The moderately strenuous Captain Cook Monument Trail on the Big Island’s leeward Kona Coast is the only way to access the far-flung Captain Cook Monument by land. Penetrating some big-time Hawaiian history, this is also a hike with a major aquatic payoff: the absolutely top-notch snorkeling available in protected Kealakekua Bay.
The trailhead lies off the Mamalahoa Highway along Napoopoo Road outside the town of Captain Cook south of Kona. It’s a four-mile round-trip trail involving about 2,000 feet of elevation change; the return, uphill hike especially can be a bit exhausting. Bring along plenty of water! While you’ll want to pack beachwear and snorkeling gear for the bay, consider wearing long pants for the hike. Early on especially, you may be dealing with some tall, overgrown grass that can be unkind to bare skin.
While the first stretch of the trail (proceeding on a 4WD track) passes through some dense vegetation, much of this hike plays out on a scrubby, sun-exposed slope. Wear sun protection, although if you’re going the sunscreen route make sure it’s a reef-safe formula.
The descent passes through open grassy shrubland and the sparse but welcome shade of kiawe groves. There’s much-exposed lava rock. You’ll savor some long oceanfront views as you pick your way downhill, watching for loose stones as you do.
Hitting the rugged shores of Kealakekua Bay, edged by coral fragments, dark sand, and bare rock, you’ll see the Napoopoo Light Beacon marking Cook Point off to the southwest. Pass through ancient stone walls to the northeast to reach the Captain Cook Monument itself.
This sober stone memorial roughly marks the spot where Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy met his end in February 1779. Cook was on his third voyage of exploration around the Pacific at this point, leading a crew spread between the ships Resolution and Discovery.
Initially received in Kealakekua Bay the month before with warm hospitality from Native Hawaiians, Cook and his men ratcheted up tension after returning, especially after accusing locals of stealing a boat. Tempers quickly flared as Cook attempted to detain the chief Kalaniopuu. In the resulting turmoil, the Native Hawaiians—having already been fired upon—ended up killing Cook along the shores of the bay. This exacted violent retribution, though Kalaniopuu was able to engineer a truce soon thereafter.
The steep sea cliffs (or pali) edging Kealakekua Bay to the east of the monument—the Pali Kapu o Keoua—were historically used by Hawaiians for royal burials. Given not all of Cook’s dismembered body was recovered after his killing, some historians have suggested some of his bones may lie in those same cliffs. (The pali and their burial caves remain highly sacred to Native Hawaiians; don’t trek into them.)
Besides reflecting on the rather momentous local history, you should definitely check out the shallow nearshore waters of Kealakekua Bay near the monument: They offer some of the finest snorkeling in Hawaii. Coral structures buzzing with tropical fish, rays, and sea turtles are easily accessible. You might also spot the spinner dolphins that frequent the bay.
It’s best to get an early start on the Captain Cook Monument Trail for two reasons. One, you’ll hopefully avoid the worst heat of the day on that dry, exposed slope. Second, you may be able to time your snorkeling in the bay before the full crush of tour boats arrive by midmorning or so. It can be a crowded place indeed given the caliber of the underwater sights.
-Feel free to park near the start of the trail on the side of the street.
-While the marine life in Kealakekua Bay is the main draw, you may see also some terrestrial critters on your hike. They’re likely to be exotic (i.e., non-native): Both mongooses and feral goats are commonly spotted along the Captain Cook Monument Trail.