Most visitors understandably want to head straight to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park when exploring this region, where Pele may consume the land, while creating even more. But the celebrated national park is far from the only place where you can experience Puna’s geothermal wonders, or see the destruction the volcano has wrought—provided it’s safe and legal to do so.
Start in Pahoa with a 5-minute detour from the plantation town’s center to its transfer station (i.e., landfill and recycling center) on Cemetery Road. There you’ll see the ominous edge of the thick but slow-moving lava flow in 2014–2015 that halted only after many in its predicted path had relocated. In 2018, residents of isolated Pahoa suburbs Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens were not so lucky; many lost their homes and farms to rivers of lava that spewed from fissures in the Lower East Rift Zone—a known hazard at the time the county approved those subdivisions.
Many in the area still have memories of the 1990 eruption that covered the town of Kalapana, 9 miles from Pahoa along Highway 130. Steam came out of cracks in the road during the 2018 eruption, prompting the county to put steel plates over them, but luckily the highway survived.
Just before it meets Highway 137 in Kalapana, you’ll see Star of the Sea Painted Church on your left. Built in 1930, the quaint, pale-green wooden church features an elaborately painted interior similar to St. Benedict’s in Captain Cook. It was moved here from Kalapana in advance of the 1990 lava flow.
If lava is pouring into the sea west of Kalapana, the county will open a lava viewing area where Highway 130 meets the emergency gravel road heading into the national park. Vendors then set up bike rental stands to make it easier to get closer to the ocean entry; typically, if there’s no lava, there are no bikes.
The 1990 lava flow also entombed the town of Kaimu and its beautiful beach under acres of rock, while leaving behind a new black-sand beach. Called both Kaimu and Kalapana Beach, it’s reached by walking along a short red-cinder trail from the parking area in Kalapana past fascinating fissures and dramatically craggy rocks, where ohia lehua and coconut palms are growing rapidly. Such trees are used to rugged conditions, as are the people of Puna, who gather in great numbers at the open-air Uncle Robert’s Awa Club for its two weekly evening events: the vibrant Wednesday-night food and crafts market and Hawaiian music on Fridays. The rest of the week, the club sells snacks and drinks during the day “by donation” for permit purposes (be aware the staff will let you know exactly how much to donate).
Adventurers (or exhibitionists) may want to make the tricky hike down to unmarked Kehena Black Sand Beach, off Highway 137 about 3 1/2 miles east of Kalapana. Here the law against public nudity is widely ignored, although the view of the ocean is usually more entrancing. (Clothed or not, avoid going into the water—currents are dangerous.) Thanks to the 2018 lava flow, Highway 137, also known as the “Red Road” (for the rosy-hued cinders that once paved it), currently dead-ends about 9 miles northeast of Kalapana, at the spooky, ironwood-shaded cliffs in MacKenzie State Recreation Area, which has picnic and restroom facilities. The surf crashes fiercely against the rocks here; stay away from the edge and watch your footing.
A new emergency access road (best suited to 4WD vehicles) crosses over the buried highway from MacKenzie to Isaac Hale Beach Park in Pohoiki, which emerged from the 2018 eruption minus its popular surf breaks, children’s playground, and water fountains, among other facilities. On the plus side: The park has four new thermal ponds and a lagoon created by a black-sand beach that formed when sizzling lava fragmented in the cool ocean water. Note: Bring your own drinking water and stay out of the warm ponds if you have any cuts or open wounds.
The same immense lava flow, which covered almost 14 square miles (35.5 square km) of Lower Puna and add 875 acres of new land, unfortunately destroyed the main road and almost every attraction east of Pohoiki, including the beautiful thermal pool at Ahalanui Park, the marine life conservation district of Waiopae Tidepools, Kapoho Bay, the twin vacation-oriented communities of Kapoho Vacationland and Kapoho Beach Lots and their thermal ponds, and Green Lake, a natural reservoir inside Kapoho Crater that the lava ruthlessly turned into steam. Although it wasn’t accessible at press time, due to berms of lava on Highway 132 south of Pahoa, one surviving landmark stands as a literal beacon of hope and resilience. Marking the island’s easternmost point, Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse miraculously survived the 1960 lava flow that destroyed the original village of Kapoho and then remained untouched again in 2018. Who cares if its modern steel frame isn’t all that quaint? The fact that it’s standing at all is impressive—in 1960, the molten lava parted in two and flowed around it—while its bright-white trusses provide a striking contrast to the black lava.
The open portion of Highway 132 from Pahoa leads 2 3/4 miles southeast to Lava Tree State Monument, an equally fitting if eerie reminder of nature’s power in Puna. In 1790, a fast-moving lava flow raced through a grove of ohia lehua trees here, cooling quickly and so creating rock molds of their trunks. Today the ghostly sentinels punctuate a well-shaded, paved .7-mile loop trail through the rich foliage of the 17-acre park. Facilities include restrooms and a few spots for picnicking (or ducking out of the rain during one of the area’s frequent showers). Some areas with deep fissures are fenced off, but keep to the trail regardless for safe footing. It’s open daily during daylight hours; see the state parks site, dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/hawaii, for details.
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