The Pu’u wa’awa’a Cinder Cone (which means “many furrowed hill” in Hawai’ian) is a prominent geological feature on the western Island of Hawai’i. Pu’u wa’awa’a is unique in that, although much of the western Island of Hawai’i is covered in lava flows, Pu’u wa’awa’a is actually significantly older than most of the lava around it. The Pu’u Anahulu flow can be seen in the cinder cone itself, as well as in the rugged terrain north of the Māmalahoa Highway, while the rest of the land around it is part of the more recent flows from Hualālai, the westernmost of the Island of Hawai’i’s five major volcanoes. Geologists have determined that the earliest eruptions from Hualālai were between 10 and 25 thousand years ago, while the Pu’u wa’awa’a Cinder Cone dates from around 100 thousand years ago.
Hualālai is the third most active volcano on the Island of Hawai’i — but unlike its much more active neighbors Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, Hualālai has only erupted three times in the past 1,000 years, with the most recent eruption occurring in 1801. If you flew into the airport at Kona, you landed on its lava flow. Geologists estimate it erupts every 200-300 years … which means it’s getting close to being due for a new eruption.
You can choose whether or not to think about the volcanic activity underfoot as you set out for your hike at Pu’u wa’awa’a, which begins at a small gravel trailhead parking area. Restrooms are available, as are several kiosks explaining rules for hikers and hunters.
Starting your Hike to Pu’u wa’awa’a
The landscape here is nothing short of stunning. If you’ve driven up from the west, you’ve likely traveled through long expanses of relatively young lava on the island’s dry side, which means there hasn’t been much erosion and it sort of feels like you’re in a black rock desert. At Pu’u wa’awa’a, though, there are ample grasslands and ōhi’a lehua forests. And yeah, you’ll definitely see the cinder cone.
Begin your hike by stepping over the chain barrier and walking along the main gravel Vulcanite Road.
This part of the hike is not tricky or difficult — you’re just staying on the road and heading toward the cinder cone. To your left, you’ll note a large ridge, which is a remnant of the lava flow from Pu’u Huluhulu. Active recent geology, you guys – it’s everywhere on the Island of Hawai’i!
At 0.3 mile, ignore the ‘ōhia Trail on the right for now and stay on Vulcanite Road. At 1.5 miles, the trails meet again near an old ranch building. This entire area is part of the indigenous Hawai’ian collective land ownership system known as Ahupua’a. Historically, chiefs administrated wedge-shaped sections of land called moku. These sections of land generally followed watersheds and extended from the mountain ranges to the sea, ensuring each moku had enough resources to provide for the populations they supported. Laborers paid taxes to overseers, who funneled the wealth upward to the chiefs. To ensure no resources were depleted, the overseers and kahuna (priests) placed kapu (taboos) on certain resources at certain times of the year, making sure no coves were overfished or forests were depleted before they could regrow.
In modern times, the Ahupua’a system continues in the Pu’u wa’awa’a Cinder Cone State Park and Forest Reserve, where Hawaiians can still ranch and hunt. The area was once privately owned ranches, but after returning to public land the trails were built entirely by volunteers.
The ranch animals of Pu’u wa’awa’a
At the old ranch building, stay to the left to continue hiking up the faint dirt road. There’s a small bench here as the trail continues to climb toward the edge of the cinder cone. At 1.9 miles, pass through a gate — and remember to close it behind you!
The path of the faint road becomes a bit less visible here, but if you’re in doubt just try to hug the edge of the Cinder Cone as much as possible. Oh, and say hello to the goats and cows that roam around up here.
Continue the long, slow climb up and by 2.5 miles, the trail will wrap around a breach in the cinder cone’s southeastern side. Keep hugging the edge of the incline until the trail turns west, providing you with another worn ranch road that makes a bee-line right up to the center of the cinder cone.
Climb this steep stretch of trail and you’ll reach the saddle between the two high points on the cinder cone at about the 3 mile mark. While either high point offers up great views, the southern point is a bit taller, so keep to your left and continue your ascent until you hit 3.2 miles. Then, look around.
If it’s clear, to the northwest you may be able to make out most of the dry, western Kohala Coast of the Island of Hawai’i, clearly seeing the effects of the lava flows on this side of the island. Across the Maui Channel you may even see the towering mass of Haleakalā National Park. In the opposite direction, Mauna Kea.
When you’re done enjoying these spectacular views, return back the way you came. Remember to close all the gates you’ll pass through.
For a change of scenery and a more interesting return to the trailhead, keep left at the 5 mile mark to venture down Miki’s Road. This is a rougher ride than the Vulcanite Road but still generally a very well-maintained, wide footpath. At 5.8 miles, turn right to hike on the ōhi’a trail.
The unique Ōhi’a tree
The ōhi’a trail is an entirely different experience than the trails you’ve been on so far. This route winds its way through rough, rocky lava flows where ōhi’a trees and other hearty vegetation have taken root. This unique landscape is home to many endemic plants and animals, and an interpretive trail brochure is available online for those who’d like to learn a bit more about this unique ecosystem.
You’ll rejoin the Vulcanite Road at 6.4 miles, which you can follow back to the trailhead.