Kohala is where the Big Island began, about 1 million years ago – starting from a hot spot in the sea floor. The Kohala volcano last erupted some 120,000 years ago and is now extinct. Today, the Kohala mountains form some of the most rugged and beautiful natural scenery on the entire island.
Kohala is known for its ranching culture, Hawaiian history, and breathtaking valleys. Even before humans settled this magical place, migrating Humpback whales have had love affair with the Kohala coast for millennia. Read on to learn more about Kohala and the top things to see, do, and eat in the region.
A Brief History of Kohala
Kohala is the birthplace of King Kamehameha I, who would go on to unite the Hawaiian Islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii. His birthplace, marked by two birthing stones, is next to Mo’okini Heiau, an ancient temple dedicated to the war god Kū.
Kohala is home to several significant ancient Hawaiian settlements, including Lapakahi, a 600 year old fishing village. In ancient times, Kohala’s hills were extensively cultivated by Hawaiians using terraced farming and ditch irrigation systems that brought water from mountain streams to crops like taro, sweet potatoes, and bananas.
The people and landscape of Kohala changed, along with the rest of the island, with contact from the western world in the 18th century. Gradually, plantation farming of commercial crops like sugarcane began to replace traditional Hawaiian agriculture. The native Hawaiian population was decimated by western diseases and migrants began to arrive to work on the plantations.
When cattle were introduced in 1793, ranching slowly became an integral part of Kohala’s culture. Mexican cowboys came to Hawaii to train Hawaiian ‘paniolos’ in the art of cattle handling and rodeo. Many ranches were established, including Parker Ranch in Waimea.
Places To See in Kohala
Kohala is separated into ‘North Kohala’, which includes the towns of Halaʻula, Hāwī, and Kapaʻau, and ‘South Kohala’, which includes Puako, Waikoloa Village, Waimea, and the unincorporated town of Kawaihae and Kawaihae Harbor.
The first of 7 valleys in the Kohala Mountains that run along the northern tip of the Big Island, Pololū begins where Highway 270 ends. A hike down a short but steep trail (-420 feet in 0.6 miles) takes you to a stunning and wild black sand beach backed by a grove of towering Ironwood trees atop 40 foot sand dunes. The Pololū Valley Lookout at the top of the trail gives a birds eye view of the valley and beach below.
Read more about visiting Pololū on our website.
The 7th and most visited valley, Waipi’o is accessed via Highway 19 through Waimea and Honokaa. Once densely populated and home to Hawaiian Kings, today Waipi’o now supports a small community of people and taro fields. The valley can be viewed from the lookout or accessed by 4X4 vehicle or walking down the extremely steep road – a 40% grade in some spots! Waipi’o has a beautiful black sand beach which is bisected by the Waipi’o River.
Read more about visiting Waipio Valley on our website.
There are many gorgeous beaches on and around the Kohala coast. Some of the best include:
- Spencer Beach Park – calm waters and sandy beach that’s good for kids.
- Hapuna Beach Park – very large golden sand beach good for body surfing, boogie boarding, long beach walks, and sunsets.
- Wailea Bay (Beach 69) for plenty of natural shade and calm, brilliant blue waters.
- Anaeho’omalu Bay for sunsets, ocean activities, and beautiful coastal hiking.
- Pololū Valley and Waipi’o Valley for rugged black sand beache. In particular, Pololū’s beach has many multicolored volcanic rocks and interesting drift wood. Neither of these beaches is suited for swimming because of frequent and strong currents.
Read more about beaches on the Kohala coast on our website.
This town is at the epicenter of Kohala’s ranching or Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture. Waimea is home to Parker Ranch, one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States, founded in the late 1800’s by Samuel Parker. Check out the Paniolo Heritage Museum if you’re curious to learn more about the history and culture.
If you’re in town over the July 4th holiday or Labor Day weekend, don’t miss the annual rodeos!
Another Waimea highlight are its excellent weekly farmers markets where dozens of local farmers, food trucks, and artists come to set up shop. Get there early before the best stuff sells out! For music and entertainment lovers, Waimea’s Kahilu Theatre offers a full schedule of concerts and performances considered to be some of the best on the island.
Tip: If you are traveling to Waimea from North Kohala, the Kohala Mountain Road (aka Highway 250) offers a lovely scenic route.
Blink and you’ll miss this quaint little town in North Kohala. Hāwī is an excellent place to stop on your way to Pololū Valley. Cute little shops and art galleries line its main street. Some of our favorite places include As Hāwī Turns – for surf-wear, clothing, and gifts. Right across the street, Elements Jewelry and Fine Crafts has beautiful island made jewelry and crafts that make great souvenirs. You’ll notice several historic buildings that date to the early 1900s in Hāwī like the old Kohala Hotel which is now home to Bamboo Restaurant and gallery.
About two miles east of Hāwī’s town center, the original King Kamehameha Statue stands in front of the Kohala Civic Center in Kapa’au. This statue has an interesting back story, which includes a shipwreck and several years spent at the bottom of the sea. Commissioned by the state and built in Italy in 1880, it was en-route to Honolulu when its ship sank. After this disaster a second statue was created as a replacement and set in front of Aliʻiōlani Hale across Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu on Oahu.
The original statue was recovered from the sea floor in 1912 and eventually set in Kapa’au.
Things To Do in Kohala
DIY Whale Watching (seasonal from December to March)
The Kohala Coast borders the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and is the best district on the Big Island from which to spot whales. During whale season (roughly December – March) whales can often be spotted breaching off shore. The best DIY whale watching is along Highway 270 between Kawaihae and Hāwī. Three very good places to stop and spot whales are: Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Lapakahi State Historical Park and Kapa’a Beach Park.
Read more about DIY Whale Watching here.
There are several horseback tour companies which offer trail rides in the Kohala mountains, including:
- Paniolo Adventures at Ponoholo Ranch offers 5 different rides.
- Na’alapa Stables at Kahua Ranch. They offer a tour of the Kahua ranch and a 2.5-hour excursion on horseback deep into Waipi’o valley.
- Dahana Ranch (formally known as Nakoa Ranch) offers rides at their ranch that last between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. All rides need to be reserved ahead of time.
- Waipio on Horseback organizes 3-hour horseback rides on the Waipi’o valley floor. Tours include transport down into the valley.
Skydiving over the stunning Kohala coast is a unique experience. Big Island Gravity offers tours out of the Upolu Airport in Hāwī.
Kayak Kohala Gulch
The company Flumin Kohala offers unique tours suited for the whole family through the historic Kohala Ditch aboard kayaks. The tour floats through 110 year-old hand carved tunnels, elevated flumes, and concrete channels that once irrigated Kohala’s plantations.
Where to Eat in Kohala
There are many excellent restaurants in North and South Kohala, from fine dining to quick comfort food, and grab and go. Be aware that some places close between lunch and dinner, so double check their hours.
There are several good places to grab a bite in Hāwī:
- Sushi Rock restaurant for some of the best sushi on the island.
- The Kohala Coffee Mill is good for ice cream, coffee, and sandwiches.
- The Sweet Potato Kitchen serves up organic, gluten-free vegan and vegetarian comfort food.
- Across the street is Mi Ranchito, a Mexican takeaway place tucked in the back of the building.
Down the road in Kapa’au, Gill’s Lanai services up tasty hot dogs and fish tacos with informal outdoor seating.
Waimea has some of the best eats on the island. Restaurants that serve delicious but pricey food are:
- The Redwater Cafe is a lovely higher end restaurant/bar and lounge which serves up excellent steaks and delicious sautéed Hamakua mushrooms. Reservations are suggested.
- Merriman’s is another famous high-end joint with emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
Simpler but just as delicious options include:
- Pau Pizza for slices and salads,
- Noodle Club for a hot bowl of pho or ramen,
- Hawaiian Style Cafe for a hearty breakfast, and the
- Waimea Brewhaus for award-winning locally brewed beer and small plates.
There are also many good eats to be had at the Waimea Farmers Markets.
The Waikoloa resort areas have good gourmet grocery stores with lavish hot and cold deli bars, Hawaiian poke and sushi stations, and a large selection of cold beverages. Two of the best are:
- Island Gourmet Markets in the Waikoloa Queens Marketplace, and
- Foodland in the Shops at the Mauna Lani.
Kohala’s weather can vary greatly depending on your location. Along the coast, particularly in Waikoloa, the weather is sunny and clear nearly all year round. The coastline running from South to North Kohala is known to be breezy and at times can be very windy.
Waimea, at an elevation of 2,676 ft., has brilliantly sunny days but can get socked in by clouds. Waimea has a “dry side” and a “wet side” to the east which is clearly noticeable in the landscape. If you are coming from Waikoloa or Kona, bring a sweater because Waimea gets cold!
In North Kohala, the weather can be highly changeable especially as you get closer to Polulū Valley. Clouds and rain sometimes move in the late afternoon. If you plan to do the hike, it’s best to get an early start.