Mahukona Beach Park on the North Kohala Coast offers one of the more unique “beachgoing” experiences on the Big Island. It’s not really a beach per se, certainly not a sandy one. Instead, this shore marks the ruins of a once-bustling harbor and sugar mill, with fine snorkeling in the small bay here.
Mahukona Harbor was a significant port back in the late 19th century into the first half of the next. A railroad was built here, as was a sugar mill that eventually became part of the Kohala Sugar Company. But activity waned by the middle of the 1900s, and the harbor was officially closed in 1956.
The remnants of its infrastructure and that of the sugar mill dominate the Mahukona Beach shorefront. This is a county park, reached via Highway 270 between mile markers 14 and 15. There’s a portable restroom and hot showers, but no drinking water. Mahukona Beach Park includes picnic facilities and a grassy lawn available for camping with a permit. You won’t find a lifeguard here, though.
The waters in the bay here are typically calm in the summer, and it’s quite shallow offshore, deepening gently to 40 feet or so. This, coupled with some unique underwater attractions, makes Mahukona Beach a popular place for snorkeling and also well suited to beginner divers.
That said, it’s important to monitor ocean conditions upon arrival. Strong westerly or northwesterly swells here, most common in winter, can make for dangerous conditions. When the surf’s rough, stay out of the water: It’s easy to get dashed about in those sorts of seas.
In December 1913, an inter-island Hawaiian steamer, the SS Kauai, was dashed on the reef off Mahukona Harbor and sank. The steamer—which began its career as the schooner Cosmopolis hauling lumber along the West Coast—had been hauling railroad parts and sugar. The scattered wreck of the Kauai is a prime draw for snorkelers and SCUBA divers off Mahukona Beach.
A ladder offers easy entry into the bay when conditions are appropriately calm. The harbor entrance can have a bit of a current, though it’s usually manageable. Snorkelers swimming out to the center of the harbor can follow old mooring chains to find the site of the shipwreck. Visible remnants include the Kauai’s engine and propeller, though storm waves washed the boiler ashore. Some of the steamer’s cargo, including railroad equipment and cables, come strewn about the sandy seafloor.
The manmade debris and coral exposures attract a variety of marine life in the bay. Look for reef fish such as puffers, frogfish, yellow tangs, and parrotfish. Moray eels are not uncommon sights in natural and artificial hideaways. And keep an eye peeled for even bigger creatures: Magnificent manta rays often cruise these waters.
Sunbathers won’t find much reason to visit Mahukona Beach, but those with snorkeling or diving gear can have a rewarding time here in the abandoned port. So can anyone with an interest in history, as the old mill and railroad infrastructure provide an intriguing backdrop to the Bayshore.
-Small boats still use the Mahukona Harbor, so use caution when snorkeling or diving (and use dive flags).
-Mahukona Beach is popular among locals for fishing and hanging out. You may find it a bit crowded on weekends, accordingly.