Ha’ena Beach is one of the most scenic and least-visited beaches in lower Puna: a small but beautiful white sand crescent in a coastline mostly dominated by harsh lava cliffs.
The little cove is also known as Shipman’s Beach, because the W.H. Shipman Ltd. owns the land directly behind it, and the Shipman family compound dominates the beachfront. In the 1990s, the beach was the subject of a series of demonstrations and confrontations between the W.H. Shipman company and community activists over public access via the one road to the beach, which the company claimed as private property.
As it turned out, the beach proved to be only the punctuation mark to a marvelous day-hike. The real reason to make this trip is the trail itself: a 3-4 hour journey through the solitude of one of the wildest coasts left in East Hawaii.
The trail follows the right-of way of the Old Puna Government Road – also known as the Old Government Road, the Old Puna Government Beach Road, the old Puna Government Trail, and other variations on the same theme. To reach the trailhead, hikers must first drive the Pahoa Highway (Hwy. 130) to Hawaiian Paradise Park, turn left on Kaloli and follow it nearly to its end, then turn left on Beach Road – another section of the Old Government Road, still in use for vehicular traffic – which soon turns from pavement to gravel. For thous without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, the trail starts at the circular turnaround where the gravel ends, though the actual Old Puna Government Road trailhead – the point beyond which no vehicles are allowed – is a 30 to 45 minute hike beyond this point. Sturdy shoes, sunscreen, plenty of water and perhaps some mosquito repellent are recommended, though local fishermen can often be found trotting down the trail in nothing but shorts and a pair of rubber “slippahs.”
There are actually two jeep trails branching from the turnaround. The makai (Oceanside) route, turns out to be a magnificent hike in itself, via a series of fishermen’s trails through ironwood and hala groves along the tops of the rugged black lava sea cliffs. But the “real” trail is the mauka (mountain side) one, which pretty much goes straight on where the road left off.
To call this stretch of feral wilderness “unspoiled” might depend on one’s definition of “poiled.” This is not the coastline that ancient Hawaiians knew. From the gravel turnaround until one emerges at Ha’ena, there are no houses and very few people, but there are also few native plants and almost no native birds. This trail is not so much a journey into the past as it is an eerie path into the future: a post-human wilderness, a glimpse of what this island would become if, for some reason people were to disappear.
The jeep trail starts out though a landscape reminiscent of the Mad Max movie: a savannah-like old pahoehoe flow, overgrown with grass and bamboo orchids and dotted with guava saplings, glory bushes, and the rust- and bullet riddled hulks of old cars and appliances. But the latter soon disappear. About the last major human artifact, besides the trail itself, is a wrecked subcompact that lies stranded beside a lava hummock that it was obviously never meant to climb. The only wonder is that the little passenger car somehow managed to make it this far.
Soon the road leaves the savannah behind and plunges into rainforest. Most of the rest of the journey will be spent in the shade of overarching trees. The savannah was a chaos of competing plants, but here, in this older swath of jungle, the new order is starting to short itself out. There are a few ohia trees, but most of the forest overstory is dominated by human-introduced invaders such as guava, ironwood and banyan trees. In low-lying areas, mangroves prop themselves up on the marshy soil by extending multiple legs out from their main trunks.
On the rocky cliff tops, groves of hala (pandanus) – a Polynesian introduction – use the same strategy to anchor themselves against the trade winds. There are almost no tree ferns in this forest, but an abundance of other native and non-native fern species, including sword fern and bracken, have spread in vivid green abundance across the forest floor.
The roar of waves is audible for the entire length of the trail, but the ocean rarely visible through the thick greenery, unless one detours one of the fisherman’s trails that occasionally branch off to the left. It’s probably worthwhile to take one or two of those byways, to enjoy the spectacle of the waves crashing against the black cliffs.
This is also a good coast for whale-watching from December to March. With relatively deep waters just offshore, pods of humpbacks and claves often come in close.
The trailhead for the pedestrian-only segment of Old Government Road is marked by a sign and a couple of concrete-and-steel barrier posts. Beyond that, the pathway shrinks to human dimensions, but continues to go more or less arrow-straight through the forest, with occasional small detours around a big banyan. For most of its length, the trail is an excellent shape, thanks to the efforts of volunteers from the Sierra Club and other organizations, including Hawaii Community College Lecturer Roberta Brashear, whose Environmental Science students have been making regular service trips to the area for several semesters.
Signs of civilization begin to appear: a cleared cliff-top meadow overgrown with tall grass, an old stone wall topped with a NO TRESPASSING sign, a few discarded beverage containers, an increasing number of branch trails down to the coast. On the left, a World War II era concrete bunker looms, with the rusting remains of gun mounts still attached to the walls inside. But the reinforced concrete posts that hold up its slab roof are deteriorating badly. How long that roof will stay up, is anyone’s guess.
A few minutes beyond the bunker, the trail opens out on Ha’ena: a perfect-looking little white-sand cove sheltered by a reef of Pahoehoe. Inland from the cove is the private property of the Shipman homes and a large, off-limits pond that serves as a refuge for nene geese. It’s illegal to approach, feed or harass the nene, though treatseeking geese have been known to approach and harass humans on occasions.
The cove itself is sandy-bottomed, and most of it is probably less than three feet deep, though there’s some swim-able water out near the lava reef. There’s not much here for snorklers to see, but the sheltered, shallow water would make this a perfect children’s beach, if it were easier for children to reach.