Trip Report: The Big Island of Hawaii – January 2020

A new year has arrived, and 2020 is sure to be an exciting year for Backcountry Journeys.

Personally, I am not one for resolutions and the new year doesn’t mean much to me outside of a change of dates. However, this year I spent time reflecting as we shifted from ’19 to ’20. I know that myself, as well as all of the other Backcountry Journeys staff, are so grateful to have the opportunity to show the beautiful places we know so well to others.

This got me thinking about things like what makes a Backcountry Journeys photo tour so special? We have fantastic guides. We offer workshops to many of the best photography destinations across the globe. And we tailor those tours so that photography instruction a priority. But, one thing really stood out to me when thinking about all the trips I’ve been able to guide – the people.  

People really make these tours special – all the people who have previously joined us, as well as those who will in the future. People of all kinds, with diverse backgrounds, living places, and more come together for our workshops by our shared love of photography. Having a passion for photography is great, but being able to live out that passion with others who feel the same as you is truly special. And that is one of the things I appreciate most. 

 

I recently led a workshop on the Big Island of Hawaii, which began just shortly after New Years’. This group was so fantastic and really made the workshop enjoyable. I suppose this experience instigated my reflection. When I think back to all of the workshops that I’ve led, the same thing really rings true (of course, each group is different), but we all bond over our love of photography and every experience is great.

I am excited for 2020, it is going to be an awesome year. I am excited to visit some great places and meet new people. But for now, let’s focus on a great workshop in Hawaii. 

The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most incredible places on Earth, and the Big Island is one of the most geological diverse islands of the chain. It is the youngest island at approximately 0.5-1 million years old. It is the only island that is still growing due to its volcanic activity. The island is made up of five volcanoes, three of which are still active and two of which are over 13,000 feet in elevation.

Historically, the Big Island is home to many important events. It is believed that the Big Island was the first Hawaiian Island discovered by Polynesian explorers, it is the island where legendary explorer James Cook was killed, and it was home to King Kamehameha, the greatest king to rule the islands.

 

The Big Island sits over the Hawaii Hot Spot, which is responsible for the creation of a chain of islands that span 3,600 miles, from the Aleutian Trench in the northern Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands. These islands are referred to as the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain of islands and the chain contains 129 volcanoes. It is one of the greatest concentrations of volcanoes in the world. Seventy million years ago the hot spot first appeared and over geologic time it slowly shifted its position due to plate tectonics and hot spot movement. 

It is believed that the Big Island was the first island discovered by Polynesian seafarers because of the intense glow it must have projected due to its volcanic activity. Even recently, the volcano Kilauea was the most active volcano in the world. After a brilliant showing in 2018, Kilauea now rests and there is no active eruption occurring on the Big Island as of now. But, the diversity of the island alone provides incredible photography opportunities. Aside from the marine life that skirts the coasts of the island, the Big Island has eight of 13 of the climate zones (according to the Köppen list), which make for interesting and diverse photo locations.

We had a fantastic trip, and below is a day-by-day outline of our activities. Enjoy!

Day 1
We met in Kailua-Kona, on the first day of our tour, for orientation and dinner. We discussed logistics for the workshop and then had dinner at Honu’s on the Beach. The Big Island workshop is great because we pack each day with photography, but also have access to incredible restaurants. We made sure to eat well during this trip, so we were fueled up for the action-packed days. 

Following dinner, we discussed our plan for the next morning and headed to bed. Day two would start early with a singular focus – Humpback whales!

Day 2
We met early at the hotel in Kona and headed for the Honokohau harbor. To start the workshop, we had a 4-hour private charter along the Kohala coast, a place famous for its marine life. Our goal was to find some humpback whales and dolphin pods. We just beat high winds and surf, and although the water was rough, we were still able to make it to the calm area surrounding Kohala. Humpback whales breed here during winter months, migrating in summer to feeding waters near Alaska. This migration is the longest documented by any mammal.

 

We really lucked out on the water for our first day. It took us a bit to find whales, but once we did, wow! We had one whale that fully breached three to four times, and then fin slapped for a few minutes. It really put on a show for us! Watching the Humpbacks breach has to be one of the coolest wildlife experiences that I have seen.

After the awesome whales, we ran into a pod of roughly 100 Spinner dolphins. The light was great, and many dolphins went airborne for us as well. The morning did not stop there though, we found a pod of slightly bigger Pacific bottlenose dolphins and even saw a monk seal, a very rare sighting! I don’t think our boat charter experience could have gone any better. We battled rough seas but had such a productive morning!

 

Upon returning to the harbor, we visited an adjacent, ‘secret beach,’ that not many visits because no one expects such a nice beach right next to a busy harbor. This beach is a beautiful place to swim and has great white sand. It also is commonplace for the honu or green sea turtle. We were lucky to find two turtles on the beach. One of the turtles was probably the largest that I have ever seen. 

After a great morning, we grabbed lunch at Broke Da Mouth Grindz. This place used to be a simple hole-in-the-wall restaurant but achieved a fair share of fame when it was featured by Guy Fieri on his Food Network program. We had some classic dishes with a Hawaiian twist before taking a quick break. 

At sunset, we visited a beach just north of Kona. I wouldn’t necessarily call this spot a beach, it’s more of a place where lava meets the sea. This beach always has great crashing waves, but also a unique well feature that fills with water when the tide comes in then funnels it out when the tide recedes. We experimented with neutral density filters and different shutter speeds. The sunset was great and topped off an all-around fantastic day. 

Day 3
Another early morning on day three as we traveled up the coast to the northern tip of the island. Along the way the landscape transitions from dry lava to a lush, wet, and eroded mountainous area. We shot sunrise at the iconic Pololu Valley Overlook. It was quite the experience and rainstorms filtered in and out, leaving us soaked, but also granting us some breaks in the clouds for photography.

After sunrise, we returned to the hot and dry lowlands. Our plan was to grab breakfast, but numerous rainbows had us spending the next few hours chasing light all over the northwest shore. Actually, there was only one day during our week here in Hawaii where we failed to see a rainbow. 

 

We finally did get breakfast and began our trip across the island to the southeast side, where we would stay the night in the small village of Volcano which is located just outside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We drove across on the Saddle Road, which bisects the two great mountains on the island, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Both mountains are just under 14,000 feet and are respectively the tallest and most massive when measured from the seafloor. We would return to Mauna Kea later in the trip. 

We arrived in Volcano and visited the Park, which is home to the Kilauea Caldera and the Halema’uma’u Crater. Kilauea had been active since the 1970s, and currently has an active eruption! The crater and steam vents are still interesting to see and the volcano will most likely erupt again someday. 

Our goal for sunset on this evening was the black sand beach of Punalu’u. This beach is famous for turtles and its volcanic sand. We arrived and found turtles, and the light was fantastic for capturing them.

 

We also had fun shooting the waves here. High surf and high winds had pushed in, creating chaos out on the water. Huge waves crashed into the shore and we captured many of them. And yes, we did see a rainbow as well!

After sunset, we returned to Volcano for a great dinner at the Kilauea Lodge Restaurant before calling it a day. 

Day 4
We were able to sleep in until breakfast on day four, and after eating we ventured to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, north of Hilo. The garden features waterfalls, a great variety of plants and trees, as well as a beautiful overlook on Onomea Bay. We spent all morning in the garden, it was one of the highlights of the trip. 

The rest of the day focused on our big trip up to the summit of Mauna Kea. We spend much of the trip at sea level, and ascending to nearly 14,000 feet in elevation is no joke. It is normal to feel woozy, lightheaded, and a little short of breath on our summit day, but we descend immediately after sunset and all those feelings resolve. 

So, we headed for the summit and weaved back and forth on the dirt road until we reached the top. The summit features many great telescopes from NASA, universities, and other nations.

 

We were glad to reach the top and witness some fantastic conditions. Winds were howling, but they were blowing light layers of fog across the summit, which were catching light. It made for great atmosphere. Plus, the lower elevations were socked in with clouds. We really were above it all and the sunset was amazing. Another great day in the books. 

Day 5
The weather looked bleak for sunrise on day five. Torrential rains and strong winds were forecasted but we decided to roll the dice and head for sunrise to one of my favorite beaches on the island.

 

The beach has lava stacks and always has huge crashing waves on display. The waves this morning were the most impressive that I have ever seen there. We arrived to a downpour, so we waited. Slowly, clouds started to clear and before we knew it the sun burst through. This mix of storm clouds and light created a truly dramatic scene. When paired with the waves, we really had nice conditions for sunrise. 

We took a break midday, which allowed for some exploration of Hilo, which is the capital of the Big Island. The downtown area features a farmer’s market as well as many interesting shops. A nice spot to spend time (and maybe do a little shopping) during the harsh middle-of-day light.

Our break didn’t last long, though, before we got back into the field. Our afternoon consisted of three waterfalls, all very different. A large amount of recent rain resulted in raging waterfalls. The rivers that feed the waterfalls were colored brown, heavy with sediment from the rains, but I had never seen water flow as high as it was. The waterfalls were really going, and we were all impressed with their power. 

Sunset conditions did not look promising, and rain was imminent, so we spent the early evening photographing Rainbow Falls. This fall is located nearly right in the city of Hilo, yet it is still probably my favorite waterfall on the island. Once again, the flow was insane! And just like that, we were onto our final day on the island. Time flies when you’re having fun!

Day 6
Sunrise took us back north to the Waipio Valley Overlook. This overlook features the same valley that Pololu Overlook towers over, yet from the other direction. Storms cleared just enough to give us some light, but rain moved in, pushing us to the west of the island.

Following a couple of days of rain, we were grateful to get back to the dry heat of the west side of the island. We spent the day visiting some of the famous beaches of the island – Hapuna Beach, Anaehoʻomalu Beach, and a secluded spot near Puako Bay. At Puako Bay, we found a gem of coastline and as luck would have it we were the only ones there. Here, with the help of a GoPro, we were able to capture some underwater video of a feeding sea turtle. 

Following our time on the beach, we traveled back to Kona and up into the ‘cloud forest’ in search of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree. These trees have rainbow-colored bark that is pretty amazing to see. We ended up finding a few, and did some abstract photography, before heading down to Kona. 

We took to a dirt road on our final evening to find an off-the-beaten-path beach north of Kona. White sands as well as lava rock line the shore and we all set up for a beautiful final sunset. The light was great, yet feelings of sadness crept in as this marked our last night, so we spent extra time on the beach so as to soak up as much of Hawaii as possible.

Our final dinner was at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, a famous local spot, which was a great way to cap off the trip!

 

This was a really great workshop and it was sad to say bye to the island and a wonderful group of landscape photographers, so, until next year Hawaii! 

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com