Captain James Cook was a British Royal Navy officer in charge of the HMS Endeavour. He set out on three different voyages to chart the Pacific Ocean for a total of nine years, and he was the first European to set foot on the islands of Hawaii. The famous captain was such a prolific explorer that he has an entire South Pacific nation named after him -- The Cook Islands.
He first landed on the western side of Kauai in 17--, and he originally named the Hawaiian islands the Sandwich Isles after the Duke of Sandwich. You can now find a statue to him in the nearby Kauai town of Waimea.
Cook would leave Kauai quickly to continue his explorations, but years later, during his final voyage, he would once again land on Hawaii. This time, he would harbor the HMS Endeavor near The Big Island at the very sight of his strange and tragic death. Today, a white basilisk tower at the very spot the explorer died, and you can hike to this historical monument along the Captain Cook Monument Trail.
The native islanders on The Big Island were celebrating a religious holiday when Captain Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay in 17--. The deity that the islanders were celebrating had a symbol, and, as fate would have it, the mast of the Endeavor looked exactly like that symbol. The islanders took that as a sign from above, and they exalted the captain and his crew as gods.
The locals treated the men of the Endeavor like royalty, and Cook used the opportunity to replenish his ship’s stores before returning to England. The islanders were sad to see the HMS Endeavor leave, but the ship didn’t get very far from Hawaii.
The mast of the Endeavor broke. The very symbol of Cook’s status as a god needed repairs, so, when he hobbled the ship back to Kealakekua Bay, the islanders began to question the status of the captain. The crew began to make repairs to the ship, and that’s when a band of islanders took the opportunity to steal a cutter from Cook.
A cutter is a small dingy that ferries from the anchored ship to shore, and Captain Cook was irate that the important piece of the Endeavor’s equipment had been stolen. Relying on his status as a god, he stormed back into the village to take the Big Island’s king by hand.
At first, the king was curious and happy to go along with Cook, but the captain had ulterior motives. Cook’s plan was to kidnap the king by holding him captive inside the harbored Endeavor until the cutter was returned. Unfortunately for Cook, the islanders soon began to catch on.
A crowd gathered in Kealakekua Bay, a priest began an eerie chant and Cook’s men grew restless. Suddenly, Cook was hit over the head, and he was stabbed to death as he fell into the surf. Meanwhile, Cook’s men retreated to the Endeavor while firing upon the islands with guns and cannons.
The Endeavor would return to England without Cook. The great explorer, hailed as a god by the native Hawaiians, was dead.
A towering basilisk now stands where Captain Cook and four of his men died that fateful day in Kealakekua Bay, but there’s no easy way to get there. You can drive down to the bay and park, but you’ll only be able to see the monument standing on the other side of the bay.
There’s no walkway or driveway that takes you there. You can’t park and casually walk up to the monument. You must either hike or kayak, and that effort makes the monument just a little more special.
The monument itself is backdropped by towering cliffs, and you’ll have to hike down those cliffs for about 2.5 miles to get down to Kealakekua Bay. The walk down is rather pleasant, taking you through dense forest, volcanic rock fields and tall grass, but the return hike is strenuous, hot and thirsty.
Just remember -- the hard part is hiking your way out of the bay -- so make sure to save plenty of water and sunscreen.
You’ll find the trail on Napo’opo’o Road just off Highway 11 at telephone pole number four. There’s a small but safe parking lot, and a well worn, easy-to-find trail. You’ll likely find a bunch of fresh horse apples on the trail, so make sure to wear closed-toed shoes and watch your step.
The trail starts at an avocado tree, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fruit along the trail. You’ll hike under mango, guava and papaya trees, as well.
The trail starts on a Jeep road, but, after about only 50 feet, the Jeep road will turn right onto private property. This is your cue to look for the trail leading left into the tall grass. It shouldn’t be too hard to spot because the trail will essentially shoot straight along a rock wall to the ocean.
You’ll want to stay left at the next fork in the path, and it’s important to remember to stay right at this same split on your way back up. Otherwise, you’ll be lost in the hot, dry fields of Napo’opo’o while looking for your car in the wrong spot.
The trail will eventually emerge from the underbrush at a beautiful little beach. If you look closely, you’ll find a concrete marker denoting the very spot Cook and his men met their fate. Most hikers don’t notice the marker, which is sometimes in the surf, but it makes for a great picture.
At the beach, you’ll be only a few hundred yards from the monument, and the easy stroll will take you through the ruins of an ancient Hawaiian village; the very village that exalted the captain back in 1779. Walk lightly through the ruins and be careful not to disturb any of the artifacts.
The basilisk was erected back in ---- to commemorate the fallen explorer. It’s sleek lines and white stone really make the monument stand out against the red dirt of the cliffs, deep green of the bay’s vegetation and the sparkling clear waters of the Pacific.
You’ll be able to drop into the water near the monument for some world-class snorkeling. In fact, you might be sharing the monument with kayaking and snorkeling tours that drop tourists off in the coral-filled waters just in front of the monument.
The coral here is a bit beleaguered, so make sure not to touch or stand on the colorful coral if you choose to get in the water. You’ll be stunned by the variety of tropical fish, and their vibrant colors will appear electric on a sunny day.
The bay is usually full of sea turtles who feast on the bay’s vegetation, and you might be joined in the bay by curious dolphins. Just make sure to keep your distance from these friendly creatures. It’s illegal to touch sea life in Hawaii. It’s also dangerous. The oils in your skin have been known to degrade a sea turtle’s shell. Take that selfie from a healthy distance.
Getting in and out of the water at the monument can be a bit tricky. The monument is built upon a volcanic rock shelf, and the rock can be sharp along the shelf’s edge. It’s a good idea to pack fins that cover your feet or water shoes to avoid cuts and scrapes.
And when you get in the water, you’ll instantly be in over your head. Only snorkel the monument if you are confident in your swimming abilities, and keep your wits about you when enjoying the fringing reef. You don’t want to pop your head above water to find you’ve drifted too far from the monument.
The salty ocean pulls water from your skin to dehydrate you, and you’re hiking on the hot, dry west coast of the Big Island, so you’ll need plenty of water. It’s recommended that you bring at least a half-gallon of drinking water per person for this hike, and make sure to save plenty of that water for the hike out.
There are no facilities or lifeguards down in Kealakekua Bay. That means that you are responsible for your own safety when in the water. You’re also responsible for protecting your skin from the sun, so pack plenty of sunscreens and make sure to apply new sunscreen every two hours.
It takes about an hour to an hour and a half to hike the 2.5 miles down to the monument, and you can expect the return hike to take even longer. Don’t wear yourself out snorkeling at the monument because all of the elevation gains for this 5-mile, the out-and-back hike is on the haul out.
And make sure to check the sunset time before hiking down to the monument, and start hiking back out at least two hours before dark. You don’t want to be hiking in tall grass by the light of your cell phone.