Most visitors understandably want to head straight to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park when exploring this region, where Pele still consumes the land and creates 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.
To explore the Pahoa-Kapoho-Kalapana triangle, start with a 5-minute detour from central Pahoa to the town’s transfer station (i.e., landfill and recycling center) on Cemetery Road. There you’ll see the ominous edge of the massive but slow-moving lava flow (2014–2015) that halted only after schools, businesses, and some residents in its predicted path had relocated. Life is back to normal now in Pahoa, but it could have ended up like Kalapana, buried by lava in 1990. Along the 9-mile drive to Kalapana from the intersection of highways 130 and 132, you may spot steam vents on the makai side of the two-lane highway in the Keauohana Forest Reserve, near mile marker 15 (but do not enter them). Star of the Sea Painted Church will also be on your left, shortly before Highway 130 meets Highway 137. 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 in advance of the 1990 Kalapana lava flow, which destroyed area homes, buried the black-sand beach at Kaimu, and severed the highway link to Chain of Craters Road in the national park. The church is open daily 9am to 4pm; visitor donations help pay for upkeep.
When lava is pouring into the sea—as it has in recent years—the county opens a lava viewing area (www.hawaiicounty.gov/lava-viewing) in Kalapana, where Highway 130 meets the emergency gravel road heading into the national park. Depending on conditions, between 3 and 9pm you can walk 8 1/2 miles round trip to see the current flow, or just ogle its fumes and evening glow from a distance; see the county website for restrictions and recommended gear.
It’s much easier to visit Kalapana’s new black-sand beach, reached by walking carefully along a short red-cinder trail, past fascinating fissures and dramatically craggy rocks, where ohia lehua and coconut palms are growing rapidly. They’re 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).
From Kalapana/Kaimu, you’ll pick up Highway 137 (the Kapoho-Kalapana Rd.), and follow it east to Kapoho along 15 miles of nearly pristine coastline, past parks, forests, rugged beaches, and tide pools, some geothermally heated. The rolling, two-lane avenue is nicknamed the Red Road, for the rosy-hued cinders that once paved it.
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.) It’s easier to take a brief detour to see the waves pounding the base of ironwood-shaded cliffs in the MacKenzie State Recreation Area, 9 miles northeast of Kalapana. Another 3 miles east leads to the scenic “hot pond” at Ahalanui Park (see below); both MacKenzie and Ahalanui have picnic and restroom facilities.
From Ahalanui, Highway 137 veers inland; drive 1 3/4 miles to a right turn on Kapoho Kai Road and follow it about a half-mile to a marked parking area for the Waiopae Tidepools, a state marine-life conservation district (http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar). From there, it’s about a half-mile walk to the craggy, coral-lined pools, the delight of snorkelers. With proper footwear, you can also walk along the edges of numerous tide pools, many very shallow and teeming with juvenile fish, while the breakers crash in the distance.
Back on Highway 137, head 1 mile north to Kapoho Beach Road. On your left is the Green Lake Fruit Stand, named for the unusual, freshwater Green Lake, inside nearby Kapoho Crater. The lake is actually a crater within the 360-foot-tall Kapoho Crater, formed 200 to 400 years ago. If she’s not at the stand, call caretaker Smiley Burrows (808/965-5500) to arrange a scenic hike or drive up the crater for $5. (You can also swim in the lake, one of only two on the island, but no one knows its depths, and algae sometimes obscure the water.)
Just east of the Green Lake Fruit Stand, Highway 137 intersects Highway 132 (Kapoho Rd.). A right turn onto unpaved Kapoho Road leads to the island’s easternmost point and Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse, which miraculously survived the 1960 lava flow that destroyed the original village of Kapoho. Who cares if its modern steel frame isn’t all that quaint? The fact that it’s standing at all is impressive—the molten lava parted in two and flowed around it—while its bright-white trusses provide a striking contrast to the black lava.
A left turn onto a paved Highway 132 takes you back 9 miles to the funky, somewhat ramshackle village of Pahoa; you pass eerie Lava Tree State Monument and the towering monkeypod and invasive albizia trees of Nanawale Forest Reserve as you go.