What Do I Do on the Big Island? Explore Mysterious Puna!

About Puna District

Beautiful, mysterious, untraveled and undiscovered by the herds of tourists, Puna District has so far managed to avoid the overcrowding, loss of local flavor and other problems that come with the extreme popularity being experienced by other parts of this island. Puna has a somewhat undeserved reputation that, where not actually violent, dangerous and over-run with drug dealers, it is populated entirely by aging hippies, tree huggers, vegetarians, artists, actors and others of somewhat bohemian life philosophies. It is true, like any area where the median income is below poverty level, that there is a certain amount of crime, back-yard marijuana cultivation and other drug use, along with other undesirable activities going on in Puna, but the same could be said of almost anywhere in America. It is also true that the residents of Puna tend to be individualists, socially liberal, embracing of alternative culture; there are most certainly a lot more musicians, artists and poets in Puna than accountants, insurance agents and attorneys. Also true is the fact that many native Hawai’ians living in Puna regard it as the last bastion of THEIR land and may not be as welcoming as you might hope. However, the rewards of discovering Puna District’s secrets are very much worth the extra vigilance and preparation to travel there safely, and the people you meet in Puna are certainly friendly and fascinating. It is truly said that the people of Puna are its greatest treasure.

Puna is a magnificent wonderland; from incredible tree-tunneled roads, geothermal fields of steam vents, lovely beach parks, raw lava flows and jungle trails, the land cries out for the visitor to put their fears aside and explore a little bit. Of course, the visitor is reminded to leave no valuables in the car, even when locked, and to be watchful and careful. But bear in mind that tens of thousands of people happily inhabit Puna without ever actually being beset by bandits. Puna is actually a generally safe place for the heads-up, prepared traveler to explore. As an interesting observation about Puna District, which is itself the same size as the island of Molokai and comprises the rainiest part of the island, is that is has but one lake and no rivers. The District is so young, the volcanic landscape so immature and so porous, that the rain, once it hits the ground, percolates immediately through the surface layers of rock. From there it seeps and flows to the subterranean aquifer–a lens of freshwater saturating the rock pores and which floats upon the seawater saturating the older rocks, formed hundreds of thousands of years ago in the ocean. This phenomenon represents a huge resource of fresh groundwater for agricultural and municipal use, but until the island ages a great deal and more soil is formed from organic debris and weathering of the rocks, there will be few rivers and lakes. Remember, very few visitors ever even see Puna District; even most residents never go here…it’s fascinating, beautiful, secluded and very, very much worth spending the time to explore. Let’s take a quick trip through Puna, starting in Pahoa Town and going clockwise through the district, ending up at the Hawaii Belt Road at Kea’au.

Pahoa Town

YEEEEEHAW! Wild, untamed and even a bit unruly, Pahoa Town, with it’s false-front, western-style buildings and raised wooden sidewalks, looks more like it belongs in Wyoming than Hawai’i. But Wild West isn’t the only subculture evident here…tie-dye banners and the general “flower-power” imbuement some businesses and citizens lend Pahoa 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. This is a bit unfair, but the people of Pahoa are proud of their independent ways and lifestyle. 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. Downtown Pahoa is one of the more interesting three or four blocks of real estate in all of Hawai’i. An eclectic mix of truly fine restaurants, food and clothing stores, second hand stores, Real Estate agents, coffee shops and other oddments and interesting boutiques, all arranged around a downtown area of western-style false-front buildings and raised wooden sidewalks. Saying that the merchandise to be found in the Pahoa Farmer’s Market is “varied and unusual” is a vast understatement and grave disservice to the creative genius of Pahoa merchants. The market is open 9-3 on Sundays, located in the middle of downtown Pahoa and is very much worth the effort to see. If parking is not available near the Farmer’s Market, a sneaky alternative is to park one block up the hill at the Pahoa Pool and Municipal Park, a very short walk from downtown and the market.

Lava Trees State Monument

Under a fascinating, beautiful, lacy canopy of monkeypod trees, casts of ohia trees stand as monuments to a fast-moving pahoehoe lava flow that passed through here in 1790. When the lava hit the water-saturated ohia trees, it cooled and began to congeal around them; the rest of the flow passed on, or perhaps drained away down the numerous cracks in this area that formed contemporaneously with the flows. Although the original ohia trees burned away, the quickly cooled lava around them stands here today, hollow, with imprints of the tree bark inside, giving testament to their origin. The crack which likely drained the lava away is still visible, just left of the restrooms. 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 at Lava Tree State Monument; no matter which direction you have approached the park from, they are the last public facilities for some distance.

Kapoho Village/Disaster of 1960/Puna Geothermal Fields/Virgin Air

A small farming village of perhaps 300 people, Kapoho drowsed into the 20th Century near the modern-day intersections of Highways 132 and 137. On the 13th of January in 1960, a rift eruption half a mile long opened and shot fire fountains 3/10 of a mile into the sky. Burying orchid and papaya farms, the lava advanced on Kapoho, entering the town on the 28th of January and eventually burying as many as 100 homes and businesses. There is a positive, less destructive side to this awesome volcanic energy. The hot rock, deep within the earth, heats ground water. When tapped by drilling and brought to the surface, the release of pressure on the hot fluids causes them to flash to steam, which is then used to turn electricity-generating turbines. On the Island of Hawai’i, the Puna Geothermal Fields generate very nearly a fifth of all the electricity used in the county at facilities quite near here. Here, you are very nearly at the easternmost point of Hawai’i Island; breath deeply. Our winds come from the east, and the air you are now breathing is amongst the most pure in the world. Called “virgin air” it is studied by scientists from all over the world. Interestingly, just a few miles to the west, some of the most dangerously toxic atmosphere in the world exists where the current lava flows from Pu’u O’o vent on Kilauea flow into the sea, filling the air with clouds of microscopic glass shards and aerosols of hydrochloric and sulphuric acids.

Kapoho Tide Pools, or Wai Opae

Stuffed with abundant sea life, this sprawling basin of lava tidal pools is a remarkable treasure for snorkelers of all abilities from the starkly frightened to the seasoned veteran. Moorish idols, yellow tangs, various wrasses and eels, sea urchins and sea cucumbers abound and there is even some nice corals in the deeper pools. The largest pool is called “Wai Opae”, which means “fresh water shrimp”. Keeping to the left of the main channel keeps one away from most of the ocean currents, which can be surprisingly strong, even in small channels, where ponds empty into the ocean. A wonderful place to spend the day, Kapoho Tide Pools has wonderful snorkeling for people of all levels as well as other general beach activities, including just plain beach exploring, shell collecting, swimming and fishing.

Ahalanui Pond

Also called Pu’ala’a or “Secrets Beach”, this spring and ocean-fed, man made pool is a testament to the vagaries of life on an active volcano. The pool was initially constructed as a place to cool off 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 or so. Deep enough for swimming, the pool has an open connection to the ocean which flushes water and reef fish into the pool at high tide, keeping the water freshened, tolerably warm instead of volcanically hot and the underwater scenery interesting. With the gentle aloha breezes, swaying palms and surf whooshing against the seawall at the pool, it can be really hard to drag oneself out of the hot pool and continue on exploring…that’s OK, soak awhile longer. You came to Hawai’i for rest, renewal and relaxation anyway, didn’t you? This is a great place to do that. 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.

Isaac Hale Beach Park

A lovely black sand beach with an expert surf break, Isaac Hale Beach Park is one of the very few real beaches and boat ramps in Puna District; as such this park sees a lot of traffic. It is also the site of the best surfing and some of the wildest snorkeling and scuba diving in Puna. If you do get in the ocean here, go in left of the boat ramp-be alert to bodacious boat traffic (they won’t be alert for you) and for fairly dangerous ocean currents. Understandably, given the crowded nature of this small place, some locals are less than welcoming of visitors. Graciously share this ocean treasure with the residents, but and leave no valuables in your car. A short path along the shoreline leads from the parking lot, past a house with abundant “No Trespassing” signs, strolls a few minutes then turns about 20 yards into the jungle to a secluded, perfectly lovely natural hot spring that is wonderful for soaking. Locals usually don’t bother with swimwear here, you shouldn’t feel required to, either. The facilities at Isaac Hale Park are recently rebuilt, refurbished and expanded and comprised of picnic facilities, showers, toilets and a vast new parking lot. Unfortunately, a few fairly nasty port-a-potties remain. Camping is allowed with a County permit.

McKenzie State Recreation Area

Secluded under a canopied ironwood forest and ending at great cliffs against the turbulent open ocean, McKenzie State Recreation Area feels like the End of The World. There’s no beach and no running water, but spectacular shore fishing and a wonderful sense of “aloneness” make this a great place to get away from the bustle of Hilo or the fumes of ubiquitous tour buses. As mentioned earlier, Puna is the home of the unusual and here at McKenzie Park are some very unique and curious picnic tables made from slabs of pahoehoe lava. There are also trails that fan out from this 13 acre Recreation Area into the surrounding forest which beg to be explored. You may have noticed the huge boulders that line the shore-cliffs along this stretch of Red Road. These mega-ton rocks were hefted out of the sea by violent tsunami waves. Imagine the power of a wave that could lift a boulder of this size from the bottom of the ocean, hurl it a further forty or so feet to the top of the cliff and deposit it many yards inland. Being here will give you a new appreciation of, if not absolute horror at, the power of tsunamis. Camping at McKenzie State Recreation Area is by State Permit, and except for the decrepit state of the facilities, is a genuine pleasure.

Kehena Beach

When the eruption of 1955 created this beautiful black sand beach, the County was swift to capitalize on it and, creating a wonderful beach park, built stone steps down the cliff to the beach. When the beach dropped a full 3 feet during an earthquake in 1975 the stairs were shattered. Like so much else around this island, these stairs were never rebuilt and today terminate about ten feet above the current level of the beach–if you want to get down to the beach, therefore, you must take the dirt path that goes out of the left side of the parking lot. Once on the beach the first thing that may strike you is that many of the locals who frequent this park have forgotten to put on proper beach attire…or any other attire whatsoever, for that matter. The second thing that will strike you is what a lovely, wonderful spot this is. In the shade of palms and ironwood this wonderful beach is generally sunny even when the rest of Puna is rainy. Swimming here is great, but ocean currents are strong and dangerous not far from shore. The locals are friendly but frisky, so don’t leave valuables in your car.

Kalapana/Disaster of 1990/End of The Road

In 1990 the goddess Pele determined it was time for some serious housecleaning in Puna. Lava flows from Kilauea’s East Rift swarmed down the mountain and engulfed the villages of Royal Gardens, Kaimu and Kalapana, destroying virtually everything. Immolated and buried were a centuries-old fishing village and a world famous black sand beach. The road ends today where the parking lot for Kaimu Black Sand Beach once stood, and is now a thousand yards and more inland. When the lava came, it wiped out not just homes, gardens, crops and material things, it wiped out a way of life and a landscape cherished by generations. Imagine the loss to a community of having the coconut grove by the beach, where for a thousand years the Kahunas had blessed the fishing canoes, not only wiped away and covered with lava, but the landscape altered so permanently and completely that you’re no longer even sure where it used to be. The spot where generations of fathers taught their sons to fish by casting nets, gone. The groves where mothers sat with their daughters passing on the arts of weaving along with the family stories, gone. The beach where thousands of young lovers had walked the moonlit surf arm in arm for centuries, and where perhaps not a few babies had also been made, gone beneath 50 feet and more of lava. Everything gone; a landscape, a way of life, an entire culture. It was from a vision of strength, a refusal to let her community die, rather than feelings of loss and desolation, that inspired one local resident to replant and reestablish the area. Not just replant her land, but the entire village. She worked steadily, planting hundreds of sprouted coconut and other palms and encouraging others in her community to join in. Even when she discovered she had a terminal disease, she continued her campaign to replant and recover, the community pitching in even more after she passed away. Today there are literally thousands of young trees growing on the no-longer barren lava, and a new geography for new lives and new memories is being born.

Her vision of rebirth, now being realized, is a moving testament to the power of love of ones’ community and commitment to ones’ culture. One of the truly most moving stories in the Islands, this place has to be seen to be appreciated. The trail to the new black sand beach, Kaimu Beach, is marked with these young palms. Near the parking area along the path are lava casts of palm trees and other plants…keep a sharp eye out, they are everywhere. Swimming is hazardous at the new beach, so is surfing, the ocean currents being strong and treacherous. But take some time to relax, wade, feel the sand beneath your feet and contemplate the drive of one dying woman to rebuild a world she loved from a devastation few of us can imagine. 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. This is one of the few places where both can be seen easily and at the same time. Back at the parking area at the road’s end, look a bit farther to the west and find Uncle Robert’s House, one that was spared the destruction, where a display of photos of the lava flows and the village in pre-disaster times in a miniature museum can be found, along with an interesting nature trail. The stop is worth your time, and be sure to leave a donation in the offering jar.

Kaimu Black Sand Beach

The state’s newest black sand beach, Kaimu Beach, is a lovely if barren crescent of black-as-night sand at the end of an unforgiving expanse of lava from the 1990 flows. The old beach and the fishing village of Kalapana that stood along it are long gone, buried under 50-75 feet of lava-an unimaginable catastrophe. The young palm trees you see growing all along this trail are the result of one woman’s commitment not to allow her community, her beach, her culture to die under the lava. Planting thousands of palm sprouts, she encouraged her community, school children state wide and hundreds of others to plant the young trees. Today, the realization of her vision of rebirth is in the growing palm groves out on the barren lava plain. The trail to the new black sand beach is marked with these young palms. Near the parking area along the path are lava casts of palm trees and other plants…keep a sharp eye out, they are everywhere. Swimming is hazardous at the new beach, so is surfing, the ocean currents being strong and treacherous. But take some time to relax, wade, feel the sand beneath your feet and contemplate the drive of one dying woman to rebuild a world she loved from a devastation few of us can imagine. 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 lave enters the sea. This is one of the few places where both can be seen easily and at the same time.

Lava Viewing at Waikupanaha

Nowhere else in the world 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 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, near a Hawaii County Lava Viewing Station between Kalapana and Waikupanaha. Drive south on Highway 130 through Pahoa toward Kalapana, 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 pm. 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 20 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 and a tripod for your camera. 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 after dark, so fill up BEFORE you park, bring snacks and drinks.

Painted Church

Originally this little Catholic Church stood in the village of Kalapana. Built and painted in 1928 by Father John Velge, who also built and painted the Painted Church in Honaunau, it was picked up and moved to avoid the onslaught of lava when Kalapana was destroyed in 1990. Sitting vacant and abandoned by the roadside for years, it was finally moved here, deconsecrated and is now a Hawai’ian Cultural Center. It is very much worth a stop to look at Fr. Velge’s masterful murals.

Puna Geothermal Field Natural Steam Rooms

Just what is the view at the scenic turnout along Highway 130 between Kalapana and Pahoa near the 15 mile marker? Turns out, there is no view, but something much, much more unusual and interesting. The Puna Geothermal Field here has numerous, and we’re talking hundreds, of small steam vents of varying size and steam output, just a few minutes walk along an obvious trail into the ohia forest from the east side of the road. Some have been enlarged, or had the vegetation cleared from around them or had benches placed in them by local users; others are in a completely wild state. This is a great place to come for a little natural steam bath and, as seems to be the fashion in Puna, it’s definitely “clothing optional”. Be careful when exploring around here, though…it’s generally safe but it is possible to fall into a few of the holes or turn an ankle and the steam is hot. This is so awesomely wild, weird and wonderfully different, it’s a “must see”!

Kea’au Town

A small, rural community, Kea’au is growing up to be Hilo’s bedroom suburb. There are some points of interest in the Kea’au area, including a great natural foods store, Hi’iaka’s Healing Herb Garden, some great small restaurants and a shopping center where travelers can fill-up with gas, food and fast food, but most of Kea’au is rural and suburban, of little interest to visitors with limited time.

From Kea’au one can catch the Belt Road, either west to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and ultimately Kona, or east to Hilo.

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