After we left Kona we drove to the southern-most point in the United States. There’s nothing there - just some cliffs along the ocean. We took a picture there anyway.
Next we stopped at another black sand beach, at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. We didn’t swim here since we were just passing through but it was a very nice beach and there were several sea turtles sleeping on the beach! That was pretty cool.
We drove through the town of Volcano, which doesn’t have a whole lot going on there besides a National Park. We had a disappointing lunch at a cafe in town, then went into Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
We knew we were going to come back to the park on another day, so we didn’t have to do everything all at once. We went to the visitor center then walked around some steam vents (cracks in the earth with steam rising up, smells slightly like rotten eggs). We went to the Jaggar museum, which is close to the caldera (basically the opening at the top of the volcano where lava comes out). By close I mean it’s about a mile away, but it’s as close as you can get to it. We listened to a ranger give a talk in the museum and wandered around.
Near the entrance to the park there is an old lava tube you can walk through. It’s basically an underground tunnel that lava used to flow through. This one isn’t active anymore, which is why you can walk through it, but there are lava tubes all over. That’s what carries the lava to the ocean. The tubes going to the ocean had collapsed, so right now there’s not any lava actually flowing into the ocean (which would be an amazing sight to see) - it’s just seeping out in various parts on the sides of the volcano.
In the late afternoon we made our way to our last airbnb of the trip, which happens to be owned and operated by a couple that Nick used to work with in Ithaca, AND who also used to live in the apartment next to him -- Matt and Lauren. Kind of on a whim, they moved to Hawaii eight months ago and decided to build an airbnb on the lava flow. Neither of them have any building experience, but they are doing all the work themselves. Lauren got a “real job” to have an income and health insurance, and Matt is building the place himself. Matt is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He reminds me very much of Fred Armisen. He kind of looks like him, and he’s also very quirky. But I like him, and like I said, he is super smart.
This airbnb was So. Cool. It is literally built on a field that was flooded with lava several years ago -- so they are building it on super hard, black, lava rock. It’s very difficult to build on. There’s no grid to hook up to, so everything about the building is self-sufficient. They have solar panels, collect and filter their own water, and are building the whole thing by hand, themselves. It’s awesome. It’s kind of set up like a motel -- there are four private rooms that each have their own bathroom and most of them have a private balcony. Each of the rooms is named after a Hawaiin God or Goddess. There is a shared kitchen for everyone to use. It’s pretty large, and there’s only walls on two sides of it, so it’s very open.
While we were staying there, they didn’t rent out any of the rooms to anyone else. Since they knew us, they took advantage of not having to impress us so they could continue construction during the day while we are staying there (they are still working on it. Right now 3 of the rooms are finished and available to rent, but Matt and Lauren live in one of them). Matt was working on building a hot tub while we were there -- in the lava rock!
One of the most amazing parts of this place they are building is the view. It’s five miles from an active lava flow, and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere so it’s really dark. We went out our back porch once it got dark and it was so beautiful - tons of stars and streaks of lava glowing in the distance.
Now you might be thinking, is it safe to build so close to an active lava flow? Well, yes and no. Safe in that the lava does not travel that fast, so you will have warning before it comes to melt your house away. No in that, most likely, lava will flow to this area one day and wipe away the structure they have been building. When you build in areas like this, you just try to make your most valuable parts mobile. You would have a few weeks warning that you need to evacuate, and you rent a truck and pack up your solar panels and your fancy hand made gigantic kitchen table and you move it somewhere safer.
We spent our first night there catching up with Matt and Lauren and hearing about their adventure of building the Lava Lookout. They took us to a nearby farmer’s market that was PACKED. Like, probably 1,000 people there. I guess this is what everyone in the area does on Wednesday nights. Super hippie, jam packed, locavore farmer’s market. We had dinner there and then got some vegan gelato that was probably the best thing I ate on the whole trip.
Thurs Feb 8
Matt and Lauren recommended some things for us to do in the area and we set off to do them as soon as we woke up. We first went to Lava Tree State Park. It’s a nice park where a bunch of the trees have been petrified by lava flowing over them, it was pretty neat.
Next we went to tide pools in Kapoho. They didn’t look like much at first - looked like really shallow poos separated by lava rock. Matt and Lauren had recommended that we snorkel here. We crawled out a ways on the lava rock (which is challenging - it’s slippery and sharp) and when we got in the water it was unbelievable! Another world just below the surface of the water. Tons of coral, lots of colorful fish. It was so fun swimming around looking at everything. A few spots were quite shallow and it was a challenge to get over the coral without your stomach touching it. Really cool place.
After snorkeling we got lunch in the town of Pahoa. Nick and I got NY style pizza that was really good. We also got more gelato -- the same gelato from the farmer’s market the night before. So good.
After lunch we checked out the hot pond at Ahalanui County Beach Park. That was interesting. It’s basically a pond carved out in the lava rock, and the water is naturally quite warm. The water was maybe 75-80F. It’s only about 7-8 feet deep. The pond is next to the ocean, but you are separated from the ocean by some rocks. It was neat. The air felt really cold when we got out!
Afterwards we went to check out another black sand beach called Kehena Black Sands Beach. It was a clothing optional beach. We kind of had to hike down a little cliff to get to it. The beach itself was remote and the sand was nice, but, the people there were….interesting. Everyone was smoking Lots of people sitting in circles playing drums or eating coconuts. Lots of naked older men. People hula-hooping. Real local hippie vibe. We hung out here for a little while and watched as an older man (who was wearing pants) got up and started to walk towards the ocean. He was carrying a machete (assume for coconuts). Just as he got to the edge of the water, it was like he thought “oh, I forgot I had my pants on” and he backed up a bit and stripped down so he was totally naked. He was probably about 30 feet in front of us, but, directly in front of us. He proceeded to bend straight over and clean his machete in the sand and water (literaly, the knife he was carrying, not a metaphor for something else). It was kind of comical.
We didn’t hang out at the beach for too long, the people we were traveling with seemed very, very uncomfortable here. We hiked back up the hill to the car and went back to the airbnb to make dinner. We knew at some point we wanted to do a hike out to the lava flow at night. Matt had a hard time deciding if we should go this night, because it was really windy and possibly going to storm. He kept saying things like “I don’t have a good feeling about this. We are definitely going to get poured on. I don’t know if this is safe.”
Matt was totally making me nervous and I kind of didn’t want to go. It sounds silly, but it was SO windy. The way the place is built, since it’s just in the middle of a rock field, makes the wind seem even louder than it really is. The idea of hiking in the pitch black night with super gusty winds was kind of intimidating. After going back and forth a bunch of times, we finally decided we would try to hike out. If something didn’t work out, we could come back and try again another night.
Matt and Lauren have really nice headlamps that all of their guests can use. We geared up (pants, boots, tshirt, jacket, hat, backpack, headlamp) and headed out around 8pm. It was Nick, Matt, Dennis, Michelle, and myself.
I was under the impression that the entire time we would be hiking on lava rock, and there would be nobody around, but we actually had to walk down a dirt road for 2 miles first. And there were actually a lot of people around. Along the dirt road, lots of people set up big tents with 40-50 bikes that people can rent to ride down the dirt road so they don’t have to hike as far to the lava. There’s also some tour vans that go down the dirt road to drop people off by the lava flow.
A pickup truck drove by and yelled something at us. I guess Matt knew who the driver was, and next thing I know we were climbing in the back of this truck to cut a mile or so off of our hike. We walked some more and saw some porta-potties on the road up ahead, which I was surprised to see. I planned on using them since I didn’t know how long we would be out for. Upon getting close I saw that one of them had blown over. The other one didn’t have a toilet seat (I saw the toilet seat down the road a few minutes later) and the third one I couldn’t even get the door shut on because it was so windy. So...needless to say, I held it.
We veered off of the dirt road shortly after the porta-potties and started hiking on the lava rock. It was completely dark and you could only see where your headlamp was pointed. This was my first time hiking in the dark. It was fun. We were just in a single file, following Matt, all staring down at the jagged uneven rock we were walking on. You could see lava glowing in the distance, which is where we were heading towards.
We passed a few other people hiking, most of them going the opposite direction (there’s no trail, you just walk wherever you want. Pretty easy to get lost, even though there’s no trees and nothing around...but it’s hard to orient yourself in the dark). Not surprisingly, some of the people we saw out there did not look prepared at all - no water, no headlamps, just wearing shorts and a polo shirt. Weird.
Once we got about ¼ mile from the lava it got noticeably warmer. One thing you have to be really careful of hiking in this area is paying attention to vog and steam. Just the week before, a very experienced hiking guide died while out with a group due to getting suffocated because of vog. Matt instructed us that if we felt dizzy, lightheaded, funny at all, we would have to turn around immediately. If the winds change direction, it can impact your hike pretty quickly. Luckily we didn’t have any issues.
Eventually we made it to the lava, and what an incredible sight it was. It moves slowly, but you can definitely see it pulsing and oozing, new earth forming right before your eyes. You can get as close as you want to it - but it is HOT. You could really only stand within a few feet of it for a couple of minutes before your feet got uncomfortably hot. There were several other people hanging out here, one guy laying on a towel like he was sun bathing...lava bathing I guess.
We hung out around the lava for probably two hours. Nick took a ton of pictures. There were lots of stars visible too, it was very surreal. Again, felt like we were on another planet. Away from the lava flow, there were cracks in the rocks that were glowing red. It’s hard to explain it in words -- it was such a cool experience.
Matt lead the way back again, carefully picking his way to lead us over the rocks. You do have to be kind of careful about where you walk - there are some big gaps in the rocks (too big to jump over) and some large piles. Matt’s goal was to lead us back to the same point on the dirt road where we veered off (we had hiked about 2.5 miles off the road, through the rocks to get to the lava). I talked with Matt most of the hike back, about all of his entrepreneur ideas, and environmental concerns, and how if I moved there we could start a marine biology center together (one of his next goals).
Amazingly Matt led us back to almost the exact same spot on the road where we had originally veered off (verified this wtith strava later), and he wasn’t using GPS or anything...it was all just from his head. Really impressive. We hiked the last 2.5 miles along the dirt road, and we were all very tired. We ended up getting home around 1am, and had hiked 9 miles. We had a really busy day before this 9 mile hike too, so, we were all super ready to go to sleep!
Fri Feb 9
We had kind of a slow start in the morning since we had stayed up so late. Around noon we went back to Volcanoes National Park. On the way there we stopped a grocery store to get some food, and after we ate and spent an hour in the car, we were all about to fall asleep. Actually, I think most of us did fall asleep at some point, except for Nick since he was driving.
We drove along the Chain of Craters road in the park, which is one the recommended things to do in the park. It’s 18 miles long and goes down to the ocean, and there are overlooks along the way to look at craters. Honestly, it was kind of disappointing. I think since we had such an awesome experience the night before, this just didn’t seem very excited. We were also all so tired it was hard to get excited about much.
We stopped at the end of the road, at the ocean, and it was pretty warm and sunny - probably at least 80F. We drove the 18 miles back up the road (which gains quite a bit of elevation) and parked to hike the Kileau Iki trail. Here it was probably 55-60F and cloudy. Pretty crazy how much the weather changes here with elevation. The trail takes you through a large, open crater - again, would have probably seemed a lot cooler if we had done this earlier in the trip. It also started raining mid-hike so it was pretty cold and wet. I still enjoyed it though.
After the hike we went to the Volcano Hotel to get some souvenirs. I’ve bought at least one shirt and one magnet from every National Park I’ve been to, so I wanted to make sure I got those. I ended up buying a sweatshirt too because I was freezing. We killed some time in the shops for a while, waiting for it to get dark so we could look at the caldera near the Jaggar Museum.
The Jaggar Museum gets pretty crowded at dark because you can see the lava glowing from the caldera. It was very cloudy and misty when we first got there, but after a little while it cleared up and it was a pretty good viewing. After we left the park, we went to Hilo and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
Sat Feb 10
Our last day in Hawaii. We packed up and left Matt and Lauren’s in the morning and drove around to some waterfalls. We went to Hilo, and to Rainbow Falls. We met Lauren for lunch in Hilo (she works in Hilo) then went to ‘Akaka Falls. A tour bus had just arrived there so that park area was very crowded. You paid $1 to walk around a paved path and see some waterfalls. We made our way back to Hapuna State Beach, which we had visited earlier in the week, to spend one last hour on the beach.
We dropped our rental car back off in Kona and waited in the airport for a few hours. The airport in Kona is an outdoor airport which is kind of cool. There’s not really any walls, and lots of sections don’t have a roof either. Kind of hard to explain, but it made waiting more bearable.
We had a total of about 12 hours of flying to get back to Toronto, then had to drive the 4 hours back to Ithaca. We dropped our rental car off at 6pm Saturday and arrived back to our apartment in Ithaca around 10pm Sunday (five hour time difference in there as well). It took about a week to get back on east coast time!
I would love to go back to Hawaii and visit the other islands. Highly recommend traveling here, especially if you can catch a good deal on flights. You’ve got to see the lava in person!