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.