The land of the lava

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White sand beaches adorned with coconut palm trees and bright blue sky – that is the typical representation of Hawaii in travel brochures. This archipelago is indeed famous for its white-sand beaches. But many people might not know that this tiny piece of land is also home to black and green sand beaches – making it one-of-a-kind!

Black, white & green- all these beaches are within an hour's drive from each other on the big island's southern coast. This part of the island is very remote- the only place with hotels and restaurants is a tiny village called Volcano. True to its name, Volcano is located next to the Hawaii volcanoes national park. Volcano House, located inside the park, is a popular choice among tourists. It boasts crater-facing lodging where one can marvel at the Kilauea volcano's views from the room's comfort. Kilauea lodge, minutes away from the park entrance, is another highly rated hotel on TripAdvisor. Budget travelers will also find suitable accommodations in the volcano village.

We often prefer Airbnb over hotels because it provides a more authentic feel of the place. We split our stay between two Airbnb establishments. Both are unique, highly rated, and often highlighted in travel magazines. We stayed for one night in Kalapana village. In 1990 and again in 2010, lava flowed from the Kilauea and blanketed this entire area burying hundreds of houses. After the cessation of the lava flow, road connectivity to the village was restored and houses rebuilt but, a high-clearance vehicle is still highly recommended to access the 50 or so houses in the Kalapana town/village. Our Airbnb, Phoenix house was hosted by Jade is built on the volcanic lave field and offers a truly unique experience – a magical 360-degree view of the large expansive lava plain. This off-grid property is a sanctuary of peace and solitude.

For the rest of our time in this area, we stayed at a glasshouse Airbnb, 5 miles away from the Volcanic national park. It was quite a contrast, though! While Phoenix house is surrounded by an empty field of black lava rocks, the glasshouse is enveloped by a tropical rain forest. Located on the slopes of Kilauea volcano, this glass studio is also off the grid and only has limited battery-powered electricity. During our stay, there was a torrential downpour every night. Incessant drops of rain on the glass ceiling, combined with the constant calling of coqui frogs was an unforgettable experience in this magical place!

Top spots to see:

Day 1:

Beaches and Hawaii volcanoes national park-these are the two main attractions of the south coast. Papakōlea, the green sand beach, is the furthest from the volcano village. It is one of the only two green sand beaches in the united states. Contrary to many tourists' imagination, the beach is not covered with foliage green sands; instead, olive drab! Therefore, set your expectations right before making the trip since it is quite a hike.

To reach Papakōlea from Volcano, we took a left turn to the south point road from the Mamalahoa highway. This two-way road overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by green meadows on either side ends in an undesignated parking area. We didn't see any signs of green sand beach along the way, but Google map was spot on. We found locals waiting at the parking lot with their pick-up trucks offering rides charging 20$/ person. It was a beautiful sunny day and we decided to hike. From the parking lot, it's 2.8 miles one-way hike on a flat dirt road. With a high clearance 4WD, it is possible to drive to the beach but doing that with a rental is probably not a great idea. On our hike, we noticed several cars struggling to maneuver the treacherous road. The entire walk is along the coastline and picturesque. The only annoying part is the dust from the road. Since there was no designated hiking trail, this sandy road is shared by hikers and cars. That day was also very windy (we were told it is usually wind up there), and the whole path is exposed to the sun. Make sure to carry a hat, plenty of water, and sunglass to protect your eyes from the sun & dust.

Papakōlea Beach is located in a small cove with stunning emerald water. This bay was formed into the side of the Pu'u Mahana cinder cone. Pu'u Mahana erupted around 50,000 years back. During this eruption, lava from Pu'u Mahana brought a mineral called Olivine crystals up to the surface. Olivine is green colored, and since it is heavier than other components of the lava, it stayed deposited. When Olivine crystals came in contact with cold ocean water, they broke into tiny green sand particles.

We decided to visit Punalu'u black sand beach on the same day since it was on our way back to Volcano. We stopped at Naalehu for a quick lunch break. Food was kind of blah, but the coffee at Honua's Coffee house made up for that. Punalu'u black sand beach is one of the most easily accessible black sand beaches on the big island, which was pretty evident from the crowd on the shore. When lava from the volcanoes flows into the ocean, it cools rapidly, fragmenting into lava cinder pieces. Ocean waves break these cinder pieces into black sand. Punalu'u is very rocky, and without good water shoes, swimming is no fun! We spent an hour relaxing under the shades of coconut palm trees –a perfect way to finish a very active day!

Days 2 & 3:

Next 2 days, we spent time at Hawaii volcanoes national park. This park has two parts – south and west. After the check post entrance, the road straight ahead leads to the park's western side, where the Kilauea visitor center is located. Adjacent to the visitor center is the volcano lodge. Their restaurant menu looked yummy, but unfortunately, due to COVID, it was closed. A bunch of hiking trails starts from the visitor center. Sulfur banks trail is a popular one. This hike goes through the volcanic thermal area, where one can witness yellow Sulphur deposits scattered on brown mud. Volcanic gases coming out of the steam vent is rich in carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. Some sulfur gases deposit yellow crystals—others from sulfuric acid that breaks down lava to red and brown colored clay. After the hike, we drove further west on the crater rim road. This road goes through steaming vents and lush rainforest and ends up at the Kilauea overlook. This outlook offers dramatic views of the vast expanse of Kilauea caldera and Halema'uma'u crater. If you are in the mood for a day-long adventure, hike the crater rim trail that starts from the visitor center, goes along the crater, and ends at the Kilauea outlook.

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The chain of crater road covers the south side of the park. This 19-miles long road starts at the Kilauea summit and descends 3700 feet into the coast. Built-in 1928, at one point, this road used to go to as far as Kalapana. But after the 1969 Mauna Ulu eruption, part of the road got buried under lava. The constant lava flow over the years inundated 10 miles of road. Simultaneously, it continues to increase the park's size – it has been increased by hundreds of acres. Between 1989 and 1997, repeated lava flows also demolished Kamomoa village and Waha'ula visitor center located in this area.

The chain of crater road is one of the most scenic drives I have experienced. Every 15 minutes, there was a sudden change in scenery! We started driving in a rain forest. It slowly transitioned into an expansive lava field & we reached the rainy and chilly summit. Suddenly, the ocean appeared out of nowhere! From the top, we drove down into the valley and ended up on the coast.

Chain of Craters road offers more hiking options than the west side of the park. Kilauea Iki crater hike is the most popular hike on this road. From the Kilauea Iki overlook parking area, we hiked through the lush rainforest to the solidified lava lake on the Kilauea Iki crater floor. 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki lasted only for a month. It was one of the most spectacular lava fountains of the 20th century, reaching up to 1300 ft. Check out the US geological survey website for some mind-blowing pictures of the lava fountain! Ravages caused by the Kilauea Iki eruption can also be seen from the devastation trail. During the eruption, this place was buried entirely by the falling cinders. But now, one can witness life coming back to this barren land of devastation. Mau Loa O Mauna Ulu is the highest point of the road. A viewing deck on the summit offers an expansive view of the Mauna Ulu lava flows from 1969-1974. This massive lava field is hard, intractable, and the harsh winds in this area make vegetation impossible. A few minutes' drive from there is Kealakomo pullout, here you can enjoy magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean in the backdrop of the expansive lava field.

Further down the road, the Pu'u Loa petroglyph hike is kind of different. Approximately 23,000 petroglyphs carved by native Hawaiian people, dated between 1200-1450 AD, are located in this area – the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the entire chain of Hawaiian Islands. Most of these petroglyphs are puka, in which a portion of the umbilical cord of a newborn was placed to ensure a long life. Motifs of circles and geometric designs are the most common rock arts here. It is a sacred place for native people and has been used for ritual purposes for more than 500 years.

The chain of craters road ends at the Holei sea arch viewing area. This fantastic 90 ft lava rock formation is beautiful but temporary as it will eventually crumble into the sea. This sea arch was cut into the cliff of an ancient lava flow from about 550 years ago. From this point onwards, public vehicles are not allowed.

Day 4:

Kalapana is located in the Puna district, southeast side of the island. It is an hour's drive for Volcano and an excellent destination for a day trip. We decided to stay there for a night to experience the phoenix house – a popular Airbnb. Jade warned us beforehand that there was no food in the vicinity. We stopped at Pahoa, a tiny village, to pack food for the night. The easiest way to get to Kalapana is driving south on route 130 from Pahoa. We wanted to see the Pohoiki black sand beach before settling down at our place; we went south on 132 instead. Compared to the Punalu'u black sand beach, it is more expansive. Due to its relatively remote location, there were hardly any souls! Another noticeable difference was the strong current of water here, definitely the wildest ocean on our entire trip. It is also called the "new" black sand beach because much of the lava flow was from the 2018 Kilauea eruption. The sight of how destructive the eruption was can be seen from the parking lot. The road to Hala point is now completely blocked with lava flow!

From Pohoiki beach, we took route 137 – Kalapana-Kapoho road, a narrow one-way canopy road with beautiful ocean views. The entire Kalapana region is formed from lava. 2018 eruption displaced many families in this area. It is now quite affordable to buy a piece of hardened lava land and build a house on them. We found people are coming back and starting their lives again. The night was incredibly magical- pitch dark land and the quiet sky, sounds of coqui frogs calling their mates, lights flickering from a faraway house – it was indeed an experience of a lifetime.

Nene crossing:

You will find "Nene crossing" signs everywhere on the park roads. Nene is a native Hawaiian goose endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. It is the official bird of the state of Hawaii. They are friendly to tourists, like to hang around cars, chill on the road, and like to cross the road where there is no "Nene crossing" sign! Be careful while driving.

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