the bottom is a steep graded highway that stops abruptly at a dead-end. Unfortunately we witnessed a scary scene as there where tons of police and fire trucks responding to what looked like a car that had completely exploded. It was incredibly sad but reminded us to never be on autopilot. Always stay locked in whatever you are doing especially when driving.
That night was also spent in a bed followed by an early morning. Once done with work we took off toward the green sand beach on the south point of the island. It’s one of only 3 green sand beaches in the world! From the highway to the beach was probably the coolest drive of the trip which says a lot. It’s a tough ramble but my buddy’s jeep tackled the terrain with no issues!
The wind was crazy but it was so beautiful! I wish I took more photos while we were on the beach but we were too focused on enjoying it. There was a nice swell so we tried our hand at body surfing. We had to dive under the waves to get out there or else we’d be crushed. The waves would take us so high up we could see the entire beach. I had one really good body surf until getting flipped and totally demolished. Still super fun!
From there we headed to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park! We started at the Kilauea Visitor center before taking the crater rim drive to witness the Kilauea Caldera. Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world! We were completely astonished when we saw the red lava spewing in the Halema’uma’u Crater along with a rainbow!
It is said that Pele makes her home in the Halema’uma’u Crater at the summit of Kilaulea and I quickly learned to respect her. We had dirty sandals so we decided to walk bare foot around the Jagger Museum and that was a bad idea. I had tiny slivers of lava rock in my feet. Tweezers did not do the job and oddly enough there was no information on this kind of sliver… So my pops ended up digging them out with a knife a week later. That didn’t stop me from loving this place though!
That night we set up camp at the secluded Kulanaokuaiki campground. We were in the middle of a dramatic volcanic landscape with the towering Mauna Loa glowing red in the distance.
Our night didn’t stop there as we drove to Kalapana to check out Uncle Robert’s legendary Wednesday night farmers market! There was fresh produce, awesome food, live music and lots of aloha! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the last night. I felt like a local!
Back at the campsite we could see clouds coming from Kilauea glowing orange and pink and its mystical powers drew us to wandering towards it. We thought we could get a closer look but with every step forward the glow seemed farther away. Finally we realized we drove 20 minutes from the crater so no way where we going to get close to it walking. We turned around to see nothing but an expansive dark lava field. Thankfully google maps helped us find our way back. Either my luck was running out or I was letting the relaxed nature of Hawaii add a lapse in my judgment, maybe both.
When I return, which I most certainly will, I would stay at the Namakanipaio campground which is right next to the Kilauea Crater… Not all plans can be perfect.
In the morning we enjoyed some fresh papaya and some tiny apple bananas while hiking the devastation trail which showed effects of the 1959 eruption. We passed many other eruption spots before hiking the 4 mile Kilauea Iki Trail which was my favorite. There’s a free trail guide you can get at the visitor center chalk full of history and information along the trail. It’s a loop that starts in a rain forest until descending into the caldera. This definitely felt like another planet.
This was the site of a 2,000°F lake of molten rock that once filled the caldera. Steam rose from fractures in the surface and the ground was very hot in some places. It was really interesting. There were even some flowers which blew my mind.
The trail ended at the Thurston Lava Tube which was an excellent final stop in the glorious Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
It was time to head back before flying out that night. Together we covered over 550 miles of the Big Island and I feel like I only scratched the surface. There’s much more to explore within the Volcanoes, Hilo and the amazing beaches like Two Step where you can swim with Spinner Dolphins. It was a great trip back to Kailua-Kona as we stopped for a delicious meal of pork adobo, purple sweet potatoes and of course some malasada’s. As the locals would say it broke da mouth!
Hawaii is a truly special place and I really felt the aloha! I’m very thankful I could share it with great friends. Mahalo, Hawaii!!