Along the King’s Trail
To any sane person, the prospect of spending a day traversing barren and desolate terrain along a lava-covered coastline would suggest finding something—anything—else to do. Yet while not for the faint of spirit, the King’s Highway is actually nothing short of spectacular.
As seasoned Maui hikers, we knew better. Yet even we were in for more than we bargained for—as we should have realized when our friend Tomi suggested we rethink our outing.
Tomi is an extreme adventurist who’s been blessed, I’m convinced, with at least nine lives. Among our friends, “near-death” stories invariably start with, “Once when I was hiking with Tomi . . .” So when Tomi explained that it had taken him nearly three days and considerably more water than he could carry to make the trip we were planning as a day hike, our itinerary underwent a dramatic modification. We identified an eight-mile segment between La Pérouse Bay and Manawainui that Tomi blessed as “doable” in one day, and decided to save the rest for a separate hike.
To any sane person, the prospect of spending a day traversing barren and desolate terrain along a lava-covered coastline would suggest finding something—anything—else to do. Yet while not for the faint of spirit, the King’s Highway is actually nothing short of spectacular. Just be sure you’re prepared. For example, my choice of footwear, an old pair of running shoes, is definitely not recommended. This hike demands shoes with good ankle support and toe protection. Hiking boots are best, since twisting steps on the stones take their toll on ankles and knees, and occasional steep inclines, though short, can be exerting.
And of course, bring twice as much water as you think you will need.
We began at the King’s Highway trail head at La Pérouse Bay and traveled east along the clearly marked trail. The blustery winds and churning seas that typically sweep this rugged but gorgeous coastline had calmed. The day was clear, hot, bright, with just a whisper of wind. A host of little beaches beckoned us, accessible by venturing down any of a multitude of side routes. Some were black sand; others were what we euphemistically referred to as “beaches in progress,” where great coral blocks, stark and sun-bleached, had been piled high along the water’s edge. Over millennia, they will succumb to the elements and be ground into the fine white sand one finds at La Pérouse or Makena.
We opted for side trips along the coastal trails at just about every opportunity, as these proved by far the most interesting. We felt a bit like weekend archeologists, discovering at each new vista the remnants of Hawaii’s past: canoe hale (storage areas made of stone), ancient house sites, old, empty wells and fishing shrines. Lava tubes, long ago eroded and inundated by the sea, served as habitat for tropical fish. Beach naupaka thrived here, as green and lush as you’d find in the manicured setting of a four-star resort. Tomi led us to several springs; about a dozen goats had claimed one as their oasis, here in the middle of the lava flow.
Our coastal route had the added benefit of cooler temperatures, and the slight ocean breeze gave some respite from the scorching heat of the black a‘a (sharp, broken lava). Because the seas were atypically calm, we indulged in a luxury not usually recommended: refreshing swims along this part of the coast, where we could imagine ourselves the only people on earth. The seas were the clearest turquoise I have ever seen in my more-than-30 years in Hawai‘i, and the stark contrasts between blue sky, black lava and white coral blocks were startlingly beautiful.
A last dip, and we left the coast trail and headed out across the lava flow to connect with the King’s Highway again, presuming it to be just over the next ridge. We were wrong—but in typical male fashion, rather than seek help, we kept moving. (Roaming might be a more accurate description.) This odyssey continued for the better part of an hour. The midday heat was unbelievable, and our water supplies, though adequate, were severely depleted during this short adventure.
Finding yet another little bay, we enthusiastically broke for lunch. Resting in the shade of some kiawe trees, we talked about what life must have been like for those fortunate enough to have lived here in the days before La Pérouse. Tomi suggested that the area was most likely inhabited on a seasonal basis, during peak fishing seasons. You could see where sea salt crystallized in the lava in abundant supply (ideal for preserving fish), and huge empty opihi shells littered the ground where others had come to relax and eat.
Rejuvenated, we continued on the trail, stopping often to marvel at the sights. The King’s Highway is a remarkable study in stonework. The dry, mortarless construction stands to this day as a testament to the skills of its builders. We tried to imagine how many workers it must have taken to clear the path and create what in many places looked like a finely graded road. Some sections of the trail have sloping walls at least 30 feet high supporting the trail as it crosses numerous small gorges. In places, the trail seems undisturbed, the flat surface meticulously laid with small stones. Large slabs of lava, set on edge, mark the trail and direct drainage to help prevent erosion.
Built during the reign of Pi‘ilani, who ruled Maui in the 16th century, the King’s Highway once circumnavigated the whole island. In the 1800s, Maui’s Governor Ho‘apili ordered the trail improved, commissioning road gangs for the work. The Rev. Henry Cheever noted that these road gangs were largely composed of prisoners who had been convicted of adultery (which had not been considered a sin until the missionaries showed up); Cheever called it “the road that sin built.”
Today much of the highway has disappeared; it survives here on the rugged southeastern coast, perhaps in part because the inhospitable environment has discouraged development. Yet not long ago (we’re speaking here in geological time), the area known as La Pérouse was a lovely bay, the site of a bustling settlement.
That was in 1786, when French Admiral Jean-Francoise de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, became the first European to set foot on the island. (Though Captain James Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, he never landed on Maui.) La Pérouse had been commissioned by the King of France to sail the Pacific, discover new lands, establish trade, and collect scientific data. On May 28, La Pérouse sighted the snow-capped peaks of the Big Island, and soon after, Maui’s mountains came into view. Searching for a safe anchorage, La Pérouse stopped along the southern coast at Keone‘o‘io (now called La Pérouse Bay) and spent a day ashore, visiting small villages.
A few years after La Pérouse’s visit, Haleakal¯a’s last eruption covered the region in lava. What remain are ruins . . . and the road.
La Pérouse himself came to a mysterious end two years later, when his ships were wrecked during a hurricane in the Santa Cruz Islands. In his book Mowee: An Informal History of the Hawaiian Island, author Cummins E. Speakman, Jr., writes: “For forty years no trace could be found of the great French explorer of the Pacific. Then an English captain, Peter Dillon, solved the mystery at least of the wrecks, various parts of which were salvaged and returned to France. Apparently, there were survivors . . . but none ever reached home.”
Our empathy for those who hadn’t made it home increased as the afternoon progressed, and we headed mauka (inland), ascending the foothills to ‘Ulupakalua, where we had left a car. In hindsight, it would have been smarter to do the hike in reverse, walking downhill in the early part of the day and along the beach in the afternoon. Yet while the hike up to ‘Ulupalakua looked as though it would take forever, we managed to reach it in about two hours, going at a leisurely pace. Even my ten-year-old son handled this hike with few complaints, once we dragged out the reserves of juice and candy.
The hike up was dry and dusty, taking us through lands more fitting for goats and cattle. The only vegetation that seemed to like the area were the wiliwili trees with their distinctive red-orange flowers, apple of Sodom, and kiawe.
At last we reached the car. We congratulated ourselves on surviving, and piled into the vehicle, content to leave the rest of the King’s Trail for another day. As we drove off, laughing and talking about other hiking adventures, someone mentioned lava tubes.
“Hey, Tomi, didn’t you fall through a lava tube once?”
“Oh, yeah, I did,” Tomi answered coolly.
But that’s another near-death story.