Southbound (Part 2 of 2)

By Kelly Moran

[Part 2 of 2 – Click here for Part 1]


No place in Ka’u is more compelling than Ka Lae: literally “the point,” but popularly (and on road signs) called South Point.  This is probably where the first voyaging Polynesians made landfall in the Hawaiian Islands.  You might not think its barren lava, rocky bays, wind-blown sand dunes and incessant currents would make for an inviting anchorage, but after months at sea in a double-hulled canoe, it must have seemed sheltering indeed.

[Graffiti artists made this “signboard” at Ka Lae.]

Those famously brisk winds are why two wind-turbine “farms” have been built along the road to South Point.  The first, erected in the 1970s, was later dismantled – you’ll see the segments of its towers piled up like giant abstract  sculptures.  The newest wind turbines, though, are fully up and twirling, and contributing their share to the island’s electrical grid.

[Cliff-jumpers and lookers-on gather at Ka Lae.  Wind turbines in the distance contribute to the Big Island’s electricity grid.]

At the end of the road, you’ll want to see two sights: Ka Lae itself, the southernmost point in Hawaii, and the bizarre “green sand” beach.

[At the end of the trail , the first glimpse of the green sand beach in Ka’u, with its eroded cliff of layered lava and sand.]

[Looking down on the green sand beach from the clifftop above it.]

A panorama, seen from the green sand beach: its rocky shoreline and the beach itself ….

A panorama, seen from *above* the green sand beach ….

At Ka Lae, and especially on weekends, a few vendors will be opening fresh coconuts for drinking, or selling other snacks; and there’ll be a pair of porta-potties as well.  But what you’ll remember best is the sight of youngsters jumping off the high cliffs into the sea, and climbing back up ladders and ropes so they can plunge in again and again.  The guidebooks are right: don’t try this if nobody else is doing it, and even then, be very careful.

[A video of how it’s done at Ka Lae: you stand on the wooden platform on the cliff top, then step off … ]

[Young women jump off the cliff at Ka Lae …]

Four miles away, however, is Hawaii’s most unusual beach.  To get there, drive one mile east from Ka Lae, park where other cars are parked (lock yours, too), and be prepared to hike three miles over lava and sand.  Lather on the sunblock; there are no trees and no shade.  Wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots; there isn’t much groundcover vegetation to cushion your feet.  And pack in whatever you’ll want to eat and drink – there are no vendors, no services, no water and no toilets.

Don’t try to drive the trail yourself, even if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  The dunes have been deeply rutted, over the years, by off-road vehicles and motorcycles.  So only folks who live nearby are likely to be experienced enough to know which tracks can be followed without getting stuck in sand or hung up on rocks.  (Some local guys do offer rides, which you may well want to accept, one way or both; but tip the driver if you take him up on it.) 

Why put yourself through the heat and exertion of trekking along this windiest, dustiest edge of the Ka’u coastline?  Because at the end of the trail is a small bay whose steep beach is like no other.  The “sand” there is mostly bits of olivine – a green, glassy mineral that exploded into billions of tiny fragments when the molten lava that carried it reached the cold sea.  Mixed with black sand, which formed from regular lava in the same way and at the same time, olivine crystals give the beach a greenish tint that’s easy to see, but the color is surprisingly hard to capture accurately in a photograph.

Don’t even think about keeping a handful of olivine; taking any amount is against the law, and you could be fined much more than the price of a legal sample that you can buy in many souvenir shops.  This isn’t a beach for sunbathing or even swimming: even more than on other Ka’u beaches, you should be cautious about going in the water if the weather is anything but pleasant, if the winds are more than slightly brisk, and especially if no one else is swimming.

Stand on the cliff top and look out beyond the beach to the sea: there’s nothing but ocean all the way to Tahiti.  Turn around, and look up at Mauna Loa, and imagine how such a huge mountain must have looked to the first voyagers, and how far from anything familiar they must have felt.  In Ka’u, you are more-or-less equidistant from urban Hilo and suburban Kailua-Kona – not only in distance but in feeling.

Kohala For a Day


By Kelly Moran

Kohala For a Day

An old song says: “It’s the far northland that’s a-calling me away . . . .“  And you might hear the call too, if you visit Kohala, the northernmost part of the Big Island.  There’s a South Kohala disctrict, famous for beaches and resorts, but say simply “Kohala” to local folks, and you’ll be understood to mean North Kohala.

Getting there is twenty-mile drive from upscale Waimea, yet in some ways, Kohala is an island unto itself.  The Kohala “mountains” are green, verdant cinder cones – all that’s left of the geologically oldest of this island’s volcanoes.  At their feet, the landscape is reminiscent of Maui’s oldest (Hana) district, with deeper, more fertile soils and thicker vegetation than anywhere else on the Big Island.

Kohala is also a cape.  Small-craft warnings are regularly posted for the Alenuihaha Channel that separates Hawaii from Maui.  The seas are always rough, with only one place to safely swim: the lovely little Keokea Beach (County) Park, which has a man-made breakwater to create a sheltered swimmable  bay. 

Keokea Beach Park
Keokea Beach Park. Keokea is a lovely spot for a picnic, just outside the town of Kapa’au.


Keokea Beach Park - with Breakwater
Keokea Beach Park with Breakwater. You can swim in the ocean – with caution – inside the breakwater at Keaukea Beach Park.


And there’s always a breeze: our electric utility (HELCO) purchases extra power from a “farm” of turbines that whirl in the near-continuous winds.

Wind Turbine Farm
Wind Turbine Farm. Winds through the Alenuihaha Channel generate electricity in Kohala.
Turbine and Trees.
Turbine and Trees. It’s easy to see why Kohala is a logical place to mount a wind turbine!

People have lived in Kohala since the very first voyagers came here from Samoa in the 800’s and 900’s AD.  Their heiau still stands near Upolu Point, though it was later expanded by the people we think of today as “Hawaiians” – the descendents of those who emigrated from Tahiti.  It was at that heiau, too, that the birth of Kamehameha the Great was celebrated.  By the twentieth century, agricultural workers from Japan, the Philippines and the Azores (Portugal), came here to work in the sugar fields and mills.  At the foot of Old Coast Guard Road, there’s a monument to Puerto Rican immigrants from 1901.

Monument to Puerto Ricans
Monument to Puerto Ricans. A monument erected in memory of the early 20th Century immigrants from Puerto Rico.

Kohala’s towns, Hawi and Kapa’au, developed and grew in the sugar plantation era.  Today, Kapa’au remains the governmental center of the district, and retains most of its day-to-day businesses, like hardware and grocery stores, along with some innovative galleries and restaurants.  Kenji’s House, for example, is the former home of a local beachcomber/diver whose seashell-and-stone sculptures are “folk art” at its unpretentious best.  Just below it stands Pico’s Bistro, offering gourmet and vegetarian pizzas and salads.

Kenji's Artwork displayed
Kenji’s artwork displayed. The late Kenji Yokoyama (1931-2004) collected stones, shells and driftwood from the Kohala coast to fashion simple artistic creations.
Kenji's Artwork displayed
Kenji’s Stone and Shell Folk Art. Seahorses and other sea creatures were particular favorites of local folk artist Kenji Yokoyama.
Kenji's Artwork displayed
Kenji’s Stone and Shell Folk Art.

Hawi is more self-consciously a visitor destination, featuring a wider variety of artistic offerings and eateries.  Especially intriguing, on my latest visit, were the ukuleles and guitars, both old and new, at Hawi Gallery Art & Ukuleles; and the vintage and collectible clothes next door at Chi Chi La Fong.  There’s an amazing choice of sushi, both traditional and modern, across the street at Sushi Rock, where they give a Kama’aina discount at lunch and for the first hour at dinnertime.

Even if living full time in the “far northland” isn’t on your bucket-list, spend a day or two in Kohala, and enjoy both the natural and artistic offerings, and the echoes of a quiet and rural lifestyle that once characterized the entire island.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Where It’s All Happening


By Kelly Moran

Where It’s All Happening

On September 26th, Namaste will be twelve years old.  Six bands showed up at his home to play for his eleventh birthday, last year, and several restaurants brought delicious food (“ono grinds,” as folks here like to say) for the many guests. A special birthday cake was prepared for Namaste alone to eat, and his favorite present was a new pillow.

Namaste, you see, is a white Bengal tiger. The “cake” was made of bones; and the pillow was stuffed with catnip.


Namaste is arguably the prime attraction at the Hilo zoo – or, to give it its full name, in the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo, for it is the only zoo in America sited in a natural rainforest (kept moist by the famous Hilo rain). But Namaste is far from the only attraction. Our local zoo has a surprisingly wide variety of animals: rare South American birds and lizards; monkeys, lemurs and other primates; peacocks that stroll around the grounds, displaying their fanned-out feathers; grotesque creatures, like anteaters; and familiar creatures, like delicate Axis deer and huge hairy pigs which have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands to be hunted. What they all have in common is that they can and do live comfortably in this climate. There are no polar bears or penguins.

Lizzy the lounging Green Iguana
Lizzy the Lounging Green Iguana - Photo by Roger Simons, Zookeeper

To walk around is to take a pleasant stroll through a unique park, even if you don’t stop to look at the animals. The paths are well paved (and wheelchair-accessible), and lined with trees, shrubs and flowers both native and exotic: the many palms and flowering trees are especially attractive. Among the rarities (kept in a cage) is one that blossoms only occasionally, and can be pollinated only by flies, which are drawn to the flower’s unique scent, said to resemble that of rotting flesh; hence its nickname: the “corpse flower” plant.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the zoo is open nearly every day of the year. But what is remarkable is that admission is always free!

Mr.& Mrs. Pickles sunbathing Tegus
Mr.& Mrs. Pickles: Sunbathing Tegus - Photo by Roger Simons, Zookeeper

The zoo is located off Highway 11, between Hilo and Kea’au; the turnoff is well marked, and the zoo is just past the Pana’ewa Equestrian Center (about which I will also write, soon).  The zoo’s website ( includes a virtual tour. Be sure to say Happy Birthday to Namaste, when you go.

Kinkajou Peek-A-Boo
Kinkajou Peek-A-Boo - Photo by Roger Simons, Zookeeper

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – A Historic Home Has Closed

By Kelly Moran

A Historic Home Has Closed

Most “historic” homes here are merely old, and not especially significant in local history.  Fewer still are also visitor attractions. But among those that can rightly be considered of historical value, and well worth a tour, none is more important than the Parker family seat, Puuopelu. Unfortunately, it’s now closed.


It stands a hundred yards or so off Hwy 190, on the dry side of Waimea – also called Kamuela, the Hawaiian rendition of “Samuel,” and specifically Samuel Parker, next to whose ranchland the town itself grew up.

Samuel’s father, John Palmer Parker II, created the eponymous Parker Ranch in the early 1800s, under a grant from King Kamehameha I himself, to round up and fence in feral cattle that had become a nuisance.

Parker Ranch
Parker Ranch

His original home, a few miles away, was a cottage in the New England “saltbox” style, but whose entire interior – walls, ceilings and floors – were paneled in wide koa boards.  In 1879, Samuel acquired a Victorian mansion called Puuopelu (literally a “pile of stones” but figuratively the “folding hills” of Kohala, which border the property).  It has been the family seat ever since.  Several generations have remodeled and expanded the house, and in 1986 John Parker’s cottage was dismantled, moved, reassembled and erected right next door.

That was a favorite project of Richard Smart, the home’s most colorful Parker heir, and the last of his family to have owned the ranch outright. 

Richard Smart. Photo courtesy Parker Ranch.
Richard Smart. Photo courtesy Parker Ranch.

Though an expert horseman, and a serious collector of European art, especially fond of paintings of Venice, Smart was not a rancher by profession.  Mainly, he was a singer, actor and theatrical producer, and in that capacity was largely responsible for the creation of the Kahilu Theater, a marvelous performance venue, which now stands in the Waimea shopping center that’s also named after the Parker Ranch.

Since Smart’s death in 1992, ownership and operation of the ranch and of Puuopelu have been the responsibility of the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust.  But the Trust has lost money in recent years, forcing it to sell some 3,500 (of its 130,000) acres of ranchland for residential development. And this past January, it announced that the historic home would be closed to visitors.  An exception was made, though, for the weekend of the Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival, during which admission was free!

The celebration of the first cherry blossoms of the spring dates back to 7th century Japan. Aristocrats of the day would enjoy the blossoms while writing poetry beneath the flowering branches. Today “hanami” (literally hana, flower and mi, look) is the single word in the Japanese language that means “Cherry Blossom viewing party.”
The celebration of the first cherry blossoms of the spring dates back to 7th century Japan. Aristocrats of the day would enjoy the blossoms while writing poetry beneath the flowering branches. Today “hanami” (literally hana, flower and mi, look) is the single word in the Japanese language that means “Cherry Blossom viewing party.” Photo courtesy Parker Ranch.

A Trust spokeswoman told the West Hawaii Today newspaper in January that the Ranch will continue to offer visitors horseback and all-terrain vehicle tours, and hunting excursions, on the land.  (Go to for details.) It’s only the house-tours that will no longer be available.

Riders will feel like Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys) as they ride through old stone corrals where up to 5,000 Hereford cattle were once rounded up after being brought down from the slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo courtesy Parker Ranch.
Riders will feel like Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys) as they ride through old stone corrals where up to 5,000 Hereford cattle were once rounded up after being brought down from the slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo courtesy Parker Ranch.

So, what will be missed?  Plenty.  The estate includes John Parker II’s old koa-paneled cottage, a carriage-house with two of the family’s own buggies, and an Italian-style parterre garden that sits above a lake-size pond.  The main house has Victorian and early 20th century furnishings, as well as Richard Smart’s important art collection.  Inside Puuopelu, too, are some museum-worthy historical documents, such as the formal commission making Richard’s father, John Parker III, a cabinet minister to Queen Liliuokalani; and a handwritten letter of thanks to him from a grateful visitor: the Queen’s predecessor, her brother, King Kalakaua.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The “Red” Road That Isn’t

By Kelly Moran

The “Red” Road That Isn’t

     Until just a few years ago, Hwy 137 along the Puna coast was paved with locally quarried red cinder.  Though it’s conventionally paved now, a rather standard gray-black color, local folks still call it “The Red Road.” And it’s still very narrow, with many blind hills and curves, weaving and undulating through stands of giant mango trees.  Pay attention, and drive carefully.

Red Road - A scenic drive along Hwy 137
Red Road - A scenic drive along Hwy 137

          Several small churches and tiny cemeteries lie along the road, the graves carefully tended and strewn with flowers.  They are a legacy of how long-settled this part of the island has always been, despite incursions of lava.  Signs give the dates of some flows, so you can see the progress in the advance of vegetation: lichen and ferns first, then grasses and ohia trees.

          You can expect Isaac Hale (rhymes with “pail”) Beach Park to be crowded with families, because it’s just about the only place along the coast where it’s safe to get into the ocean for a swim, or launch a small boat. 

Isaac Hale Beach Park
Isaac Hale Beach Park

By contrast, the ocean at Mackenzie State Park is practically inaccessible; but the ironwood forest there is a nice place to picnic, and to walk the “King’s Trail” along the coast. 

Mackenzie State Park
Mackenzie State Park

No sign marks Kahena Beach, a little further down Hwy 137, which is (unofficially) the only bathing spot on the island that’s clothing-optional.

Kahena Beach
Kahena Beach

          Be aware that “beach” is a euphemism, here; so use caution when swimming anywhere on the Puna coast.  There are practically no reefs to block incoming waves or cancel out rip-currents, and those sandy pockets in their tiny bays drop off very quickly into deep, cold water.

          Inside the Seaview subdivision, there is a performance venue called the Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education, or S.P.A.C.E., which showcases local entertainers, including some circus performers (acrobats, especially) who live nearby.  Check the schedule at

Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education, or S.P.A.C.E.
Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education, or S.P.A.C.E.

          At the end of the road, enjoy a snack or a meal at the Kalapana Village Diner, or drink a cup of ‘awa next door, at Uncle Robert’s ‘Awa Bar. Awa (“AH-VAH”) is the Hawaiian name for a plant (piper methysticum) that’s a cultural staple in nearly every Pacific island group.  The ground-up root is infused in cold water, and the resulting “tea” is sipped, traditionally out of a cup made from half a coconut shell.  ‘Awa can produce more relaxation or intoxication than a comparable volume of beer, and it has the side-effect of slightly numbing the mouth – which helps to overcome the taste: a gritty broth that may remind you of soap. Nonetheless, many people drink more than one cup, after which the effect can be profound; so you’ll probably want to designate a driver who doesn’t drink any.

          Then, as you head back toward Pahoa on Hwy 130, stop for a while at the Star of the Sea Catholic church, which used to stand in Kalapana, but was hauled away just before lava rolled over the site.  It’s painted inside to suggest a cathedral (as is St. Benedict’s, in Honaunau, South Kona).  But Star of the Sea is also historically significant: Father – now Saint – Damian was the priest here, just before he was “called” to Molokai.

Star of the Sea Catholic Church - moved from Kalapana just before lava rolled over the site
Star of the Sea Catholic Church - moved from Kalapana just before lava rolled over the site

          Puna is the Big Island’s geologically youngest district.  It offers the least-expensive land, and is hence very popular, despite the fact that parts of it are inundated, every decade or so, by fresh lava.  Along the coast road, you will easily visualize the progress of vegetation reclaiming the land – first with grasses, then with ohia trees, as they colonize each new flow.

          As for the black-sand beaches of Puna, they were formed when hot lava was pulverized by the chilly sea water, after which the new “sand” accumulated in a bay.  The oldest and most picturesque of these beaches – palm-fringed Kaimu, and broad Kalapana – are now buried beneath tons of newer lava, as is a cold, fresh-water pool nearby that was called Queen’s Bath. 

Kaimu Beach, a black sand beach formed when hot lava was pulverized by the chilly sea water, after which the new "sand" accumulated in a bay

On the Puna coast, you’ll really understand the futility of claiming that you stand “on solid ground.”

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Along the Puna Coast

By Kelly Moran

Along the Puna Coast

          Last time, I told you about a particularly scenic drive north from Hilo.  Now I’d like to take you on another – and longer – scenic drive, along the coast of the Puna district.

          If you take Hwy 130 from Kea’au, and keep going straight, past Pahoa, you’ll end up at Kalapana, where the current eruption of Kilauea is extruding lava into the Pacific.  By day, all you see is white clouds of steam and smoke, but after dark, you realize that the hot lava, exploding as it hits cold seawater, is actually vividly colored with yellows, oranges and reds.

          Most people just drive there directly, especially if they are showing visitors around.  But I suggest you give yourself a couple of hours longer, and make the trip in a roundabout way, to enjoy the Puna coastline as well.

          So, instead of going straight on Hwy 130 after Pahoa, turn left onto Hwy 132, heading east toward Kapoho, and check out Lava Tree State Park.  There, an 18th-century flow wrapped itself around tree-trunks and incinerated them, leaving an intriguing, otherworldly landscape of tall, hollow cones where the trees used to be.

Immense "lava trees" like this one are all that's left of the first-growth trees that used to stand here.
Immense "lava trees" like this one are all that's left of the first-growth trees that used to stand here.

          Across from the park – though not open to the public – is the Big Island’s geothermal power station.  It taps an underground hot-spot: part of Kilauea’s enormous subterranean network of lava tubes and magma chambers.  The steam that arises, under pressure, drives a turbine, and thereby supplies about one-tenth of the island’s electricity.  The project was controversial from its inception; and even now, depending on whom you talk to, drilling into the earth is either the best way to generate “clean” energy, locally, or it’s a gross insult to the volcano goddess Pele, whose current home is Kilauea.  (And Kilauea is, essentially, all of Puna.)

          Continue on to Kapoho.  Pele made herself conspicuous there, one day in 1960, when lava burst out of a sugar cane field.  Within a few days, her slow-moving, pasty a’a had obliterated the little farming town, and left several enormous cinder-cones in its place – one of which has a crater with a permanent rain-water-fed pond inside, known as “Green Lake.”

          That eruption also threatened to overwhelm the lighthouse at Cape Kumukahi, on the easternmost tip of the island.  But at the last moment, the flow diverged and went around the lighthouse.  This may have been by pure chance, but many people here aver that Pele has always respected sailors, and that is why she spared their all-important navigational beacon.  The lighthouse  is easily identified at night by its eleven-second period – i.e., the rotating lamp appears to “flash” every eleven seconds. 

After the 1960 Kapoho eruption, the original 1927 lighthouse.
After the 1960 Kapoho eruption, the original 1927 lighthouse.

          At the lighthouse, turn right onto Hwy 137, which will put the
ocean on your left.  All along this coast there are pockets of brackish
water, heated by the volcano’s plumbing, and collectively known as “warm ponds.”  Though they are within the high-water mark, and hence officially open to the public, one of them – the so-called “Champagne Pond” – is the subject of local controversy.  It’s inside a subdivision, and there are no restrooms or port-a-potties, or other facilities; so adjacent property owners want to restrict access, whereas other Puna residents (and visitors) generally want to be able to drive in.

          Some day that pond may be designated as a park; but for now, if you want to immerse yourself in a warm pond, it’s best to go just a bit further down the road, to one that is open to the public, at Pualaa Beach Park.  You’ll see its driveway just before you come to a stop sign at the intersection of the Pohoiki Road.  Just past the parking-lot, a lava-stone stairway with a railing will lead you safely into the water.

          If the world is too much with you, there’s a place to get away
from it all on Hwy 137, between the 17- and 18-mile markers.  Kalani
Oceanside Retreat Village ( is a 120-acre center for yoga,
dance and spiritual workshops.

          I’ll take you the rest of the way along fascinating Hwy 137 – the so-called “Red Road” – next time.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The (Very) Scenic Drive

By Kelly Moran

The (Very) Scenic Drive

The four-mile alternative to Hwy 19 between Papaikou and Pepeekeo has long been one of my favorite places on the Big Island. The road is narrow and winding, with many one-lane bridges, so you have to drive it slowly – the better to appreciate all the lush vegetation, the many streams and waterfalls, and the stunning vistas of knife-edged ridges and sheer rocky cliffs along the coast. Maps and road signs proclaim it to be “The Scenic Drive,” and for good reason. It’s a short version of the 50-mile road to Hana, on Maui; and like that more famous route, it offers a glimpse of the Hawaii of yesteryear.

Head north from Hilo, and turn off the highway just past Papaikou. Soon you’ll see old store-fronts, some of which are in ruins. But one has become The Toulouce Gallery (,  specializing in realistic, plein-air (outdoor) paintings of nature and local scenery. Like the store-fronts, a small cemetery nearby reminds you that this road once served a bustling, workaday community.

At the mid-point of the drive is Onomea Bay. A century ago, a sugar mill overlooked the ocean from the head of the valley. But there was no dock or shore landing. Boats had to anchor in the bay to load sugar and unload building materials, hauling everything up and down with long wire cables and strong winches. Such industrial relics are long gone now; but the bay, studded with treacherous rocks, is still a rugged place to sail into.

Since the 1970s, however, the valley itself has become the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.

It offers an extraordinarily large collection of native and exotic plants, flowers and shrubs, trees and ferns, all of which are meticulously labeled with their Latin names, common names and nicknames.

Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.
Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.

A paved, mile-and-a-quarter path loops along photogenic streams and waterfalls, and a picturesque stretch of the coastline. Just across the road from the entry, there’s a museum of local historical artifacts and a gift shop, both of which have free admission; but the $20 charge to walk through the garden is a bit steep. (So is the trail down into the garden, a few segments of which have stairs, and are therefore not wheelchair-accessible).

For a free view of the bay, though, two public hiking paths bracket the garden, leading down to the ocean from trailheads along the road. One starts a few hundred feet on the Hilo side of the gated entrance; the other about a hundred feet past it, on the Hamakua side. (Those trails can be muddy – dress accordingly.)

The near trail offers a fine panorama of the bay, and takes you right down to where freshwater streams meet surging ocean waves. The farther trail leads onto a promontory with a superlative view of the entire bay, as well as a once-famous sightseeing attraction. It’s just a notch in a hill, now, but it was an enormous wave-cut arch until 1958, when it collapsed in a minor earthquake.

Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.
Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.

You might be hungry or thirsty after your hike, or even after oohing and ahhing as you drove along this incredibly scenic road. So give a thought to stopping at What’s Shakin, in Pepeekeo, for one of their big sandwiches or tall fruit smoothies.

By the time you rejoin Hwy 19, a mile or so later, you’ll be able to say you saw something rare: a bit of the “old” Mamalahoa Highway that is still reminiscent of old Hawaii.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The Road Less Traveled By

By Kelly Moran

The Road Less Traveled By

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by.”

Of course, Robert Frost wasn’t waxing poetic about the Saddle Road. But most people heading from one side of the Big Island to the other take Highways 19 or 11, so there’s relatively little traffic over the Saddle. If you’re willing to put up with the lousy condition of the westernmost twelve miles (as noted in my last blog), there’s enough to see to make it worth the journey. At the very least, the trip will help you understand some of the challenges – still unresolved – that the road poses to Hawaii County.

Start at the zero milepost in Hilo, at the intersection of Puainako St. and Kanoelehua Ave., across from the Prince Kuhio shopping mall. Puainako dog-legs at Komohana and becomes a wide, modern thoroughfare known as the “Puainako extension” – which some day will be fully extended, back toward the mall, parallel to today’s Puainako St.

The road heads steadily uphill, bypassing Hilo’s mauka suburbs, and joins Kaumana Drive after about six miles. The last houses in Hilo are at the eight-mile post.

The next ten miles or so wind, twist and turn through a forest reserve, deeply green with ohia and koa trees, and tall hapu’u tree-ferns. But the vegetation thins out as you gain elevation, until bare lava – including one flow from Mauna Loa that nearly reached Hilo in 1983! – becomes the dominant feature of the landscape.

But at the 19-milepost, a true highway begins, newly completed, with an uphill passing lane, wide shoulders and solar-powered emergency phones every mile or so. The access roads north to Mauna Kea and south to Mauna Loa branch off from this new section too, on either side of a thickly-wooded kipuka: a high piece of land, untouched by lava that flowed around it, and so leaving its older, dense vegetation intact.

(To remember the word, recall that a puka shell has a hole in the middle).

Continuing westward, you might think you’re in the desert Southwest of North America, because it’s a dry, rocky, nearly treeless stretch of scrub-brush, including the highly invasive and fire-prone exotic “gorse” weed.

About 35 miles out from Hilo, consider stopping and picnicking at the highest point on the Saddle Road: Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, elevation 6,500 feet, where there’s drinking water and toilets. You can reserve overnight cabins there, too; call the State parks office at 808-587-0300 for more information (or go to:


Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea


Don’t be surprised if you see military vehicles and soldiers in uniform on the next six miles of highway, as you skirt the edge of the U.S. Army’s Pohakuloa training grounds. The Army has used a huge tract of land to the south, toward Mauna Loa and Hualalai, for target practice since World War II, so it’s littered with metal fragments and unexploded ordnance, including some radioactive shells from the 1950s. Civilian efforts to get the Army to clean up the area have not been successful.


This part of the road (showing a concrete tank crossing) were bypassed in May 2007 by the new Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment.
This part of the road (showing a concrete tank crossing) was bypassed in May 2007 by the new Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment.


Unfortunately, that isolates the Ahu a Umi (the “mounds” of Umi), an ancient Hawaiian ceremonial site which can not be reached from the Saddle Road. Umi was first known king of the whole island. In the 9th century A.D., he held court once a year on a plateau in the Saddle where, by a trick-of-the-eye, tall Mauna Kea, enormous Mauna Loa, and the much smaller Hualalai, all appear to be about the same size. There, in the symbolic center of his realm, Umi built a heiau (temple) where he received his annual taxes and tribute, in the form of agricultural produce, animals, feathers and other decorative objects and religious tokens. His priests – having no written language – enumerated everything by mounding up rocks; and those stone cairns are, of course, all that remain today. But because Pohakuloa is too dangerous to cross, the only access is from mauka Kona, over private property, and the mounds can be visited only by professional archeologists and historians.

Ahu a Umi (the "mounds" of Umi)
Ahu a Umi (the “mounds” of Umi)

If Ahu a Umi were open to the public, it would be an intriguing and important visitor attraction, for it is hundreds of years older than the giant Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historical Site, near Kawaihae, and the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (“City of Refuge”) National Historical Park in Kona.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Back in the Saddle Again

By Kelly Moran

Back in the Saddle Again

          As the crow flies (or as it would fly, if we had crows here, which we don’t), Hilo is about 80 miles from Kailua-Kona.  So you’d think, on an island this big, somebody would build a road from east to west along the shortest possible route.  And indeed, somebody did; but it’s never been a shortcut.

          In 1942, the U.S. Army needed a lot of space to practice target-shooting – somewhere with no population – and they picked the relatively barren lava fields of Pohakuloa, in the saddle-shaped valley between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  To get their troops and tanks and canons in and out, they hastily built a road westward from Hilo, up to their training grounds; and continuing on, through the Parker Ranch, terminating at the “old” Mamalahoa Highway (now called Rte. 190), the mauka road connecting Waimea with Kona.

          The Army “brass” took no chances – after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they realized that enemy bombing could easily destroy a wide, straight highway.  So they built the 53-mile road very narrow, with many tight turns.  It was never attacked, but it was heavily used by heavy equipment, and after the war – even after Statehood, when it became State Rte. 200 – it was never maintained to decent standards.

          Mauna Kea State Park was built on the Saddle Road; and so were access-roads to the summit of Mauna Kea, and to the NOAA weather station on Mauna Loa.  But there are still no rest-stops, gas stations, or restaurants; and quite a few miles are still “dead zones” with no cell phone service. That’s why rental-car agencies forbid customers from driving the Saddle in any but four-wheel-drive vehicles.


Several warning signs are posted at the point where pavement stops and the road narrows.
Several warning signs are posted at the point where pavement stops and the road narrows.

          But there have been improvements, and more are coming.  A new center section has just opened between milepost 19 and milepost 41, with two broad asphalt lanes, 45-55 mph speed limits, and a couple of extra-lane uphill passing zones.  On the Hilo side, the first 19 miles have been widened and repaved, although the route still follows the Army’s original curves and twists.  The twelve-mile western section, however, remains simply awful!  It’s extremely narrow, with soft shoulders and one-lane bridges, and many blind curves – some of them right at the crest of a hill.

(May 2007) New Saddle Road Dedicated - First Section Opens Linking Mauna Kea State Park and Mauna Kea Access Road
(May 2007) New Saddle Road Dedicated – First Section Opens Linking Mauna Kea State Park and Mauna Kea Access Road

          The next phase of improvement, in 2010-11, will straighten out the Hilo side.  The Kona side is still in the design-stage: the Army, Parker Ranch and the State are talking about a new right-of-way that will angle south, and meet Rte. 190 at the Waikoloa intersection.

          Until that is built, however, take the Saddle Road only if you want to try out the new segment or see the sights (about which, I’ll write more in my next blog).  It is shorter – in mileage – than going through Waimea, but it will not save you any time: driving from Hilo to Kona still takes two hours, no matter how you go.

Huge Library of Hawaii Aerial & Scenic Images

Big Island SurfWe now have a HUGE library of aerial and scenic images for all the Hawaiian islands posted and available for viewing. This includes the Big Island, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, O’ahu, Kauai, Niihau, Kahoolawe, Kaohikaipu, Kapapa, Lehua, Manana, Mokapu, Mokolii, Mokuhooniki, Mokulua, Moku Mana, Molokini and Okala.  We also have whale, surf and ship photos!

All of these images are presented in a very easy to navigate sorter. Choose your Island from the Island Overview Map, then choose your view. Or view as a slideshow from any image view.

You can view directly using this link or by going to and clicking the “Resources/Coastline and Scenic Photos” link.

All images provided by Brian Powers and (and high quality images are also available for online purchase if you find one you like).