MacKenzie State Recreation Area
Malama Ki Forest Reserve
Round Trip Mileage: 3.5 miles
Elevation Gain: negligible
Gear: This coastal hike will be warm, humid, and windy. Bring plenty of water. The footing can be unsure in places because of the needles of ironwood trees that are all over the broken ground, so you'll likely appreciate sturdy boots.
Map: Topographical Map of MacKenzie State Recreation Area
Overview: MacKenzie State Park is one of the only tracts of public land along scenic Hwy. 137 in the Puna District that is suitable for hiking. A smaller part of the Malama Ki Forest Reserve, this 13 acre recreation area occupies the harsh lava sea cliffs of the rough Puna coast. The signature feature of the park is the largest stand of ironwood trees in the Hawaiian islands, mostly planted by Albert J. MacKenzie, a forest ranger who died very young in 1938. The Recreation Area was named for him one year after his death. Hiking in MacKenzie SRA allows you to follow the ancient King's Highway trail that used to ring most of the island. There are several lava tube features in the park and the main attraction is experiencing the raw power of the waves along the sheer sea cliffs. Camping used to be allowed by permit only, but new signs indicate that camping is now prohibited completely. There are restrooms and a covered picnic pavilion. The entrance road used to be very rough, but recent improvements have made parking suitable for any two-wheel drive vehicle. Swimming here is suicidal, and you must take extreme care along the notoriously dangerous sea cliffs. Rogue waves can remove rocks and trees -- and certainly people -- from the edge. The extensive danger signs are not hyperbole. There are no fees of any kind for visiting MacKenzie SRA.
MacKenzie State Recreation Area has some violent history and is also attractive to those who believe in the supernatural world. Convicts from plantations on Oahu constructed the park by clearing vegetation and removing rocks in the late 1850s. This back-breaking work in the tropical sun led to several deaths, and although records are unclear, it's likely that their bodies lie in unmarked graves inside the SRA. Forest Ranger and planter of most of the ironwood trees in the park Albert J. MacKenzie died very young at 21. And, some Hawaiians believe that "nightmarchers" -- ghosts of ancient Hawaiians -- roam the King's Highway trail at night. Some locals believe that this park is irrevocably haunted by dark spirits, and you can find several compelling ghost stories on the internet. More troubling is the several violent crimes that have been committed in the park. In 1980, two young campers were dragged from their tent and severely beaten, leaving one camper dead and the other disabled. This crime remains unsolved. In 1993, three men kidnapped, raped, and murdered a sixteen year old girl. These men were prosecuted for this crime, and confessed that they threw her over the cliffs into the ocean while she was still alive. More recently in 2008, film crews shooting a Helen Mirren film called "The Tempest" discovered the bullet-riddled body of a local surfer. The killer was his own father. The notoriously unsafe sea cliffs have killed several fishermen and 'opihi pickers whose bodies are usually never found in the harsh Puna surf.
If these stories give you pause, consider the crime rate of many major metro areas on the mainland. The rate of violent crime in the Puna District is still considerably less than the national average. This is not a dangerous place by most standards. I wouldn't let a few murders over 30 years and some fun ghost stories stop you from experiencing this area. I've personally never had any trouble here and certainly haven't seen any ghosts.
Getting to the Trailhead: Find the trailhead deep in the Puna District in the southeastern side of the island along the beautiful Kapoho-Kalpana Road, Hwy. 137, also known as the Red Road. Hwy. 137 was paved with red cinder rocks in the past, hence the name, but it's just black asphalt now. Many locals still use the nickname Red Road. There is a brown sign with yellow lettering with "MacKenzie Park" between the 13 and 14 mile markers, closer to mile marker 14. Turn makai (toward the sea) and park your vehicle in a designated spot.
The Hike: This hike begins by traveling west before traveling east (because the parking area is in the center of the park), but you could certainly reverse it or just hike the shorter eastern portion or the longer western portion alone. From the parking area, pass some interesting picnic tables and chairs hewn from lava. Find the faint King's Highway trail as you walk on the spongy carpet of ironwood needles. Hike 0.25 mile and find the very eroded ruins of a heiau, an ancient temple. Slightly uphill is a collapsed lava tube. There are two openings in the ground of the lava tube, but it is rather squat and very overgrown. One opening is depressingly full of trash. You should keep out of this one -- there's a much better lava tube later in the hike anyway. The heiau is near an area called Pa'akiki'i. Continue along the King's Highway for another half mile to find the end of the Recreation Area. Enjoy the power of the waves along the sea cliffs, but stay far away from the edge. Return the way you came back to the parking area and continue hiking to the east. Within a quarter mile of the parking area, look sharp mauka (away from the ocean) for a large lava tube opening. Find a faint spur trail heading toward a depression in the foliage that is actually a collapsed lava tube. Carefully pick your way into the depression and find a short portion of lava tube between collapsed sections creating a small cave. Check out this small lava tube cave and carefully walk through it. It's so small that's it's very well-lit by sunlight. Hike into another densely foliated depression where the lava tube roof collapsed long ago. Find another lava tube cave downhill from the second depression. This section ends abruptly after about 25 yards in a rockfall, but it's still very dark. If you didn't pack a helmet and good light source, you should avoid exploring the back of this lava tube because there are some very rough, large lava boulders to negotiate. Take care hiking up and down the steep entrance to this lava tube, and find the best way to avoid excessive erosion. Once you've enjoyed this short and interesting lava tube, hike back out the way you came to the main King's Highway trail and continue to track east. This section of trail alternates between clear sections of easy-to-follow trail interspersed with full off-trail lava boulder hopping. In general, stay near the edge of foliage and far away from the murderous sea cliffs. After a little more than a mile, you'll hit the (unmarked) edge of the Recreation Area. This area features ancient, heavily eroded, and degraded Mahina'aka'aka heiau. Retrace your steps back to the parking area.