Teeming with colorful tropical fish and marine life, Kealakekua Bay is one of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The bay has a north and south snorkeling site and one of the best ways to access the incredible snorkeling site on the north end is by hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail.
I did the hike to the bay and here, I share firsthand, practical tips on how to do it. This post covers:
- 🥾 Captain Cook’s hiking overview
- 💡 Tips for hiking Captain Cook
- 🤿 Best snorkeling entry points
- 🦺 Bay snorkeling safety tips
- 🎒 What to pack and wear
Disclosure: Lists By Lukiih is readers-supported. If you buy through an affiliate link on this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks!
Captain Cook Monument Trail at a Glance
Here is some general information on the Captain Cook Monument Trail to help you plan your trip.
⛰️ What Is the Captain Cook Trail?
The Captain Cook Monument Trail, also called the Ka’awaloa Trail or simply the Captain Cook hike, is a four-mile, out-and-back trail.
The hike leads to a monument that commemorates the famous explorer Captain James Cook.
James Cook was the first to establish contact with native Hawaiians in 1778. He’s a controversial figure due to his later violent interaction with the natives.
🥾 Why Hike the Captain Cook Trail?
While the hike itself is not beautiful or easy, the primary reason why people hike Captain Cook is because it leads directly to Kealakekua Bay’s gorgeous snorkeling site on the north side.
📍 Where Is the Captain Cook Trail Located?
The Captain Cook Monument trail is on the west side of the Big Island, about 12 miles south of the Kona coast. Part of the trail crosses into Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park, which is known to have cultural and historical significance.
Check out other great things to do on the Big Island.
⏳ How Difficult Is the Captain Cook Hike?
At four miles long, the Captain Cook Monument Trail is considered a moderately challenging hike with rocky and steep parts. It has an elevation gain of 1,272 feet and some areas are completely exposed with no shade.
On average, it takes two-and-a-half hours to complete. I’m a decently strong hiker and it took me about an hour each way.
If you’re hiking the trail to snorkel in Kealakekua Bay, budget 5 to 6 hours total for the hike and snorkeling.
💰 Does the Captain Cook Trail Have an Entrance Fee?
There is no entrance or parking fee, so hiking the Captain Cook trail is free. There are also no public restrooms or water facilities.
I share all my travel expenses in this Hawaii trip cost breakdown.
5 Tips For Hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail
Here are five tips when hiking the Captain Took trail.
🚗 1. Get an early start to guarantee parking.
There is no official parking area for the Captain Cook trail. There are only about 15 parking spots on the side of the road near the trailhead.
Given the limited parking, aim to arrive early (before 9 am) if you’re visiting during Hawaii’s peak season, which runs from mid-December to April.
🍀 My Experience: I traveled to the Hawaiian islands in September during the low season and was able to get one of the last few spots near the trailhead when I arrived at 9:15 am.
💧 2. Bring lots of water.
There are no water fountains or facilities along the four-mile hike. Make sure to bring plenty of water to sustain you for both the snorkeling and return hike.
🍀 My Experience: I brought my 24 oz reusable water bottle that kept my water cold for hours, which was great. This was sufficient water for me, but I think most people will need more.
☀️ 3. Protect yourself from the sun.
During the second mile of the hike, when you start seeing Kealakekua Bay at a distance, you’ll also encounter a steep rocky descent.
At this part of the hike, there’s no shade and you’ll be completely exposed to the sun, so bringing sun protection is important.
Make sure to bring reef-safe sunscreens to protect the corals in Kealakekua Bay. I like this reef-safe sunscreen since it spreads more easily compared to other reef-safe alternatives I’ve tried.
👖 4. Wear long sleeves and loose pants.
If you’re sensitive to grass or other plants, consider wearing a sun hoodie or any other breathable long sleeves and pants.
During the first mile, you’ll be on a narrow dirt road surrounded by tall grass. I hiked this trail with three other people and all of us got a few itchy, microcuts from the surrounding plants. One of us developed annoying, but harmless small welts that went away a few hours later.
🥾 5. Prepare for loose rocks.
During the second half of the hike, you’ll reach a steep descent that’s mostly comprised of loose rocks.
During this portion, my fellow hikers and I were glad we all wore closed-toe shoes with some ankle support. I wore my hiking boots which I initially thought was overkill during the first mile of the hike when it was mostly flat.
That said, I saw some locals hiking in flip-flops and they seemed fairly comfortable. I also saw two other hikers in sandals and they were struggling around the steep, rocky area.
At the end of the trail, you’ll reach Kealakekua Bay where you can experience some pristine and incredible snorkeling.
Kealakekua Bay at a Glance
Here is some general information on beautiful Kealakekua Bay to help you plan your trip.
⛰️ What Is the Kealakekua Bay?
Kealakekua Bay is a mile-long bay known to be one of the top snorkeling sites in Hawaii. It’s located on the west coast of the Big Island. The waters of Kealakekua Bay are clear and full of tropical fish and marine life.
The bay is also home to spinner dolphins, which are famous for their acrobatic leaps out of water, monk seals, and sea turtles.
Part of the bay is protected by the Marine Life Conservation District, which prohibits activities such as fishing, feeding fish, and taking any coral or sand.
🤿 Where To Snorkel in Kealakekua Bay?
Kealakekua Bay has a north and south snorkeling site.
- The north end of the bay is the better snorkeling spot (see orange circle on the map below). The north side can only be accessed by kayaking, taking a boat tour, or hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail (purple line on the map below).
- The south end of the bay (see red circle on the map below) is near Manini Beach and is accessible by car. It has decent snorkeling and several tour companies offer water activities like kayaking, surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding.
The rest of this post focuses on snorkeling on the north side of Kealakekua Bay.
🛥️ How to Snorkel Kealakekua Bay?
There’s only two ways to snorkel Kealakekua Bay on the north end.
Option #1: Hike Captain Cook
You can hike the Captain Cook trail as mentioned above. This will give you direct access to the north end of the bay, where the better snorkeling site is.
Option #2: Book a Boat Tour
👍🏻 Pros: When you book a boat tour, you get to admire the south Kona coastline, lava tubes, and sea caves. You also have a much better chance of seeing humpback whales and Hawaiian spinner dolphins since you’re further away from shore. Lastly, snorkeling gear is provided.
👎🏻 Cons: The downside is that you will be at the snorkeling site at the same time as everyone else, so it’s a lot more crowded. You also won’t see the “off-trail” snorkeling site.
4 Tips for Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay by Captain Cook
Once you reach the end of the Captain Cook Monument Trail, Kealakekua Bay will be immediately in front of you. Here are four tips when snorkeling there.
💧 1. Choose the right entry point for yourself.
From Captain Cook’s trail, there are two places to enter Kealakekua Bay and each has its pros and cons.
Snorkeling Area #1: At the Monument
The “official” snorkeling spot is right where the Captain James Cook Monument is located.
👍🏻 Pros: It’s easier to get into the water from this place because there’s an area where you can easily step in. The step is at the right corner when you’re facing the ocean. This area is also deeper, so you can potentially spot a sea turtle or dolphin from afar.
👎🏻 Cons: The snorkeling here isn’t as good because the water is less clear and there are fewer fish. It is also more crowded as it’s a popular spot for snorkelers and scuba divers coming in from boat tours.
Snorkeling Area #2: Off-Trail
The unofficial, off-trail snorkeling spot at Kealakekua Bay is located here.
👍🏻 Pros: The snorkeling is better in this area as the water is clear and there are more fish. It’s also less crowded because it’s too shallow for scuba divers and boat tours to enter.
👎🏻 Cons: It’s harder and less safe to get into the water from this spot because of the spikey sea urchins and slippery rocks. Enter only at your own risk.
🦺 2. Stay safe when snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay.
There are some safety things to be aware of when snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay from the Captain Cook side.
- Watch for sea urchins when getting in and out of the water. Sea urchins have venomous spikes that can puncture your skin and cause an inflammatory reaction.
- Be careful when walking over the slippery rocks. The rocks are very slippery when getting in and out of the water.
- There are no lifeguards. Be aware that Kealakekua Bay doesn’t have any lifeguards. If you’re not a particularly strong swimmer, don’t go too far from the shore.
- Watch out for petty theft from Indian mongoose. There are aggressive Indian mongooses around the shores that seem to know that snorkelers have food. Make sure your food is sealed and placed in an area where it can’t be easily reached.
3. Do your part to protect the coral reef.
The coral reef at Kealakekua Bay is fragile and slowly disappearing as more tourists visit the snorkeling site, so make sure to do your part to protect it.
- Don’t step on any coral. Coral can look like rocks, but it is alive and considered an animal. Even a slight touch can harm the coral, and it can take years for it to recover, making it extremely important to not step on any coral.
- Wear reef-safe sunscreen. I like this sunscreen since I think it spreads easier than other reef-safe alternatives I’ve tried.
- Admire wildlife from afar. At the beginning of the Captain Cook hike, you’ll see a sign that tells you to stay far away from sea turtles (at least 10 feet), seals (at least 50 feet), and dolphins (at least 150 feet). Breaking this can result in a fine and harm to wildlife.
🤿 4. Don’t forget your snorkel gear.
Remember that there are no facilities on the north end of Kealakekua Bay, so make sure to hike with your snorkel gear, towel, snacks, and bathing suits.
Overall, the Captain Cook Monument Trail hike is not necessarily a pleasant one, but the rewarding snorkeling site it leads to makes it well worth the trek.
Big Island Trip Planner
To make your travel planning easier, download the trip planner below and use it as a starting point. The planner has country-specific travel information as well as an itinerary, packing list, and map with key places pinned.
The trip planner is built on Notion, which is what I use for all my travel planning (I genuinely love this tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
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- 🤿 Hiking Captain Cook to Snorkel in Kealakekua Bay Guide
- 🎒 Complete Maui Packing List: Tips + What To Bring
🧋 This site is run entirely by me, Lukiih. I spend hours researching each destination to ensure its accuracy. If you find my tips helpful, say thanks by buying me bubble tea!