There are many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track. Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.
Drive through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Puna
Truly a land of heart-rending beauty and stark contrasts, Hawaii’s best scenery and most exotic locations are showcased in this scenic drive through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the District of Puna. Although many visitors tour the National Park, very few ever venture into neighboring, fascinating, Puna—which is a real shame. The icy heights of Mauna Loa’s summit contrast against the steaming jungles of Puna, where wave-washed, fiery lava flows form land so new it’s still steaming. With secret hot springs, ancient temples, lava trees, craters, caves and beaches—and of course the glowing lava–this scenic drive displays the amazing diversity, indescribable beauty and soul-filling serenity of the paradise we call Hawaii.
This scenic drive can be started from anywhere on the island, but the road log begins at the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park just northwest of mile marker 28 on Highway 11. The tour is laid out so that you spend the morning in the Park, the afternoon touring Puna and wind up at the Waikupanaha Lava viewing area in late afternoon—in time to make the very short hike in and watch Madam Pele’s fireworks at dusk. It’s best, less hurried, if you start this tour before nine in the morning, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, however that means a 6:30 am departure time for those leaving Kona (the mileage signs may say only 97 miles from Kailua to the Park, but the road is only 35 miles an hour—slow down! Dis ain’t da mainland!). Remember the drive back to your resort will be in the dark. The roads are well marked and safe, but food and gas will be impossible to find at night outside of Kea’au or Kona. You’re going exploring…be prepared!
Leg 1) Proceed on Hwy 11 to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Entrance and jct with Crater Rim Drive; Crater Rim Drive west to Kilauea Visitor’s Center to Jagger Museum, then back around Crater Rim Drive to the intersection with Chain of Craters Road.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a magical, spiritual, wondrous, strange and beautiful place comprised of great contrasts and contradictions: dry as dust desert to teeming tropical jungle; frigid sub-arctic wasteland to steaming black sand beaches to rivers of flowing lava.
The star attractions in the Park are a pair of active volcanoes; Mauna Loa is the largest mountain on earth and Kilauea is most active volcano on earth. However, there are numerous other wonders from lava tubes to crawl down, black sand beaches with sea turtles to watch, mysterious petroglyph fields to explore, tropical jungles to hike through, endangered bird species to find, happy-face spiders to amuse and an otherworldly volcanic landscape so fresh it’s still too hot to walk on.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During daylight hours, an access fee is charged. The Visitor Center has a 24-hour information line at 808.985.7017 and there is a 24-hour eruption hotline at 808.985.6000. Within the Park tune to A.M. radio 530 for continuous information broadcast. There tourist items available for sale and one restaurant and in the park, however generally shopping, restaurants and gasoline are only available in the nearby village of Volcano.
A more thorough discussion of exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is contained here.
Kilauea Visitor Center
Newly remodeled and updated, the Kilauea Visitor’s Center is an outstanding resource of information on Hawaii’s volcanoes and the National Park; the not-to-be-missed first stop in the park you must make. The Center is run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff that has the most up-to-date information on viewing the eruption, hiking and camping, bird watching, stargazing and just about any other topic of interest to Park visitors.
Available for sale in the Center are maps, guidebooks, books and videos about the volcanoes, Hawai’iana, history, plants and every topic you can imagine pertinent to the Park, even souvenirs. There are free brochures and pamphlets on various trails, attractions, hiking safety and lava viewing hazards and precautions. The Visitor Center is open daily from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.; there are public restrooms, water and pay phones available. Starting at 9 a.m. and showing every hour on the hour is a 20 minute informative movie about the Park; the film changes from time to time, but always contains spectacular footage of eruptions, information on volcanology and the natural and human history of the Park.
Jagger Museum and Hawai’i Volcano Observatory
Famed for its fabulous views of Mauna Loa and Kilauea as much as for its interesting exhibits, The Jagger Museum (named for geologist Thomas A. Jagger) is open daily from 8:30a.m. to 5:00p.m. Exhibits include murals by Herb Kawainui Kane, seismograph charts of eruptions and earthquakes, geological displays and display about the natural and human history of the Park.
When entering the parking lot of the Museum/Observatory, be especially careful of the Federally-protected Hawaii Goose, the Nene, who seem to congregate here. The Nene is the State Bird of Hawai’i, and this parking lot and its surrounding area constitute one of the best places for viewing them.
Leg 2) Crater Rim Drive to intersection with Chain of Craters Road; Chain of Craters Road to End of Road.
End of Chain of Craters Road
Many visitors to the Park don’t bother with the drive down Chain of Craters Road, not knowing what marvels await them on this fabulous exploration of Hawaii’s volcanic exploration. The story of Hawaii’s fiery birth is laid bare along this 22-mile tour beside an active volcanic rift zone, featuring heart-stopping drops into craters, driving through recent flows, across an enormous fault with a 1000 foot throw and past steaming volcanic peaks. Along Crater Rim Drive is Pua Loa Petroglyph field, a glimpse into the barely-remembered past of how ancient Hawaiians related to the mysteries of their Goddess Pele and her volcanoes. At the end of the road is the fabulous, untamed coastline with booming waves pounding sea cliffs and arches—the intensity, wildness and energy of this place are almost an electric experience.
The end of Chain of Craters Road is currently at the 19 mile marker near the Holei Sea Arch. This is where the road was cut off by flowing lava and the old, 2 million dollar visitor center was destroyed. During those times when the lava is flowing near the end of the road, here, one can walk right up to it. There are displays about the volcano and natural history of the area, as well as a wealth of information on hiking to, and viewing, the lava, available here.
Generally, the flowing lava is 2-6 miles away from the end of the road. Hiking all the way out to the active flows is one of the most spiritually rewarding, awe-inspiring, curiosity quenching and amazing things one can do anywhere in the world—but it is neither for the physically unfit nor the meek of spirit. It is a long, hot hike over broken ground and glass-sharp rocks; the heat from the volcano is savage; the weather, if clear, is sweltering…frequent squalls blow in off the ocean and the rain and wind can get pretty wild out on the lava plain where there is absolutely no cover or shelter to protect you. No water or shade is available anywhere along the hike. You should carry working flashlights (check them before you leave) for the hike back in the dark. If you go, be prepared.
Leg 3) Follow Chain of Craters Road back uphill to Crater Rim Drive, follow Crater Rim Drive back to Park Entrance and then to Hwy 11. Go east on Hwy 11 to jct with Hwy 130 at Kea’au; take Hwy 130 south to Pahoa.
This is about the mid-point of the trip. From here, you plunge deep into the jungles, beaches, lava flows and mystery that is Puna. Since this trip description assumes you will stay at the lava viewing area until after dark, and most gas stations, stores and many restaurants close at dusk in this part of Hawaii, it is highly advisable that you fill your gas tank and buy sufficient food and water to last until you return to your resort. No, honestly—do it now.
Puna District and Pahoa Town
Uncrowded, off the beaten track and largely undiscovered by tourists, Puna District is a magnificent wonderland; from incredible tree-tunneled roads, geothermal fields of steam vents, lovely beach parks, hot ponds, hikes on raw lava flows and jungle trails, and unequaled snorkeling, the land cries out for the visitor to explore a little bit.
At the center of Puna is Pahoa Town; wild, untamed and even a bit unruly, with its false-front, western-style buildings and raised wooden sidewalks, Pahoa looks more like it belongs in Wyoming. But Wild West isn’t the only subculture evident here…tie-dye banners and the general “flower-power” ambiance some businesses and citizens lend Pahoa give it a decidedly “’60’s” feel.
It has been said of Pahoa that if it weren’t for counter-cultural influences, it would have no cultural influences at all. The charm and allure of this way of living is evident when you consider that the region around Pahoa is the fastest growing portion of the island. Pahoa has some of the best restaurants on the island, THE best natural foods store and a great public pool.
Leg 4) At Pahoa, get on Hwy 132 and drive south to Lava Trees State Park.
Lava Trees State Monument
Under a lacy canopy of monkeypod trees, casts of ohi’a trees stand as monuments to a fast-moving pahoehoe lava flow that passed through here in 1790. When the lava hit the water-saturated ohi’a trees, it cooled and began to congeal around them. The original ohi’a trees burned away but the quickly cooled lava around them stands here today, hollow, with imprints of the tree bark inside. Lava Trees Park offers trails to hike and a restful, bird-filled jungle to sit and listen to. You can spend between 20 minutes to an hour wandering the trails, here, exploring and discovering. Be careful, however, the area is riddled with hidden cracks in the ground which can make exploring hazardous. You may wish to avail yourself of the restrooms here; they are the last public facilities for some distance. Follow these links for more information on the wonders of Lava Trees State Monument and the amazing Tree Tunnels of Puna.
Leg 5) From lava Trees State Park take Hwy 132 to jct with Hwy 137 at Kapoho; take Hwy 137 southwest to Ahalanui Pond then to Kaimu Black Sand Beach and Kalapana Disaster of 1990.
Also called “Secrets Beach”, this spring and ocean-fed, manmade pool was initially constructed when the springs ran chilly cold. Eruptions in Puna during the ‘50s and 60’s reworked the subterranean waterworks and now the springs run hot and the pool is a comfortably warm 90-95 degrees. The open connection to the ocean, keeps the water fresh. With the gentle aloha breezes, swaying palms and surf whooshing against the, it can be really hard to drag oneself out. Soak for a while. Picnic tables, pavilions, pit barbecues, showers, lawns and all the pleasantries of a civilized park are available at Ahalanui Pond. Leave no valuables in your car and be vigilant if you stay soaking here, after dark. Follow the links for more information Ahalanui Pond and nearby Isaac Hale County Beach Park.
Kalapana Disaster of 1990/Kaimu Black Sand Beach
In 1990 the volcano goddess Pele determined it was time for some serious housecleaning in Puna. Lava flows from Kilauea’s East Rift engulfed the villages of Royal Gardens, Kaimu and Kalapana, destroying virtually everything.
Buried were a centuries old fishing village and a world famous black sand beach. When the lava came, it wiped out not just material possessions; it wiped out a way of life and a landscape cherished by generations. The Big Island’s newest black sand beach, Kaimu Beach, is a lovely if barren crescent of sand at the end of an unforgiving expanse of lava from the 1990 flows. The trail to the new black sand beach is marked with hundreds of young palms, numerous lava casts which include palms, pandanus fruit and even some fish that were caught in tide pools.
From the lava hillocks along the trail you can get nice views of the eruption plume at Pu’u O’o, up on the flank of Kilauea, as well as the steam clouds down a few miles along the coast where the lava enters the sea. Restrooms and fast food are available at the end of the road. Follow this link to read more about Kalapana and Kaimu Black Sand Beach.
Leg 6) From Kalapana, take Hwy130 (Ahia Road) just a tweak to the jct with old HWY 130; go west on old the highway to Waikupanaha Lava Viewing.
Lava Viewing Near Kalapana
Nowhere else can you see lava flowing from a volcano into the sea; no Big Island visit is complete without seeing this awe-inspiring show. Currently lava is only flowing into the sea outside the Park. Drive south on Highway 130 through Pahoa to the 20 mile marker and take the right branch about two miles to the parking area. Port-a-potties are available here. The road is open from 2 p.m. until 10; no cars allowed in after 8. Lava viewing information is available from Hawaii County at 808.961.8093; check conditions before you go.
The easy trail, a 15 minute stroll to the viewing area, is well-marked. The viewing varies as lava flows nearer or farther from the trail. Viewing is best at dusk so bring flashlights for the hike out. Take close-toed walking shoes and a hat, long pants and long-sleeved shirt, at least 2 liters of water and sun block and a rain jacket and camera. Remember food and gas are not available anywhere nearby after dark, so fill up BEFORE you park, bring snacks and drinks. There are port-a-potties available at the parking lot. Follow this link to find more information about seeing the lava at the Waikupanaha Lava Viewing area.
Leg 7) Return to Hwy 130; Hwy 130 north through Pahoa to Kea’au and jct with Hwy 11.
From Kea’au, you are about 2 ½ hours from Kona (west) and about 15 minutes from Hilo (north), both on Hwy 11. The resorts on the Kohala coast are more than 3 hours away and are most quickly reached by going on Hwy 11 through Hilo to Hwy 19, following 19 through Waimea to the west coast and the junction with Hwy 270, along which lie all the Kohala resorts.
Food and gas are difficult to find at night outside Kea’au, Hilo, Waimea and Kona, so it’s best to be prepared and fill up the car and the cooler in Kea’au at noon, before touring Puna.
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