Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Fire up a Visit

Lava flows, Madame Pele and a South Point detour on the Big Island

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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Every Big Island visitor needs to experience the drama and power of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are very few places on earth where you can feel Mother Nature so acutely; you can literally see her growing, smell her sulfurous belching, touch her elemental heat. Creation happens here. Even if you have only a few hours, drive along Crater Rim Road and stop at the Thurston Lava Tube, Devastation Trail, and the Halemaumau overlook.

If you have a few days to explore (which is ideal), serious and Sunday hikers will find enough trails to keep them occupied for several days. The park has it all: steaming, gaping crevasses, moonlike surfaces, lava tubes, cinder cones, steam vents, rain-forest retreats, ohelo berries favored by Pele, and hapu‘u ferns. Check lava updates here.

Mystical Volcano Village has Japanese roots but also attracts off-the-grid types, artists, and New Agers who want to be left alone to do their thing. They’re invisibly tucked back in residential areas camouflaged by tree ferns and a constant gentle mist. Other than that, the village consists of a few restaurants, a convenience store, and lots of charming B&Bs. Situated at 4,000 feet, it’s chilly here at night, so remember to pack a sweater. (On a personal note, quirky as it is, this is my favorite village in the whole state.)

Getting Around
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about 30 miles (45 minutes) from Hilo and 110 miles (2 1⁄2 to 3 hours) from Kailua-Kona. The park is quite easy to navigate; the visitors center has a good, free map. The village, laid out in a grid pattern, is just a few miles from the national park.

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Detour: the South Point Area

Windswept, barren, haunting, and borderline surreal, the Ka‘u District resembles little else in America. If you’re doing a circle tour of the Big Island, you can’t miss it. But neither should you miss it. It’s a land of extremes, with dense rain forests, undulating grasses, and spacious deserts with scorched earth, where lava flows tumble from the top of Mauna Loa into the ocean. In fact, the Ka‘u Desert has been subject to repeated flows.

The district is big, too, as big as the entire island of O‘ahu. Although it’s barely populated now, Ka‘u was once the most populous place on the Big Island. (What a difference a millennium makes!)

It’s a land of macadamia nut farms, old sugar towns like Pahala and Na‘alehu, little churches, friendly residents, and ancient fishing villages that date to a.d. 700 when Polynesians paddled across the Pacific (probably from Tahiti) and set foot here. It’s where you’ll find the difficult-to-access green sand beach and the southernmost point in the United States. Without a doubt, there is an inescapable end-of-the-world feel here.

So You Know
J Ka Lae (aka South Point), is near MM 70; drive 12 miles makai down bumpy South Point Rd. past horses and cows and acres and acres of windswept land to the boat ramp. Park, and then walk another 2.5 miles (about one hour) over lava and pastures toward an inactive cinder cone (Pu‘u o Mahana) and Green Sand Beach. If you have a four-wheel drive, you can drive most of this 2.5-mile stretch—which is tough even with a four-wheel drive—but you’ll still have to clamber down the steep cliff over lava rocks to the beach. It’s relatively easier (but still very tricky) to get down at the southern end.

Use caution and wear shoes with good traction. Or just peer down onto it from above. There isn’t a sign that says you are here, at the southernmost point of the united states. But you’ll feel the remoteness of it.

Getting Around
It’s about an hour between Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the turn-off for Ka Lae (South Point). It’s another 2 hours or so from the turnoff to Kailua-Kona. The Punalu‘u Bake Shop acts as an unofficial regional visitors center.

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