Uncovering the hidden gems of Kiholo Bay
Situated on the beautiful Kohala Coast, Kiholo Bay is like a convention center for beauty, wildlife, wilderness and history—dropped in the middle of a deserted lava field. From tire-melting Highway 19, amidst the barren landscape, one can spot a strand of palm trees pressed against a gradient of turquoise thought only to exist in myths and movies. It’s possible to take in the view from the scenic point lookout near mile marker 82, but why press your nose to the glass of an aquarium when you have the opportunity to swim with the fish?
Kiholo Bay was once the site of an ancient Hawaiian fishpond built by King Kamehameha the Great in 1820, which was destroyed by a Mauna Loa volcanic eruption in 1859. It is an azure haven to nesting turtles, countless fish and rare wildlife. This destination is for the curious and adventure-minded, as the somewhat arduous trek to the bay requires walking through kiawe (mesquite) forests, alongside tidepools and over a black sand-pebble beach. It is a hike worth the effort since you will be provided with astonishing views on both macro and micro scales along the route. At Kiholo, you will also find the most unique feature of any beach destination—a brackish water lagoon set amidst the desolate lava field.
A barbershop-style post topped with a small lantern faintly marks the gravel access road located just south of the scenic point at mile marker 82—blink, and you’ll miss it. This road leads to the southern part of the bay and is best experienced on foot. The hike from the highway to the actual bay is around one mile. The gravel road is fairly moderate, though good walking shoes are advised.
Towards the end of the trail, vegetation becomes dense with plants and trees. As you reach this southern point of the bay, it’s another mile and a half trek to the lagoon, but the extra journey is well worth it. As you walk north along the beach, Kohala Mountain stands in front of you like a resplendent painting, Maui can be spotted to the left, the dome of Mauna Kea can be seen over the kiawe trees and Hualalai Volcano is situated to the south—all while you inch along a splendid, pebbly coast. At the edge of solidity and in the presence of the massive and sacred mountains, one cannot help but feel awestruck. The colors of the land are striking—shades of wheat, arrays of blues and greens and the hazy purple of distant terrain—this unique island palette will amaze your eyes.
If heading towards the lagoon, at about a third of the way, you will find Keanalele, a freshwater pool that fills an ancient lava tube. Appearing just like a hole in the ground, it is easy to miss this feature, but large stones arranged like prehistoric park benches mark the entrance. Keanalele is also known as Queen’s Bath—a sacred spot—not a restroom, trash receptacle or sink, so please be respectful. A wooden ladder provides access to the first pool and it’s an easy swim to the next natural skylight. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, bring waterproof flashlights and make the journey deep into the lava tube. The water levels rise and fall with the tide, so if distance is what you’re after, low tide will allow you to venture farther into the tube, while high tide makes for an easier swim. It is the perfect spot to rinse the saltwater off after a dip in the ocean or to cool down from the long hike. These tubes are slightly narrow, naturally dark, and often slippery, making it difficult to navigate. Use extreme caution and put safety first should you decide to explore the sacred pools. Understand the ebb and flow of the tides and only attempt if you are absolutely comfortable with the setting.
After a stop at Keanalele, continue the hike along the black sand and pebble beach. You can often spot green sea turtles sunbathing on the shore, though their main congregation is in the lagoon. It’s a walk best done in the morning as the emergence of color and detail with the cresting sun is something to behold, and winds tend to pick up in the afternoon.
There are a few private homes along the bay—a Balinese retreat, a guarded compound, and several family beach houses closer to the lagoon—please respect their privacy and do not venture onto private property. You will find that even with the homes, Kiholo Bay is rarely crowded. Once arriving at the lagoon, walk around the edge and cross the wooden bridge over the rock wall flume that connects the ocean to the brackish ponds behind. Turtles use this conduit and you may spot many of them surfing the flume with the tidal change, which turns the lazy stream into a fast flowing river.
In the distance, other sea turtles lazily relax in the sun on the black rocky island located in the center of the lagoon. It’s possible to swim to the small island, though the mixture of fresh and salt water yields poor snorkeling visibility. A snorkeling mask is recommended, however, as the chances of coming nose to nose with a sea turtle is highly possible! Just remember, all turtles are protected under Hawaii State Law and it is illegal to harass, feed or touch the animals.
When on the Big Island, Kiholo Bay is a must-see seashore destination. Spend a day here and you will leave relaxed, refreshed, exhilarated and in absolute awe of nature’s gifts.