A Road Trip to Remember
We started our Friday with a visit to the town of Pahoa. Lava from the Pu’u O’o vent of the Kilauea volcano had reached the town in October and had destroyed a house and almost reached the transfer station (a solid waste facility) in town. The lava is no longer active but visitors still flock to this area to see it firsthand. The road is blocked so you can’t touch or walk on the lava but you can still see it wrapped around the house it destroyed. It also seeped through the fence of the transfer station and stopped just feet away from the building. The electric poles along the road had been wrapped in insulating material and rocks to protect them from the lava but nothing could be done for the house and the transfer station. All people could do was wait and see which way the lava went. Clearly this was a devastating event for the village but it was cool to see and marvel at the power of such a slow-moving monster. It is a completely different experience and feeling to see lava in a village and not out in the middle of nowhere in a national park.
Once we left Pahoa, we headed North on the east side of the island. Past Hilo, we drove along the Hamakua coast. Here on the windward side of the island, the sea pounds the cliffs and rocky shores. Lush tropical jungle stretches into the hills, full of waterfalls. We passed many gulches with streams and waterfalls running through them on the left side of the road, with the Pacific stretching on the right. Further up the coast, we came to a fork in the road. Veering right would have taken us to Waipio valley. At the end of Highway 240, we would have come across a natural amphitheater, an enormous scoop carved into the windward side of the Kohala mountain, giving birth to seven valleys. The Waipio valley goes back six miles, its floor a patchwork of jungle and waterfalls. Seeing the valley from the overlook is easy; going down into it to explore not so much. Whether you drive (a 4WD is a must) or hike down the 25% grade road, once down you can hike only a little bit until you reach private property. Tours would have been the best way to explore the valley but since we had decided not to do one, driving 9 miles to a dead-end just to take a picture from the overlook seemed like too much. Instead, we took the left side of the fork, which continued to the town of Waimea. Here, we stopped to grab some lunch to go and headed to Pololu valley – a place very similar to Waipio but not as big and much easier to reach via a 0.75 mile trail that goes down into a black sand beach. To get there, we climbed the Kohala Mountain Rd – easily the best scenic drive on the island and one of the best drives I’d been on. We climbed steadily from Waimea until the road crested at 3500 ft. The landscape here was nothing like what we’d seen on other parts of the island. Green lush rolling hills had us staring out our right side, while the North Kona coast spread out on our left. We were almost eye level with the clouds, which added to the dramatic effect. We were both oohing and aahing the entire time and had there been more than 2 pull outs for us to stop, this road would have taken us a lot longer to traverse. Once we started descending again, the island of Maui just North of us seemed nothing more than short swim away.
Pololu Valley was gorgeous as well. The overlook would have sufficed – this is how awesome the view was. However, we wanted to check out the black sand beach up close and wanted to stretch our legs after driving for nearly 3 hours straight, too. The trail was indeed short but quite steep. The black sand beach at the end was gorgeous. Back up the trail, we both were dripping sweat. Having not stepped foot in a humid climate since I left Georgia in 2009, I had erased from memory the sticky mess one becomes after just a short exertion, and this steep trail required so much more effort that we both felt like we’d just gotten out of a bathtub.
From here, we were headed to Kona, where we would spend our last 2 nights on the island. Instead of driving all along the coast, we took Kohala Mountain Rd again – a 30-minute detour but we were both glad we did it. Seeing the views from this direction was awesome as well – both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa were in front of us, with the clouds dancing around their peaks and hiding them from view every now again. We stopped at one of the scenic overlooks again and sat down on the grass to have the lunch we had picked up in Waimea. This will remain as one of my favorite memories from this island.
On the North Kona coast, we made two quick stops at an ancient Hawaiian heiau and at a macadamia nut store, where we tried many different free samples before we both got a box of the classic – chocolate covered macadamia nuts. Although macadamia nuts are indigenous to Australia, they became a commercial crop here in the 1920s and this is the seed that is now known internationally.
Our final stop for the day was Holoholokai Beach Park and the nearby Petroglyph park. Accessible through a 3/4-mile trail that winds amid volcanic rock and burnt trees, the preserve has more than 3000 petroglyphs and is one of the largest collections of ancient lava carvings in Hawaii. Most of the petroglyphs were human-like. We don’t know why they were carved into the lava or what they mean, but the painstaking effort and energy it must have took to create them speak to how special they must have been to ancient Hawaiians.
We got back to the beach just in time to see the beautiful sunset. What a way to end a marvelous road trip that covered the North side of the island. The sheer variety of landscapes and things we saw today speaks to the astounding beauty of this island, which can be experienced with just a short hike, swim or a drive off the beaten path.