Hawaii photograph

Backpacking to Halape

Posted: February 7, 2011

We backpacked to Halape for 2 nights on the old Keauhou Trail that descends the slopes of Kīlauea to sea level on the Puna-Kaʻu Coast of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Since we got our permit the day before, Pete Morton and I drove down the Chain of Craters Road before sunrise to park along side the road where the Keauhou Trail passes over lava from the Mauna Ulu eruptions of 1969 – 1974.

We started before sunrise to minimize our time under the sun which can be brutal on the lava field.  Our plan was to backpack a distance of 8-1/2 miles down the Kīlauea escarpment losing 2,680 feet of elevation to get to Keauhou and continue on the coastal trail to Halape.

The moon shone brightly over snow capped Mauna Loa at 13,680 feet elevation as the first rays of the sun peaked over the horizon.  The air was cold as we pushed-off from the Chain of Craters Road onto the Keauhou Trail following ahu — piles of rocks — that mark the trail. 

With the Mauna Ulu eruption only 40 years old, the pāhoehoe lava is intact and only early colonizers — ferns, ʻōhiʻa, and ʻōhelo — grow in cracks between rocks where moisture collects.  The ʻōhelo berries (Vaccinium reticulatum) were so tantalizing that I could not resist eating a few juicy berries as we pushed-off on the Keauhou Trail.  They were delicious!

We soon reached a much older lava landscape dominated by grasses and large ʻōhiʻa trees (Metrosideros polymorpha).  The landscape was dry and the ʻōhiʻa trees were surprisingly large and old.  There was a constant downhill grade and we descended the slopes of Kïlauea as we make our way down the trail.

Lava fields gave way to grasslands that were once part of Ainahou Ranch.  Prior to the winter rains, drought wrecked havoc on much of the Big Island and Halape was closed due to lack of water.  Rains have since drenched the landscape and the plants and animals have made a huge comeback.

We saw many bright orange gulf fritillary or passion butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) sipping nectar from the small yellow flowers of ’uhaloa (Waltheria indica).  The butterflies are not native to Hawai’i but are from the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas.  They are, however, an important pollenator of native and non-native flowers like ‘ilima, lilikoi, and ‘uhaloa.

We saw indigenous ʻaʻaliʻi (Dodoneae viscosa) with red seed capusles on the grassy slopes as we made our way down slope.  After resting at the Keauhou Shelter and checking the water situation — the tank is completely full and the spigot is working — we continued along the coast to make our way to Halape.

The backside of gulf fritillary wings look very different from the bright orange and black top.  The backside have a luminescent white and metallic copper pattern that shimmers in the light when they flap their wings.

One of the more unexpected sights was a gigantic jumble of rocks — probably tumbled from the nearby cliffs by earthquakes — that we had to climb up.  The most amazing thing is that someone skillfully fitted the stones together to create a near-perfect hiking surface.

Once we reached the top of the gigantic rock pile, we could see our destination — Halape!  We could see the beach, coconut groves, 1,500 foot cliffs of Kapukapu, and the small islet of Keaoi offshore.

Gulf fritillaries mate and lay eggs on passion vines, an introduced plant that has been adopted into the Hawaiian culture as ”lilikoi”, for its delicious fruit.  Lilikoi thrive along the coasts of Puna and Ka’u and the butterfly is tied to the plant — its caterpillars feed exclusively on passion vines.

When we reached the campsites in the coconut and milo groves, we stayed in a rock wall enclosure with a coconut tiki guarding the rear flank of the campsite.

While setting up camp, I saw a gulf fritillary caterpillar crawling on the lava.  It was bright orange in color and covered with black spines.  Caterpillars feed exclusively on passion vines and derive a substance that makes them poisonous as caterpillars and distasteful as butterflies.

When the butterflies feed on nectar, they pollinate the flowers and enable passion fruits to grow, produce seed, and spread throughout the Puna-Ka’u Coast.

The lililoi along the Puna-Kaʻu Coast is important to remember because they have survival value in the wild.  The fruits are small but full of water — passion fruit juice — with a delicious burst of flavor!  When no water is available, passion fruits can provide the badly needed moisture.

We set up camp within a rock wall in a grove of milo and coconut trees near the rocky shore.  After swimming in the brackish pool in the crack, we filtered water at the Halape shelter and returned to camp to make a dinner of ramen, string cheese, beef jerky, crackers, and dried mangoes.

As darkness descended, we reflected on our journey down the slopes of Kilauea seeing so many gulf fritillaries in fields of passion vines.  We relaxed under the stars at Halape, unwound for the weekend, and prepared ourselves for the adventure the next day.  This is part 1 of a two part series on Halape.  Stay tuned for the return leg of our trip next week.

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Gulf Fritillary or Passion Butterfly, Wikipedia

Halape, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

6 Responses to “Backpacking to Halape”

  1. XJ says:

    Looks like a great time. I’m green with envy!

  2. Awe-inspiring! I was going to do the Halape hike with a friend 2 years ago but had to return to the UK. I hope to do it next year when I hope to be working (volunteer) in the HVNP. Should have been there this year from June to August but they mislaid my visa application forms for 6 weeks!
    Can’t wait for the next chapter. Incidentally, temperature here (SE England) is in the 90′s F at the moment. Almost Hawaiian.

  3. Glen Owen says:

    I went down to Halape a total of 5 times. Twice before the 75 earthquake and then 3 more over the next 4 years. The friendship was great with tons of great fishing. The diving for lobster was priceless and throw-net for Moi lead to great feasts. Great memories of Halape and the hike out to Kalapana and Queen’s Bath.
    All my best to all the next generation of explorers to this precious place.

  4. Akiko says:

    Hi, my friend and I were really interested in this trip and I stumbled upon your page. How was the weather during your trip? Any rain? And for the campground, was the ground soft and smooth enough to leave a sleeping pad at home? The trip seems really long, so any extra weight I can leave behind, I will. Thanks!

  5. Nathan Yuen says:

    Although Halape is on a dry coast, it can be rainy — I’ve heard of people have to stay in their tents all day due to heavy rains — it all depends what time of year. I would take a sleeping pad — it depends on the camp grounds you get. Some are on black sand, others are on rock.

  6. Mike says:

    Thanks for this . I’m part of a Wilderness Volunteers trip doing trail work on Keauhou Trail in May. Looks beautiful and I can’t wait!

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