Hike and Snorkel on Hawaii's Puna Coast Trail
On Hawaii, Halape’s secret snorkeling holes, coconut trees, and white-sand beaches stir any hiker’s wanderlust. But the Puna Coast Trail’s rough volcanic terrain keeps the hordes away.
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I tiptoe through the tide pool on feet tender from a day of backpacking. Jags of volcanic rock and clusters of shiny, spiny urchins act as a minefield between me and my prize: a turquoise lagoon in the northwest corner of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. So when the roiling surf closes in on me, I fling myself forward, a clumsy swan dive, and let the current pull my body into deeper water. I bob into the lagoon where my hiking partners are already making use of the cheap snorkeling masks we picked up for this trip.
Walls of black rock and beaches of white sand dominate the world above the Pacific, but when I dive underwater, I feel like Dorothy waking up in Technicolor. Orange-striped butterflyfish, yellow-tinged manini, and iridescent trumpetfish streak past electric-green grasses. I swim between castles of pink and green coral before heading back to shore to let the afternoon’s last rays bake me dry before our final night on Halape.
We didn’t invent backcountry snorkeling, but it’s just one of the ways Halape, a small, beachy corner of the national park, has redefined our idea of the “perfect basecamp.” Also on that list is our palm-shaded tentsite, just feet from where the high tide licks the shore. And then there’s the nearby eats, like coconuts we pluck from trees overhead and a Hawaiian shellfish called opihi we harvest off the rocks. But in this case, perfection isn’t easy.
Less a trail than a general route, the 11.3-mile Puna Coast Trail departs from the Chain of Craters Road along hardened, pitch-black lava flows hued with copper. Only occasional cairns of bleached coral affirm that you’re on the right track as you steer around the steep waves of rock. Patches of golden grasses and clusters of green ohelo heather that poke out of the rock are pretty, but do nothing to protect against the sun. The hike is long and tough.
On day two, we awoke eager to explore our little oasis. We tried bodysurfing the small waves near our camp and swam through the small cove where brightly colored fish flit about. On a whim, we followed a breadcrumb trail of coral around a rocky peninsula to see where it led: another white-sand beach, nestled beneath the 1,000-foot-tall cliffs on the outer edge of the Big Island—and a snorkeling hole even better than the first.
Back on the shore, we lay out on the beach next to the remains of our cracked coconut as deep reds and pinks soak through the sky. The sand is still warm, and, up close now, we can see that it isn’t pure white after all, but flecked with black: bleached coral and volcanic rock alike, crushed by the ocean and rearranged into a little piece of paradise. n
DO IT Trailhead 19.289001, -155.130012; 19 miles southeast of the Kilauea Visitor Center on Chain of Craters Rd. Water Potable water is scarce and seasonal; you may need to carry it in (a gallon per person per day in mild conditions). Call ahead of time to check. Season Year-round Permit Required for backpacking ($10/group); purchase at the backcountry office near the park entrance. No reservations.