With tons of tropical, colorful fish swimming around, Kealakekua Bay is one of the best snorkeling spots in the Big Island of Hawaii. You can hike the Captain Cook trail to access the bay’s best snorkeling site.
I hiked the trail to the bay and found it challenging, but the snorkeling was worth it. It was my favorite snorkeling site in Hawaii and one of the best snorkeling I’ve experienced around the world.
This posts covers practical tips on hiking the Captain Cook trail and snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay afterwards. It includes information on the best snorkel site, safety tips, and what to expect and bring.
- The Basics
- Hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail
- Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay by Captain Cook
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Here is some quick, general information on Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook trail that leads to it.
Kealakekua Bay at a Glance
🌊 What it is: Kealakekua Bay is a mile-long bay known to be one of the top snorkeling sites in Hawaii. With lots of tropical fish, limited crowds and clear water, Kealakekua Bay is one of my favorite snorkeling areas (and I’ve snorkeled in several countries).
📍 Location: Kealakekua Bay is on the west coast of the Big Island, as shown in the map below.
🤿 Snorkeling sites: Kealakekua Bay has two snorkeling sites on either of its sides:
- Kealakekua Bay’s north side is the better snorkeling spot (orange circle on the map) and can only be accessed by kayaking, taking a boat tour or hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail (purple line on the map).
- Kealakekua Bay’s south side (red circle on the map), near Manini Beach, is accessible by car and has decent snorkeling and water activities.
The rest of this post focuses on snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay’s north side and getting there by hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail.
⏳ Duration: Kealakekua Bay is big enough that you can spend 1 to 2 hours snorkeling in the area.
💰 Cost: Kealakekua Bay by the Captain Cook trail has no entrance fee.
Captain Cook Monument Trail at a Glance
🌊 What it is: The Captain Cook Monument Trail (also known as the Ka’awaloa Trail or the Captain Cook hike) is a 4-mile, out-and-back moderately challenging trail. It’s one of the three ways to access Kealakekua Bay’s best snorkeling site. The trail has a 2,000 feet elevation change.
📍 Location: The Captain Cook trail is on the west coast of the Big Island. The trailhead starts here and ends at the Captain James Cook Monument next to Kealakekua Bay.
⏳ Duration: The Captain Cook out-and-back hike takes on average 2.5 hours to complete. I’m a decently strong hiker and it took me about an hour each way.
Expect to spend approximately 5 to 6 hours total for hiking the Captain Cook trail and snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay.
💰 Cost: Hiking the Captain Cook trail is free. There is no entrance or parking fee.
🚽 Facilities: There are no bathroom or water facilities on the Captain Cook Monument Trail.
🇬🇧 Who is Captain Cook: Captain James Cook is a controversial British explorer who was the first to establish contact with Hawaiian natives in 1778. He died in 1779 during a violent encounter with the Hawaiian natives.
Hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail
Having done the Captain Cook trail, here are my tips on hiking it.
Where’s the Captain Cook Trailhead?
The Captain Cook Monument trailhead is accessible by car and starts here on Napoopoo Road. Once you see the sign below, you’re at the start of the trail.
Is There Parking at the Captain Cook Trailhead?
There is no official parking for the Captain Cook hike. There is some limited parking spots on the side of the the Napoopoo Road near the trailhead.
Since there’s only about 15 parking spots on the side of the road, it’s important to arrive early (before 9am) if you’re visiting during Hawaii’s peak season (mid-December to April) and are hoping to snag a spot.
I traveled in September during the low season and was able to get one of the last few spots at 9:15am.
How Difficult Is the Captain Cook Monument Trail?
At four miles long, the Captain Cook hike is usually considered moderately challenging with rocky and steep parts.
Here are the hiking conditions you will encounter on the Captain Cook Monument Trail:
- During the 1st mile, you’ll be on a narrow dirt road surrounded by tall, itchy grass. The dirt road is mostly flat, but you’ll need to watch your step for rocks to avoid rolling an ankle. During this part of the hike, you’ll be partially shaded.
- During the 2nd mile, when you starting seeing Kealakekua Bay at a distance, you’ll encounter a steep descent that’s rocky. During this part of the hike, there’s no shade and you’ll be completely exposed to the sun.
- During the last quarter mile of the hike, you’ll reach a shaded area on a dirt path that becomes wide and flat again before reaching Kealakekua Bay.
How Crowded Is the Captain Cook Monument Trail?
The Captain Cook Monument Trail is popular and decently crowded for how narrow the trail is. However, you won’t see lines of people hiking it as it’s a moderately challenging trail and there are two other ways to get to Kealakekua Bay.
- Low season crowd: I hiked the trail in September, during Hawaii’s low season, and I only saw five other hiking groups (usually couples or a small family) during my entire out-and-back hike in the morning and early afternoon.
- High season crowd: If you hike the Captain Cook Monument Trail during Hawaii’s peak season (mid-December to April), expect the crowd on the hike to be at least double. However, the crowd will mostly be in Kealakekua Bay when the boat tours start arriving as early as 9am.
What to Bring and Wear
What to Wear on the Captain Cook Hike
Given the conditions outlined above, here’s what to wear to the Captain Cook Monument Trail hike:
- Hiking or sturdy shoes. As mentioned above, the trail is rocky and steep, so hiking boots or sturdy shoes with traction are recommended. I wore my light hiking shoes that worked well.
I saw two other hikers in sandals and they seemed to struggle around the steep, rocky area of the second mile of the hike.
- Moisture-wicking clothes:
- The tall grass during the first mile of the hike is known to leave small cuts and temporary skin welts on some hikers. If your skin is sensitive, consider wearing long sleeves and pants. This also gives you some sun protection.
- If heat and humidity bothers you more, wear short sleeves and shorts. I wore a romper and in retrospect, I would have liked some leg protection from the grass.
- Reef-safe sunscreen. During the second half of the hike, there is no shade. Make sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen to protect the corals later. I like this reef-safe sunscreen since it spreads more easily compared to other reef-safe alternatives I’ve tried.
- Sunglasses. For the same reasoning as above, bring eye protection. I brought my athletic pair of sunglasses that I like wearing on hikes.
- Water (a lot of it). Make sure to bring a lot of water as there are no water facilities on the trail or at the snorkeling site. You need enough water to last you the entire 4-mile hike as well as during snorkeling. I brought my reusable water bottle that kept my water cold for hours.
What to Bring on the Hike to Snorkel
Since you’re likely hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail to snorkel at Kealakekua Bay, here’s what else to bring on the hike:
- Snorkel gear. There are no snorkeling gear rentals at Kealakekua Bay, so make sure to bring your own. My Airbnb had snorkel masks, tubes and fins, so I just brought those.
- Swimsuit. Wear your swimsuit underneath your hiking clothes as there are no changing facilities at the bay and a good, private spot is hard to find.
- Snacks. There are no food vendors on the trail or at the snorkeling site, so bring enough snacks to last you the entire trip. Make sure to keep your snacks away from Indian mongooses (see below).
- Sunscreen. Make sure to bring extra sunscreen to re-apply after snorkeling for the 2-mile hike back.
- Waterproof camera (optional). Remember to bring any waterproof photo or video equipment if you plan to take underwater footage.
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.
The Two Areas to Enter Kealakekua Bay for Snorkeling
From Captain Cook’s trail, there are two areas where you can enter Kealakekua Bay to snorkel and each has its pros and cons.
- The Monument Snorkeling Spot: 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 area (there’s a corner on the right when you’re facing the ocean where you can easily step in). It’s also deeper here, so you can potentially spot a sea turtle or dolphin from afar.
- Cons: The snorkeling isn’t as good here (the water is less clear and there are fewer fish). It is also more crowded with snorkelers that are coming in from boat tours.
- Off-Trail Snorkeling Spot: The off-trail snorkeling spot at Kealakekua Bay is located here.
- Pros: The snorkeling is better (the water is clearer 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 potentially less safe to get into the water from this spot (see safety tips below).
Safety Tips for 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. There are a ton of sea urchins at Kealakekua Bay and you do not want to step on them. Sea urchins have venomous spikes that can puncture your skin and cause an inflammatory reaction.
- Be careful when walking over the slippery rocks. If you’re on the off-trail snorkeling spot (not the monument spot), note that the rocks are very slippery when getting in and out of the water. One snorkeler fell while walking on them and landed hard.
- 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 the snack-stealing 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 (I hung my bag from a tree branch).
Protecting 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 rock, 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.
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.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below.