Hawai'i, Part III: Puna, Green Sand Beach, Mauna Kea, Kealakekua - AlpenScapes Photography

We’d reached that point in the trip when we just wanted a place to regroup for a couple of days and make a plan for our final week in Hawai’i. Hilo was close, so we gave it a try. Having lived out of a couple of backpacks and a small car for a couple of weeks, we took comfort in the simple pleasures. The next morning, feeling freshly revived, we decided to check out the southeastern corner of the island, a region known as “Puna.”

On the advice of some friends (and many guide books), we cruised over to check out the snorkeling at Kapoho. This protected network of tide pools is home to dozens of species of reef dwellers and is known as a top spot for snorkeling. Despite showing up mid-morning on a weekend (read: super crowded), it was a lot of fun exploring the different pools, some of which had surprisingly deep crevices and interesting coral shelf features.


We decided we had earned ourselves an evening exploring Hilo’s watering holes. It was a Friday night and several places were setting up for music later in the evening. We were drawn to the Hilo Town Tavern, which was already hosting a loud, live band at 6 pm, where the bartender informed us that the happy hour deal (1 pm – 7 pm) was a $15 pitcher of quality IPA. So we drank a couple of those.

The next morning we opted for a super-casual town day. First up was the Hilo Farmers’ Market, a fantastic gathering of local vendors selling everything from papaya to hot sauce to the exotic rambutan (Jillian’s favorite). We wandered through the expansive seaside parks with coffee in hand, admiring the massive banyan trees and learning about the history of tsunamis which has shaped (literally and culturally) the town of Hilo.

So we walked around for a while, hydrated a bit, then hopped in the car and headed for the town of Volcano. What’s in Volcano, you say? Why, only the southernmost winery in the United States. The Volcano winery is ideally situated on the slopes of Mauna Loa where the vintners are able to take full advantage of the ample precipitation and the well-drained volcanic soils the region is known for.

We socialized with our tasting guide for a while, re-sampled a few varieties, then headed down the road to take advantage of our week-long admission to the national park. Not far from the coast a trail led to a sprawling collection of petroglyphs. I’ll be honest, it was underwhelming compared to some of the petroglyphs I’ve seen in southeast Alaska. The majority of these carvings turned out to be small holes made in the rock, into which Hawai’ians historically placed the umbilical cord of their children to ensure a healthy life. In the hot afternoon sun, we made our way back up the road, pausing to refill our water supply before venturing back to our south coast beach hub, Punalu’u.

Next up: hiking in to the Green Sand Beach. Known as Papakōlea in Hawai’ian, it is only one of four green sand beaches in the world. The unique coloring comes from the mineral olivine, which is found in the adjacent cinder cone that erodes into the bay, creating the beach. It’s an hour-long hike in on deeply eroded 4-wheel-drive roads (or, if you’re not up for the walk, you can pay $15 to get shuttled in there). The hike along the coast was beautiful, and here and there we caught glimpses of small patches of olive-green sand en route to the namesake beach.

South Point, the southernmost tip of the island of Hawai’i, also holds claim to the title of southernmost point in the United States. A 15 minute drive later and we were strolling along the rocky shoreline, looking south to…Fiji?

With one more day of forecasted cloudless skies, our objective would be to climb Mauna Kea. At 13,803 feet above sea level, this dormant volcano is the highest mountain in Hawai’i. Given that we were currently watching ocean waves roll in, we would have to do some acclimatization. Knowing that hikers sometimes sleep in their cars at the Mauna Loa Observatory, across the valley at elevation 11,141′ on the broad slopes of Mauna Loa, we turned off the Saddle Road and onto the 17 mile driveway to the weather observatory.

These volcanoes are world-renowned for their function as platforms for peering deep into foreign galaxies. The sun faded and an inversion set in while we watched the upper mass of Mauna Kea rise above the clouds, and countless – literally, countless – stars began twinkling above the cars slowly making their way down her slopes after witnessing an unforgettable sunset.

We awoke to a brisk 30-degree pre-dawn morning and reversed our drive from the previous night. Continuing up the other side of the valley and onto Mauna Kea’s western shoulder, we pulled in to the visitor center just in time to watch the brilliant orb crawl from its slumber. The hike itself was rather unexciting. The monotonous landscape of rugged brown rock does little to entertain the mind. Our altitude and our location above the clouds, however, provided a challenge and a simultaneous reward.

Just before reaching the end of the trail, we crested the Pu’u Waiau cinder cone and looked down on Lake Waiau. At 13,020 feet above sea level, this is one of the highest lakes in the U.S. Here, too, we began seeing more color in the cinder cones – reds, yellows, purples.

This hike was all about the challenge to ourselves to climb at altitude. Our high point was the tallest thing either of us had ever climbed before and, living at sea level and having spent the past few weeks predominantly at sea level, felt like a pretty good accomplishment. The true summit is the most sacred place on earth according to native Hawai’ians. Thus, we did not climb to the peak out of respect for their culture, but rather stuck to the slightly shorter observatory complex.

The top of the mountain is studded with a dozen or so telescopes (the big white ones you always see pictures of), owned and operated by the University of Hawai’i. As you can imagine, this is a sore spot for native Hawai’ians who see this as blatent desecration of their sacred mountain.

We lingered for a bit to snap some photos of the red cinder cones rising above inversion clouds and relished in our feeling of accomplishment. Fast-moving clouds had began to engulf the lower mountain, so we began a hurried descent of the 6.5 miles back to the car. Turns out almost a foot of snow fell up there that night.

We spent the evening at a beach park tucked away in the Kohala region, on the northern end of the island. Our day had begun at 5 am with an air temperature of 30 degrees, and 12 hours later we were in 85 degree sunshine, watching waves lap the sandy shore. That night brought a furious storm which caused flooding and took out powerlines a bit further to the east. Fortunately, it was our final night camping.

We headed down the road to Kona under unusually cloudy skies. It was the perfect day to tour a macadamia nut factory and a few coffee plantations. Caffeinated to the point of uncontrollable shaking, we headed for the community of Kealakekua and our small rental cottage where we would spend our remaining 3 days. It was Christmas Eve, so we treated ourselves to many beers and Hawai’ian kebabs (Ahi tuna and pineapple).

Christmas morning we headed to a nearby beach where we’d been told swimming with spinner dolphins would be possible. We headed toward a group of people who were hanging out about 200 yards offshore, hoping they were in the know. A few minutes later, a small pod of fast-swimming dolphins was encircling us, diving below and then breaching the surface with their characteristic spinning leaps.

We hung out with the dolphins for a half hour or so before they decided we were too boring. It was Christmas day, so the beach was filling up fast. We opted to head to a snorkeling hot spot not far away and spend the remainder of our morning and early afternoon there, exploring underwater canyons and coral towers. Like the denizens of a bustling metropolis, dozens of species of fish lived in tiny crevices in these coral condo complexes, and every so often they’d poke their head out to see if we were gone yet.

We headed back to our porch overlooking Kealakekua Bay and enjoyed another fantastic sunset while grilling a couple of homemade pizzas. Not your traditional Christmas dinner, I know, but we’d been thinking about pizza for weeks.

Our final day in Hawai’i dawned sunny and warm, and we took advantage by heading down to check out Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Known as the Place of Refuge, this idyllic haven was where Hawai’ians could flee to avoid death if they had violated kapu (ancient laws).

We followed up our educational morning with another trip to a coffee plantation. Greenwell Farms was a fairly large operation, with a plethora of flavors available for tasting. It was here that we also saw the most productive avocado tree in existence. Each branch sported two, sometimes three, perfect, large, firm avocados.

A few final chores awaited us, so we headed back to the cottage. Some friends of ours from Cordova were staying just down the road, so we spent the evening enjoying our last Hawai’ian IPAs and one final sunset, in the company of good-timing Alaskans.

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