The view of Pololu Valley mid-way down the trail. All images by Meghan Miner.

What to know when hiking Hawaii Island’s Pololu Trail

At the northernmost tip of Hawaii Island, at the end of Highway 270, is a lookout over a windswept black sand beach fronting the lush and enclosed Pololu Valley. Many visitors to the Kohala Coast make the journey to its terminus—past the tiny towns of Hawi and Kapaau—to take in the panoramic view at the Pololu Valley Overlook, but fewer follow the winding Pololu Trail, a section of the longer Awini Trail, down the Kohala mountain cliff face, across the freshwater stream bisecting the valley to the shoreline.

Here are five tips if you decide (and we recommend you do!) to make the relatively easy and short one-mile trek: 

1. Parking is limited at the end of the two-lane road, and residences dot the last few feet to the Overlook. The designated lot holds little more than a dozen cars. If there are no spaces available, turn around and park in the shoulder of the approaching road. Be cognizant of small driveways and park with aloha. The trailhead is located at the far end of the parking lot. 

2. Many guidebooks say the hike can be done in 20-30 minutes, but we found that estimate is more accurate for a one-way trip. The dirt path down 420 feet of valley cliff—past cobble stones that could have been placed there as early as the 15th century, lauhala (Pandanus) trees, naupaka shrubs and wilelaiki (Christmas berry) trees—demands lots of stops to look around as well as plenty of stops on the way back up. If you’re like us and plan on enjoying the hike primarily for its views, allot at least an hour roundtrip to gaze along the shoreline from the trail’s various vantages, and to sit on a piece of jumbled driftwood and watch the waves crash on the black sand at the bottom.

3. Though the turquoise ocean may look inviting, this is not Hawaii Island’s best swimming beach. The remote locale, the occasional presence of Portuguese man-o-war and the sometimes-rough conditions, including the presence of undertows and rip tides, make this a beach better experienced from the sand. Heed the signs and swim at your own risk. 

4. Come prepared. While many tackle the trail in slippahs (flip-flops), the trail is eroded in places and that probably won’t cut it if it has been raining. Pack plenty of water and even a picnic. We recommend the sandwiches from Kings View Café (54-3897 Akoni Pule Hwy.), across from the King Kamehameha Statue in Kapaau, or Local Dish in Hawi (55-3419 Akoni Pule Hwy)—about 12- and 17-minute drives from the trailhead, respectively.

5. Can’t make the trek or just want to see what you’re getting into? You can hike Pololu section of the Awini trail virtually using Google Maps’ off-road street view. Even if you do make the trek into the valley, it’s a good excuse to put your camera down and enjoy it—you can still show your friends back home what they missed.

Want to learn more about the Pololu Valley? Read “Beyond the Lookout,” from HAWAII Magazine’s March/April 2013 issue here.