The southern side of the Big Island includes the Ka’u and Puna regions. The slopes of Kilauea and Mauna Loa have always provided good agricultural land. The land has been changed and renewed by lava flows and tsunamis. The Ka’u and Puna regions are beautiful countryside to visit.
Spring 2018: The eruption event that began May 3 has made visiting the areas south of Pahoa town going east inadvisable. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closed at the main entrance. The Kahuku unit (near mile marker 70) is open for part of each week (https://www.nps.gov/havo/learn/news/20180523_pr_kahuku.htm). You can still take route 11 Mamalahoa Highway around the park towards Pahala and Punalu’u park.
- Multimedia maps of Kilauea activity from the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
Take route 11 and 130 south out of Hilo town to visit Pahoa, about a 30-minute drive. You can visit the site of the 2014 lava flow by going to the Pahoa Transfer Station. The Lava Tree State Monument is a park with the ghostly remains of trees encased in lava, formed from a lava flow in 1790. If you need a meal, Kaleo’s Bar & Grill is an award-winning fun place to stop.
Take route 11 Mamalahoa Highway from Hilo to see more of the southern side of the Big Island. I love to stop at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. There are so many varieties of orchids and some have incredible fragrance. You can just stop by and take a look at the showroom and gift shop, or sign up for the Greenhouse and Tasting Tour or the Orchid Maze.
About a 45 minute drive from Hilo is Volcano Village and the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Volcano Village is an artsy small town near the entrance to the National Park with galleries and few places to eat and stay.
You can spend many hours in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Volcano Art Center is in the 1877 Volcano House hotel building. It features artists’ work in many types of media. Nearby is the current Volcano House hotel with its views of the Kilauea crater.
Further along Crater Rim Drive, the Kilauea Overlook is a worthwhile stop to experience the other-worldly beauty of the ‘ōhi’a lehua trees and the Halema’uma’u caldera. The Jaggar Museum has another great view of the caldera, a mural by Herb Kane and lots of geologic information.
You can drive through the park or get out to hike portions of it. You can spend 1 hour or up to 5 hours here. The park is open 24 hours each day and you may want to see the caldera in the dark. Be sure to check the current lava flow information.
Continuing south on the Mamalahoa Highway is the town of Pahala. This was a sugar plantation town and you can stay in some of the plantation houses. Pahala is a new center for coffee growing.
Punalu’u park is 40 minutes from the Jaggar Museum. The black sand beach is beautiful and not very crowded with people. There are fresh water streams in the ocean here leading to the legend of Kauila, the goddess who helped the people get fresh water and protect the children in the form of a honu (green sea turtle). There is a monument to her near the county park buildings. The honus like to bask on the sand on this beach.
The heiau Mailekini (a worship site for the Hawaiian people) is behind the beach and other heiau and petroglyphs are close by. The park has a parking lot, a pavilion, drinking water, a snack bar. You can apply to the County of Hawaii for a camping permit. If you see a honu resting on the sand, respect her and the state law by staying 6 to 10 feet away. The Sea Mountain golf course and condos are on the southwest side of the bay.
Drive south for 15 minutes to Na’alehu town. I liked eating at the Shaka Restaurant, but there are other nice restaurants and the Punalu’u Bake Shop in town. It’s about 60 miles to Kailua-Kona town from Na’alehu and about 60 miles back to Hilo town. One more stop you may want to make in Ka’u is Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States. Drive about 8 miles off Route 11 on South Point Road and hike out to the point.
I recommend taking some time to learn about the Hawaiian creation story, the Kumulipo. The goddess Pele is such a key figure and you may feel her power (mana) especially in this part of the Big Island.
Big Island map – Ka’u and Puna
Resource links for Ka’u and Puna regions
- Kaleo’s Bar and Grill in Pahoa
- Lava Tree State Monument
- Akatsuka Orchid Gardens
- Volcano Art Center in the 1877 Volcano House Hotel
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
- Herb Kane mural at Jaggar Museum
- History of Punalu’u from Save Punalu’u
- Sacred heiaus at Punalu’u
- Ka Lae South Point from Big Island Hikes
- History of Ka’u and Pahala
- Punalu’u mele and the story of George Kealoha Iopa, Sr. from Hawaiian Music and Hula Archives
- Stories of Pele from Roberts Hawaii
Let’s talk story
When we arrived at Punalu’u, the first thing I saw was the pond. It was covered with purple flowers and Hawaiian ducks were having a good time there. As I walked across the sand I could see a honu sitting above the tide sunning herself. I kept thinking “how close can I get to her?”, not wanting to harass her. I took my slippahs off and sat down in the sand. I couldn’t believe the feeling, being used to East Coast beaches where your feet can get burned in the sand. The black sand was a comfortable warm temperature and it moved to surround me. The temperature and the hugging of the sand felt like when I hold a sleepy grandbaby. The honu opened her eye and looked at me. Then she went back to her motionless nap and I listened to the wind and waves breaking. I will never forget my time with the honu at Punalu’u.
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