Down the staggered southern slopes of Kilauea Volcano along the remote Kau Coast, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park maintains four coastal camping areas only reachable by foot. Kaaha is the westernmost of these backcountry camps and the closest to a road. It’s still a challenging hike to reach it, but well worth the effort for those prepared with wilderness essentials.
The most direct way to access the Kaaha Trail is from the Hilina Pali Overlook. This scenic vantage and trailhead are at the end of Hilina Pali Road, nine miles off the Chain of Craters Road. This is a narrow, single-lane road, so exercise caution heading for the trailhead.
The Overlook sits at nearly 2,300 feet atop the Hilina Pali. In Native Hawaiian, pali means “cliff.” Hilina Pali translates to “windy cliff,” an apt name for this open, wind- and sun-blasted slope. Roughly 1,500 feet high, the Hilina Pali form a dramatic escarpment on the south flanks of Kilauea Volcano. Part of the Hilina Fault System, the pali mark the head of a huge landslide—the Hilina Slump—which extends offshore.
Those intending to camp at Kaaha (or another of the coastal campsites along this seashore) need a backcountry permit from the national park. As many as 16 campers can pitch tents at Kaaha per night, with a maximum of three consecutive nights allowed.
Whether or not you’re camping, you ought to inquire with a ranger as to the availability of water at the Kaaha Shelter. There’s a catchment tank alongside this three-sided shelter that gathers rainwater shed off its roof. But it may be empty, so it’s important to get the most up-to-date information on water availability.
You want to be drinking three to four quarts of water per person in this hot, parched countryside. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are real concerns. Besides drinking enough water, you should wear sun protection and try to avoid hiking in the middle of the day.
You begin your journey on the Hilina Pali Trail, switchbacking down the steep cliff face. The landscape is mostly wide-open grassland with scattered ohia trees, with shade mighty scanty indeed.
At 2.2 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach a righthand fork heading 1.4 miles to Kaaha. If you stay on the Hilina Pali Trail another 1.2 miles, you’ll reach another junction, with a trail heading west to Kaaha. This trail is also 1.4 miles, so, either way, the total distance to Kaaha from the Hilina Pali Overlook is 3.6 miles.
Both the Hilina Pali and Kaaha trails are only lightly maintained. The route is partly marked by rock cairns, but overgrowth can make these hard to see. Bring a map and compass and practice careful wayfinding.
Treeless Kaaha includes a rocky shorefront indented with a sheltered cove. The shelter offers a shady hangout as well as a potential water source. Be sure to treat any water you fetch from the catchment tank.
The Kaaha cove includes interesting tidepools and is a fine place to snorkel. It’s not uncommon to see green sea turtles in this cove. In fact, you might even see turtles hauled out onshore here. The Hawaiian Islands are the only place in the world where green turtles regularly bask out of the water. Whether you spot them swimming or basking, give these wonderful creatures plenty of space.
The Kaaha Trail heads west from the Kaaha camp along an empty coastline into the Kau Desert Wilderness. It reaches the Kau Desert Trail around the Pepeiao Cabin and campsites.
Bear in mind it’ll be a steep climb back up the Hilina Pali to the trailhead from Kaaha itself. Make that a morning or late-afternoon undertaking (depending on whether you’re day hiking or backpacking).
Kaaha is a wonderful wilderness destination for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park visitors who come properly prepared for the elements and remoteness.
Expect to see plenty of ants around the Kaaha camping area. The good news is they don’t bite or sting. The bad news is they still really like crawling around absolutely everything.