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How to Hike the Captain Cook Monument Trail in Hawaii

Everything I read online about the Captain Cook Monument trail (also known as the Ka’Awaloa Trail) on the Big Island of Hawaii made it out to be the hardest hike ever, with a brutal descent and no shade on an unmaintained trail.

I have to admit, it scared me, and I was nervous about doing it, but I wanted to see the place that Captain Cook was killed (that may be morbid but I find it so interesting from a historic standpoint), as well as snorkel where the monument is, and perhaps see some of the spinner dolphins that come into the bay to rest and play.

I decided it would be worth it, and with lots of water and plenty of rest stops on the way back up that I would be able to make it.

It turned out to be tougher hiking back out than I expected, but it was definitely worth it – and was one of my favorite days out in Hawaii.

Hiking the Captain Cook Monument trail in Hawaii

Hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail

We set off on the Captain Cook Monument trail on a clear and sunny morning, a day after many of the beaches on the island were closed due to a high wind warning.

As we hiked down the rocky path, we quickly realized it was nowhere near as bad as it was made out to be. Sure, it was a bit rocky, but with proper footwear, it wasn’t an issue.

It wasn’t even that steep, compared to a lot of the mountain hikes I do in Colorado. My fears had been unfounded.

Hiking the Captain Cook Monument trail on the Big Island

The further down we hiked, the more the views opened up. We pretty much had the path to ourselves and it was glorious.

Once we got down to the monument, near the spot where Captain Cook was killed on Valentine’s Day in 1779, there was no one else around.

Despite the still large waves battering the coastline, the water was calm and inviting in the sheltered bay. Where once there was warfare and strife, now it is a very peaceful and calming place.

Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay - you can hike here on the Captain Cook Monument trail

Almost immediately we saw a pod of dolphins slowly making their way towards us. The dolphins jumped out of the water, spinning and playing in the cool morning air. They circled close to shore and I could hear every breath blown out of their blowholes.

After a while they started making their way back to the open ocean, I watched them till I could no longer make them out in the distance.

Kealakekua Bay - the end of the Captain Cook Monument trail

The dolphins came back around again a couple more times while we were down there, and I loved seeing them in their natural environment.

It is such a beautiful and peaceful spot and definitely worth the hike to get down there.

Snorkeling at Captain Cook Monument

One of the main reasons we wanted to do the Captain Cook Monument hike was to go snorkeling on the coral reef in front of where the monument is, as it is known to be one of the best snorkeling spots in all of Hawaii. 

You can get in the water off the rocks by the monument, and you are immediately above the reef. It curves around with the bay and steeply drops off into deep ocean.

We saw a large amount of Pacific teardrop butterflyfish, parrotfish, pufferfish, wrasse, and other colorful tropical fish that I can’t name. I have heard of people seeing turtles here but we didn’t on our visit.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an underwater camera so I don’t have photos of the fish, so you will just have to go and see for yourself!

Hiking Back on the Captain Cook Monument Trail

The hike out was certainly harder in the heat and with the relentless uphill, it was much hotter than I had imagined because heat radiated up from the ground as well, making it feel like we were in a sauna.

I was amazed at the people that were still coming down in the afternoon, but maybe it was a smarter idea to hike downhill in the heat, then hike back up just before sunset when it is cooler.

I stopped often on the way out, especially when there was shade, and made sure to drink lots of water. It was tough going but seeing the resident dolphins and the colorful fish definitely made it worth it for me.

Spinner dolphins in Hawaii

How to Hike the Captain Cook Monument Trail

Getting to the Captain Cook Monument Trail

The Captain Cook Monument Trail starts on Napoopoo Road in the town of Captain Cook. It is just down from the intersection with the Mamalahoa Highway – you can find it on Google Maps.

There is limited parking at the trailhead, or if you don’t have a vehicle, you can catch a bus – check the bus timetables on the Hele-On website.

Another option is to hitchhike, it is very common and safe to do on the Big Island – this is how we got to the trailhead.

View from South Kona on the Big Island

Length of the Captain Cook Monument Trail

3.6 miles (5.8km) return

Elevation Gain of the Captain Cook Monument Trail

1,256 feet (380 meters)

Difficulty of the Captain Cook Monument Trail

Intermediate. It isn’t a difficult hike, apart from the heat on the return leg. Make sure to bring at least two liters of water, if not more, because you will need it! Also, make sure to wear proper footwear – flip flops ain’t going to cut it.

Wild goats on the Captain Cook Monument hike in Hawaii

Tips for the Captain Cook Monument Hike

  • Take at least a couple of liters of water – more than you think you will need for a short hike because the heat really is brutal and radiates up from the ground when you are heading back up.
  • Pack out everything you pack in, including all trash.
  • I would recommend taking at least a snorkel and mask for snorkeling, and fins too if you aren’t a confident or strong swimmer. 
  • If you see the dolphins when you are snorkeling or swimming in the bay, make sure you don’t hassle them or touch them. If they come to you, then enjoy it but don’t follow them when they leave the area you are in.

What To Pack for the Captain Cook Monument Trail

For day hikes, the Cotopaxi Luzon is an awesome backpack choice and is lightweight and will pack down easily when you’re not using it.

I highly recommend taking a CamelBak with at least 3 liters capacity because there are no water sources on the trail and you will need to drink ALOT of water on the hot hike back out – believe me, take more than you think you will need. Take some trekking poles to help with the downhill – your knees will thank you!

Also, pack a raincoat in case it rains, and if you are hiking in winter and are starting early, take a lightweight but cozy thermal underlayer top.

View from Captain Cook Monument trail of Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island

Where To Stay Near the Captain Cook Monument Trail 

There is a large range of accommodation options in South Kona in the Captain Cook area which is the closest option to the Captain Cook Monument trail. Alternatively, Kailua-Kona is only about a twenty-minute drive away.

For hotels, stay at one of these highly-rated hotels/bed & breakfasts in the area:

There are also a large number of excellent vacation rentals in the Captain Cook/Kealakekua Bay area, here are the best affordable options:

Magic Sands Beach on the Big Island

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8 Comments on Everything You Need To Know About Hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail in Hawaii

  1. @theworldonmynecklace nice article.

    To the armchair commenters, “Your intent in hiking there, per your story and the title of your blog, was to swim with the dolphins. Had you explained you were hiking to a wonderful underwater park to do some snorkeling and you encountered some beautiful creatures that would be different. But your intention was to go there and swim with wild dolphins.” Go back and read the title and full article again. No where in there was what you assumed she said. Agreed, there are tourists who are assholes. But, her article showed nothing but respect.

    • Hi Bryon, thanks so much for commenting. To be fair to that commenter, I did change my post as it originally did pertain more to swimming with the dolphins as I didn’t realise at the time that I was possibly causing them stress or anxiety by swimming near them in a wild setting, but after further research, I learnt more and I changed my post to focus more on the hike, which was my favorite on the Big Island.

  2. What you don’t understand is that spinner dolphins rest during the day. They are curious animals and when you go to the bay to “swim with them” you are harassing them. I grew up down there and I hate watching tourists come and chase the dolphins all over the bay to “swim” with them.

    To many of the native Hawaiians there you are doing nothing more then harassing those dolphins.

    • I definitely understand what you are saying and I don’t want them to be harassed. But I do think that if someone is looking to have an experience with dolphins that this is a much more sustainable and respectful way to do so than going to swim with captive dolphins or to take part in a dolphin swimming tour.

      • I also understand what you are saying but you do not understand how native Hawaiians feel about that. My family has lived down at that bay for generations. My grandmother grew up at Ka’awaloa (where you hiked to) and they do not like seeing people disrespect the Aina or its inhabitants.

        I watched tourists come down there and as soon as they saw the dolphins in the bay immediately run into the water and start swimming out to “swim” with the dolphins. I had to help a lady return to shore because she exceeded her limits.

        Had you gone to Napo’opo’o, the village on the other side of the bay you would have seen placards that described how spinner dolphins rest during the day and that it is illegal to swim with ocean mammals. Your intent in hiking there, per your story and the title of your blog, was to swim with the dolphins. Had you explained you were hiking to a wonderful underwater park to do some snorkeling and you encountered some beautiful creatures that would be different. But your intention was to go there and swim with wild dolphins.

      • I was hoping to see the dolphins but I also wanted to do the hike anyway for the hike itself, and to snorkel. Thanks for your comment, I will definitely read more about this and maybe my opinion will change.

    • I think harassing them – blocking them, swimming too close, not letting them leave the area, trying to touch them is harassing them. I think that there are respectful ways to interact with animals in the wild and that “swimming” with them in a natural setting can be one of them if it is done properly.

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