Kanaio – The King’s Highway

This is a 6.5 mile loop trail that starts at La Perouse Bay, goes out the old King’s Highway to Kanaio, back along the Kanaio coast, back again on part of the King’s Highway, then a side trail across the lava to the beach and Hamamanioa Light Station point.

Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de Laperouse

The bay we start the hike from is named after the leader of a French expedition of discovery.  At the time, 1785, France was somewhat behind other European states in colonizing and exploiting the New World and then proceeded to launch a voyage of discovery.  Outfitting 2 ships, the Astrolobe and the Boussole, with the finest scientific minds and instruments they set out to explore the Pacific, north and south, and parts of Australia.  Sailing around the Horn they visited Chile, Easter Island, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Alaska, California (Monterey), east to Macao and Manila, north to Korea, then Japan and Russia, south to the Navigator Islands (Samoa) and lastly in 1788 to Botany Bay in Australia.

This expedition was like our going to the moon.  They left France before the French Revolution, but even as the revolution took hold everyone awaited the news from the expedition.  Sadly the ships never returned but copies of their log did.  One copy was dispatched when they landed in Kamchatka, and then traveled across Asia to Paris with the sought after information.

The La Perouse expedition gives us a time line on when the lava fields up ahead formed (the last eruption of Haleakala).  They first arrived in 1786 and mapped the area, showing no signs of the lava delta we see today.  A later expedition in 1793 by Vancouver shows a map with the lava delta giving a date of around 1790 for the eruption.

How to Get There

You need to get to Makena Road and follow it to the end.

The Trail and the Plants

The trail starts at the southeastern side of the parking area.  The Hawaiian name for the area is Keone’o’io and it was the site of 4 villages and a temple or Heiau.  You quickly come to the site of Pa’alua Heiau and Mauka (island side) of this the site of an ancient large residence, perhaps that of a chief.

The trail follows the coast through lava outcroppings.  The common natives Uhaloa and Alena are here but most of the rest is non-native.  Fisherman still come here to cast nets into the blue bay waters.  The sound of crashing surf is all around you.  There are several small private beaches to enjoy.  Soon you intersect a 4-wheel drive road shaded by large Kiawe trees.  On the left, just before you enter the shaded road is Milo, our first native tree whose beautiful wood was prized by the Hawaiians.

This shaded section is filled with non-natives, Vinca, Lion’s Ear and masses of the vine Bitter Lemon covering the ground.  But at the far end of this shady stretch is a small grove of Milo set next to a small cove with a sandy beach and a few non-native Palms (Phoenix).  On the left, just as you leave the cove is Noni, a Polynesian introduction that has many medicinal uses.  Its large, shiny dark green leaves really stand out amongst the other plants.  And on the right is the native, yellow flowered, prostrate Nohu or puncture vine.  Back on the left is a wonderful native with a beautiful white flower; this is Maiapilo, the Hawaiian Caper bush.  Greenery fades into black lava after this cove.  On the left is our first trail junction, the start of the King’s Highway.  An opening in a fence on your left leads you to the old trail. Going straight takes you to the Light Station on the point, which is how we will return.

This section of the King’s Highway was built between 1824 and 1840.  It cuts across the lava delta that is thought to be the last volcanic eruption on Maui.  There is no shade out here, hats are good, sunscreen a must.  The worn lava road is somewhat difficult to walk on, sharp of course but also it moves as you walk, kind of like walking on beach sand.

The King’s Highway is straight as an arrow here.  After a few hundred yards you reach the base of taller part of the lava flow.  There is a sign on the right announcing the road built in the mid 1800’s.  To the right a side trail takes you over to the light station trail.  On the left is a lightly used trail that leads to a fenced area where a few rare native plants are growing.  The fence is there to keep the goats away.  The trail sign say it is 2 miles to Kanaio.  This is misleading as Kanaio is just over 2 miles from the parking area the lava field ahead is a long mile.

But it is indeed a long mile traveling through a stark landscape.  There is almost nothing growing out here.  To the left is a view of where the lava burst from the mountainside.  All around is the jagged ‘Aa’ lava, which forms when the lava flows very quickly.  The Highway itself is now an uneven floor of the jagged ‘Aa’, but originally it was probably topped with a finer layer of gravel, which has weathered away with time.

Building this road must have been arduous.  There are several sections that cross small valleys that are spanned by walled, bridge like structures.  The sides of the road are curbed with flat plates of lava.

There is a beautiful cove about 3/4 (or maybe a little more) of the way across the lava field, at about 1.6 miles look to the right for this bright green pocket hugging the coastline.  There are 3 side trails to this cove; the third one is the best.  A spring of water must be here to make the plants thrive.  The lava seems to have spared this one small area. There is some interesting ‘rock art’ there left by previous hikers.

Back on the King’s Highway the trail climbs to a high point where you can see the greenery and beaches of Kanaio.

It’s really refreshing to come off the lava field onto this beach with Kiawe shading the area.  Bright green Naupaka accents the ground on your right.  Just ahead is the perfect picnic stop with a log swing hanging from the Kiawe tree.  You just have to sit there and enjoy the view.  This is a destination for many 4-wheel drive adventurers who drive in over a very tough road starting past Ulupalakula and come down to the coast to reach here.

I continue the hike on the old highway and will loop over to the coast on the way back. On the right are numerous rock house foundations of the ancient village. Inside the waist high stem walls the floors are covered in small, smooth breach stones. In fact much of the old Highway in this area was top dressed with these smooth stones, you can see the remnants is several areas. Springing up around the old village site are many non-native Agave looking plants; this is Mauritius Hemp. I grow the variegated form at my nursery. When they flower a very tall spike shoots up filled with countless blossoms. Then small plantlets will form all along the stem and this is why it has spread so much on the island.

The Old Highway veers slightly to the right as it continues across the much greener lava field. This area must be an earlier flow as plants have had time to take hold. There are many small Aalii bushes competing with the non natives which include Indigo Bush with it’s apricot colored flowers and Tree Tobacco with it’s tubular yellow-orange flowers.

But then we come to an oasis of native survivals. On the right is a cluster of Coconut Palm, Hala Trees and Naio, a shrub that has found its way into the garden landscape. Rock walls to protect the spring that is found there surround this entire ‘Oasis’.

Just over the next rise we reach the access road coming in from Ulupalakula. Beyond here the Old Highway cuts straight across the lava fields heading for the new Windmills in the distance. But from here 4 wheel drive vehicles are clearly using the road so I turn right and head to the shoreline.

The trail now follows the access road as it skims the waters edge. This is really a beautiful area with black lava and white coral beaches accenting the amazing blue pacific waters. It’s often very windy but also mostly empty visitors.

There are a number of native plants here, Naupaka, more Naio, the red berried Ohelo kai, several prostrate plants including 2 Morning Glory’s, Pau o Hiiaka with small whitish blue flowers and Pohuehue with large violet blooms and Beach Heliotrope (Nena) with white coiling flowers.

Upon reaching the beach head to the right to find several Anchialine Pools with there unique combination of fresh or brackish water on top and saline water from the ocean below. There are some amazing colors here, rusty oranges, deep rich greens, earth greens and many shades of blue.

I have seen the rare, long-legged Hawaiian Stilt here. The Ae’o is a wading bird with jet-black feathers on it’s back and white on the forehead and below. Long slender pink legs and a long black bill make them truly exceptional.

Out on the windy point to the left are several fishing camp windbreaks. It’s a pretty lively area with the wind and surf rushing and crashing all around. Next head up to the light station, there are more Anchialine Pools and stunning lava formation along the way.

From the light station there is a short trail hugging the cliff edge, be careful but it’s thrilling with great views, lava arches and crashing waves. This trail then joins the access road to the light and heads back to La Perouse Bay.

It’s tough hiking over the rough A’a lava and the wind can be strong but the colors, the history and the true Island experience are worth it.