The island of Hawai’i, better known as “The Big Island”, is the largest and youngest island in the Hawaiian chain. Though a mere 800,000 years old, the Big Island is 4,028 square miles, roughly the same size as Connecticut. The island’s size is notable, but it is the incredible diversity that makes the Big Island so remarkable. Here you will find ten of the world’s fifteen climate zones, ranging from wet tropical to polar tundra. The island is also home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the tallest sea mountain in the world, the most massive mountain in the world, and the largest park in the state.
In 2001, I landed on the Big Island with only a backpack, camera, journal, and an abundance of curiosity and enthusiasm. For several weeks I hitchhiked around the island, having experiences both good and bad, on a journey that would shape the course of my life. Now, ten years later, I was returning to the Big Island as a career photographer with Rachel at my side, curious to see if we would discover the same magic that made such a profound impact on me as a young man.
There are two distinct sides to the Big Island, both geographically and socially, and their differences are best represented in the weather. The west side of the island, commonly referred to as the “Kona side”, is the sunny side of the Big Island. The weather can best be described as eternal springtime. It is almost always warm and wonderful here with the Kohala resort area receiving the highest number of sunny days anywhere in the state. In stark contrast, the town of Hilo on the Big Island’s east side is the wettest city in the United States with an annual rainfall that rarely falls below 100 inches. The “Hilo side” is the center of county government and feels much more “local” while the Kona side creates the tax base catering to tourists with its sprawling seaside resorts.
We landed in the town of Hilo on a typically overcast day. Built around an attractive crescent-shaped bay, Hilo was once a thriving town bolstered by limitless sugar revenues. Despite its initial success as a fishing and farming town, Hilo’s existence has always been challenged by nature. In 1935, 1942, and 1984, lava flows from nearby volcanoes threatened the town and in both 1946 and 1960, Hilo was nearly swallowed by tsunamis. Then, during the 1990s, the sugar plantations were closed, leading to an exodus of business that left many of Hilo’s buildings looking worn and neglected. Through it all, Hilo has withstood and today it stands as a charming mix of old and new Hawaii.
Hilo is the logical gateway for exploring the district of Puna, the easternmost part of the island where visitors can discover lush rainforests, thermally-heated pools, and volcano-ravaged towns. This part of the island is also home to some of the least hospitable residents of Hawaii, a mix of bizarre characters which includes outlaws from the 60s, guerrilla pot growers, and participants in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Puna has a reputation for being unfriendly to visitors which I experienced firsthand on my initial trip to the Big Island. Though I had been warned repeatedly not to hitchhike in Puna, I did so anyhow and soon found myself relieved of twenty dollars by a hopped-up meth addict who dropped me in a crowd of hostile-looking locals and bid me good luck. I tried to set up camp at the nearby beach park, but a local man suggested I return to Hilo, telling me, “This place isn’t safe for you.”
Ten years later, Rachel and I parked our rental car at that same beach park, watched the sun set, and proceeded to set up our tent. The grass was freshly mowed and the park appeared better kept than I remembered. Two other couples had set up their tents and a friendly local family wished us a good journey before heading out for the night. Still, I felt weary being back in a place that I had never forgotten, and for all the wrong reasons. Then a security guard appeared to collect our camping fee and never before have I been so happy to pay. When I informed him of my past experience, he exclaimed that even he would not have visited this park ten years prior. He explained that the park had become the territory of rival gangs after lava destroyed the nearby town of Kalapana. When security was finally dispatched to the park, three guards were assaulted the first night alone. Now, he insisted that the park was safe. Yet, he warned that none of us should spend a night at the park two miles down the road.
These tales of danger and warnings of caution were not confined only to the Puna district. In fact, we heard similar tales from a security guard at Spencer Beach on the Kona side of the island who suggested we avoid camping at a nearby park. These experiences bring to light a paradox that exists in the Hawaiian Islands. Though I can imagine few places on Earth closer to paradise, Hawaii is still far from perfect. Locals battle a struggling economy while drowning in the exorbitant prices, from the grocery store to the gas pump. Drug use is rampant, especially of methamphetamines, making Hawaii the highest per capita use of “ice” in the nation. Racism and prejudice is felt by both locals and tourists alike and acts of violence do happen on occasion. Thankfully, most tourists will never see the drawbacks to the islands, but for those who choose to camp or hitchhike, it is important to be aware that even Hawaii has its risks.
Dangers may exist in the district of Puna, but there are some risks that are worth taking. It is in this area that Highway 130 comes to an abrupt end where lava buried the road in 1990, along with the town of Kalapana and two nearby subdivisions. From here a 5-10 minute walk across a field of hardened lava leads to a black sand beach lined with sprouting coconut trees planted by local residents. More daring visitors can make the 2-mile hike to the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area where it is possible to get up close and personal, depending on the current lava flows. For more information, check out this blog which provides updates on the Kilauea lava flows.
Kilauea Volcano is often referred to as the “most user-friendly volcano in the world” and visitors to the Big Island should not miss a chance to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Leaving Puna and heading southwest on Hwy 11, the park is located just 30 miles from Hilo and 96 miles from Kona. Most visitors see Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park from the overlooks on Crater Rim Drive, but those who choose to spend a day or two discover a world unlike any most have ever seen. The finest hiking on the island is found here, as well as lush rainforests, steam-spewing vents, walk-through lava tubes, ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, and the vast Kilauea Crater.
There are no guarantees that you will see bubbling lava on a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, but you can experience the park’s diverse and other-worldly environments along the hiking trails within the park. The Kilauea Iki Trail is a popular day hike, making a 4-mile loop through ancient rainforest and across a lava-paved crater where steam spews from vents and flowers occasionally sprout from the jagged lava floor. Those who prefer not to hike can still experience the park’s unusual environments on a 0.3 mile stroll through Thurston Lava Tube. Electric lights illuminate the path through this 500-year old tube where a river of lava once flowed. The twenty-minute walk is a great introduction to lava tube geology and those equipped with flashlights can continue another 1,000 feet into the absolute darkness of Thurston Lava Tube.
The district of Puna and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park represent some of the best and worst that the Big Island has to offer. Accommodation is very limited in the area, with only a few small hotels in the towns of Volcano and Pahoa. Most visitors stay in Hilo or visit the area on a day trip from Kona. Camping is permitted at two sites within the park and also at a few beach parks in the Puna district, though you should exercise caution when camping outside of the park. There are a few stores and restaurants in Pahoa, but otherwise there is little in the area so be sure to stock up on supplies before heading out on extended hikes.
Between the lack of tourist infrastructure, unpredictable lava flows, and notorious residents, it is easy to see why this part of the Big Island is often referred to as Hawaii’s “Wild West.” This is not the Hawaii that you see advertised on posters and movie screens. There are no t-shirt shops or seaside Starbucks. You might not be greeted by fresh leis and “aloha” on every corner. But for those who penetrate the rugged exterior, the Puna district and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park become the gateway to spectacles of natural wonder and beauty that will never be forgotten.