Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Cape Hanamanioa

Waves break against the basalt coastline of Maui near Cape Hanamanioa
3.5 miles round trip, 75 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, flat but some very rocky terrain
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, no parking fee necessary

At Maui's Cape Hanamanioa, on the southwestern corner of Haleakala, the crashing waves of the Pacific meet rugged lava flows in a dramatic landscape of basalt cliffs, cinder cones, and ancient Hawaiian villages. The half day hike to reach this corner of the island is a good place to experience an easily accessible stretch of Maui's spectacular coastline with just a fraction of the crowds found at the nearby resorts. Although this is a fairly flat coastal hike, it is important to realize that this is still a hike: the trail surfaces are very rough and rocky while traversing the lava flows, so bring your hiking boots. Also, the exposed landscape at the cape makes high winds quite common here.

Anna and I hiked to Cape Hanamanioa during our New Year's trip to Maui. The trailhead is a short and easy drive from Kahului and is especially close to the resort towns of Kihei and Wailea. From Kahului, we followed Highway 311 south; after passing the turnoff for Kihei Rd, Highway 311 became the Piilani Highway and we continued following it past the the town of Kihei. The Piilani Highway ended at a T-intersection with the Wailea Alanui Drive in Wailea; we turned left here to head south. The road narrowed as it approached Makena Beach and then lost the yellow dividing line shortly after passing Makena Beach. The road narrowed to a single lane with pullouts as it followed a scenic stretch of coast and then crossed a barren lava flow. After passing a monument to the explorer La Perouse, the road turned to the right and the pavement ended, transitioning to rough rock as it reached a parking area by the water: this was the trailhead for both the Hoapili Trail and the Cape Hanamanioa Trail.

We started off the hike by following the Hoapili Trail to the southeast from the parking area, crossing onto the lava flow as the trail followed the coast. This was a striking and extraordinary trail and there were incredible views of the azure ocean, the dark and contorted forms of frozen lava, and colorful cinder cones dotting the slopes of a broad-sloped form of Haleakala, Maui's massive shield volcano. The lava flow that we hiked on is the newest land on Maui: cinder cones erupted on the southwest slopes of Haleakala in 1790, the last period of active volcanism on the island, forming this field of rough, sharp rock. Despite traveling through unforgiving terrain, the trail here was reasonably well-maintained, with a gravel surface smoothing out the rough lava surface. Shortly after beginning the hike, we passed by a set of low rock walls to our left. These walls mark the site of a heiau, a Hawaiian temple. The area along La Perouse Bay was once a native Hawaiian village- remnants of residential areas, graves, and this heiau are collectively part of this archaeological site. Please don't disturb these rock structures, as they're both historically important and sacred to the Hawaiian people!

Heiau and cinder cone
The trail remained close to the rugged, rocky basalt shoreline of La Perouse Bay for the first third of a mile of the hike, at one point passing a small basalt arch that becomes a blowhole at high tide. Waves swept off the Pacific, constantly battering the volcanic rock of the coast. In the distance, we could see the high lava bluffs of Cape Hanamanioa, our destination, rising above the ocean.

Basalt arch
Basalt coastline of La Perouse Bay
One-third of a mile from the trailhead, the trail left the rocky lava flow and entered the shade of a forest of kiawe trees. Over approximately the next half mile, the trail hugged the coastline while traveling under these trees, which provided a welcome respite from the hot sun. Here, the underlying basalt of the lava flow had been covered with loose, washed-up pieces of bleached coral, which in turn provided enough soil for kiawe trees to take root. While the trees helped make the scenery quite nice here, kiawe trees are actually not native to Hawaii: they're a form of mesquite bush from the Americas that European explorers brought to the islands in the nineteenth century that has since taken root in many places.

La Perouse Bay coast
Basalt coastline of La Perouse Bay
The first stretch of the hike to Cape Hanamanioa and the Hoapili Trail together follow the Kings Highway, a footpath around the island of Maui connecting the many ahupua'a, which were watershed-delineated societal units in ancient Hawaii. The Kings Highway is so named because it was established by Piilani, a king who united Maui under his rule in the sixteenth century and ordered the construction of the road. Most of the highway has since fallen into disuse or been built over; this section of the footpath is known as the Hoapili Trail as it was reconstructed during the administration of Hoapili, a governor of Maui during the nineteenth century. Hoapili was a close confidant of King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands in a single kingdom and was a prominent early convert to Christianity among Hawaiian royalty. The ancient trail and the many ruins associated with a village along La Perouse Bay here were now becoming overgrown with the branches of kiawe trees.

Hoapili Trail
Looking east across the azure sea, we could see the broad, sloping form of island of Kahoolawe. Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands; it is also the only uninhabited island today. Like all the other Hawaiian Islands, Kahoolawe is formed by a shield volcano; however, it lacks the lushness of any other islands or even any fresh water altogether as it lies entirely within the rainshadow of Haleakala. This lack of water, combined with decades of its status as a target practice zone for the US military, explains Kahoolawe's unpopulated status today.

View to the island of Kahoolawe
At 0.8 miles into the hike, the kiawe forest abruptly ended and we found ourselves back on the rough terrain of a lava flow. There were more native Hawaiian stone structures here, just meters from the ocean. Here, the Cape Hanamanioa Trail split from the Hoapili Trail at an unsigned junction. The Hoapili Trail passed through a set of stone walls and headed off to the left and inland, crossing the vast lava flows ahead to the east, while the Cape Hanamanioa Trail paralleled the coast here as it also began a journey across the black lava flow. 

Hawaiian ruins and view of Cape Hanamanioa
At just over one mile into the hike, the trail briefly passed through a small grove of kiawe trees by the coast in these vast fields of lava. Here, we spotted a herd of feral goats. These feral goats are not native to Hawaii- after all, no mammals besides hoary bats inhabited these islands before the arrival of Polynesian seafarers about 1500 years ago- and were introduced by early European explorers who hoped to populate the islands with goats as a food source. Set loose on islands with no predators, the invasive feral goat population exploded and has since become problematic, as the goats are severely damaging to native vegetation. While culls to control the population are now common, complete removal of the feral goats is a controversial topic in Hawaii.

Feral goats
Leaving this final patch of trees, the trail made a brief uphill climb (the only substantial elevation gain on this hike) to reach the top of a vast lava flow. The final two-thirds of a mile of this hike was across this barren, bizarre field of broken basalt out to Cape Hanamanioa, which was at the very edge of the lava flow. It was interesting to see the various shapes that lava cooled into, but this stretch of the hike was also quite challenging as the trail itself was littered with irregularly shaped and frequently sharp rocks; hiking boots are a must here, as the flip-flops that many tourists wear around Maui would be torn to shreds here. This made the hike more challenging than its flat profile would suggest. Intense winds whipping off the Pacific Ocean also made this stretch of the trail challenging, winds made worse by pelting sands of eroded lava. This was a harsh and austere landscape, one which most people will not want to linger around.

The trail across the lava flow paralleled the coast here, but it was far enough removed from the actual shoreline- which was constantly about 50 to 100 meters away- that there were no real ocean views to speak of. Instead, we found impressive views towards the sloping form of Haleakala when we looked back to the northeast. In fact, we could see the entire volcano from ocean to summit here: the white buildings of the Haleakala Observatory near the summit stood atop the sloping, mound-like form of the mountain. The long southwest ridge of the mountain led from La Perouse Bay up to the top of Haleakala here. The lower slopes of the volcano were covered with dry forest and intermittently broken by cinder cones and lava flows, while the middle elevations of the mountain alternated between denser and more verdant forests and open grassland. Barren volcanic rock covered the highest elevations.

Haleakala rising over the lava flows at Cape Hanamanioa
The low elevation cinder cones and lava flows were one of the most remarkable parts of the view here. The clear sight lines from the lava flow that we hiked on provided a great view of Kalua o Lapa, a tiny cinder cone nearby from which emanated an expanse of dark, cooled lava. This extraordinary example of a cinder cone and its associated lava flow is actually the youngest eruption on Maui: this cinder cone was probably formed by eruptions around 1790. Visitors who have traveled to Big Island and seen the smooth pahoehoe lava flows there might be puzzled as to why the cooled lava in southwest Maui has instead taken on such rough shapes. This is a'a lava: it is more silicic than the smooth pahoehoe lava and thus had higher viscosity when flowing downhill from its erupting vent, resulting in an uneven surface littered with sharp lava fragments. The higher ratio of a'a lava found on Maui and the higher ratio of pahoehoe on Big Island reflect the stages of shield volcano life of each island's volcanoes: Kiluaea and Mauna Loa on Big Island are fed directly by low silica-content magma from the Hawaii Hot Spot, while these cinder cones on Maui are a result of rifting that brings to the surface older magma which has incorporated more silica content by melting surrounding crust.

Cinder cone on the slopes of Haleakala
At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, the trail along the lava flow finally returned to the coast. Views to the north and west from the coast were very impressive: in addition to seeing Kahoolawe across from us, I could make out the form of tiny (and very pretty!) Molokini Crater, with the sloping shield volcano of Lanai and the rugged, perpetually cloud-capped forms of the West Maui Mountains in the distance.

Lanai, Molokini, and the West Maui Mountains
After a short stretch atop the coastal lava bluffs, the trail turned slightly more inland for the final leg of the hike to Cape Hanamanioa. Here, the wind became ever stronger as we approached the far end of the lava flow, escalating to a full-on gale when I came to a junction at 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Here, the right fork led up to a local high point, while the left fork continued towards the edge of the cape: while the right fork was worth visiting, those hoping to catch a glimpse of the cape and then escape from the winds should continue on the left fork. This trail wrapped around to the left and descended sightly before coming to another spur on the right, which led out to Hanamanioa Light. We followed this trail out to the very edge of the cape.

While Hanamanioa Light is itself unnoteworthy, being nothing more than a pole with a light bulb affixed to it, the view from this point was raw and awesome. Here, massive waves swept off the Pacific and collided with the cliffs of the lava flow, sending spray soaring into the air. We caught glimpses of the southern coast of Maui, but what we could see was quite similar to what we had just experienced: a lava flow coastline with basalt battered by the elements. A beach littered with bleached coral lay just east of the cape and provided some contrast with the azures and blues of the ocean and the darkness of the basalt.

Waves pound Cape Hanamanioa
The trail continued from the light all the way down to the bleached coral beach, but we chose to turn back at the light as the wind was becoming intolerable. We picked our way through the rough basalt on our way back across the flow, wondering why we had chosen to spend our Maui vacation hiking on such rough terrain but at the same time marveling that we had managed to so thoroughly escape the crowds that are omniprescent at Wailea and Makena just a stone's throw away. This is not a relaxing hike that many might associate with a coastal Maui experience, but the scenery and variety of things to see on the way to Cape Hanamanioa make it a rewarding experience.

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