Early in our vacation planning, we knew we wanted to make a trip to the Island of Hawai’i (also known as the Big Island, because it’s the biggest). I’ve already covered how we navigated the COVID requirements to travel between the islands in a previous post; Traveling to Hawaii during COVID. I also highlighted the wonderful resort we stayed at during our time on the island; Unique Places to Stay in Hawaii. But what did we do with our limited time on the island? The short answer, we hiked! The long answer we got in our rental car and covered as much land as possible.
9:00 – Arrival at the Airport
We landed at Kona airport, passed through the COVID screening process, and picked up our rental car. The road ahead of us would be a long one; the GPS estimated two and a half hours. We decided to spend the entire day at the Volcano National Park, hiking as many trails as possible. There was no straight line to get to the National Park; we needed to circumnavigate the island. As soon as we got onto the highway construction put us 30-minutes behind schedule.
Driving Around the Island
Once clear of the road work, Aaron drove our rental car, well, like a rental, leaving only a trail of dust behind us. The delay we racked up from the construction was slowly recalculated as we drove down the winding highway. I’ve heard the phrase Island Time before, but the speed limits on the Big Island are what keep folks moving at such a slow pace. Imagine the look of disbelief when we noticed the gradual decrease in speed along our route. The highest speed posted was 60 mph and in some stretches as low as 40 mph. Being from Florida, 70 mph on I-4 or I-275 is considered driving like a grandma. Google Maps calculated our route time based on the speed limits, not Aaron’s lead foot, which got us our targeted time of two and a half hours!
11:30 – Volcano National Park
We made it to the Volcano National Park! Bad news, it was raining. But we were prepared with raincoats and the proper attire. Our first stop was the visitor center, where we picked up our obligatory National Park magnets and pins. A Park Ranger was assigned to a plexiglass booth to answer questions for all the park visitors. I felt kind of bad for him, repeating himself over and over, “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see flowing lava today” and “the lava tubes are closed due to COVID.” We asked the ranger to suggest one long hike and a few shorter ones. We circled his suggestions on our map and headed to the trails.
We started at Kilauea Iki Trail. The rain had turned to a constant drizzle, and the air was damp and humid; I thought I could cut it with a knife. I double-checked the bag for water, snacks, phones, and the camera, and slung the pack over my shoulder.
Walking along the rim of the crater was like walking through a rainforest. Thick ferns and twisted towering trees lined both sides of the trail. Everything was bright green and healthy. Every so often, there was a clearing that allowed us to peer over the crater’s edge. It was like looking through a telescope into another planet. How could I be surrounded by thick vegetation and just on the other side of the cliff’s edge, cole black rocks as far as the eye can see?
We zig-zagged down the edge of the crater wall all the way to the bottom. The trail crossed through the middle of the barren landscape. The only indication that we were going the right way were cairns volcanic rock the Forest Rangers assembled to guide hikers. Crossing the caldera, I pretend I was an astronaut, slowly bouncing from rock to rock. I mean, I’ve never been to the moon, but I’m pretty sure this barren lava flow is a close substitute to the moon’s surface. With no trees to hinder the wind, tiny cold drops of rain pelted our raincoats and faces, encouraging us to move faster through this unsheltered section of the hike.
Wearing the Proper Attire was Key
Thankfully the jagged lava rocks weren’t slippery from the rain, but I would advise those attempting this hike to wear closed-toed shoes. We made our way to the other side of the crater, back into the tropical umbrella of the forest. The ascent up to the parking lot wasn’t as steep as we anticipated. The sun was even beginning to peek out from the clouds motivating us to make it to the top and select our next destination.
2:30 – Crater Rim Drive
The quickest and easiest hike of the day was along Crater Rim Drive. The earthquake in 2018 devastated the vehicle road that once surrounded the perimeter of the active crater. Seeing the uprooted roadway split and cracked like tissue paper made me realize the power nature has over our industrial landscape. We didn’t have the opportunity to see flowing lava, but the Volcanoes National Park has no shortage of old lava flows from years past. There are many informational signs posted along the trails and lava flows explaining the force of nature that created the formations we see today. It was like reliving my Middle School earth science class all over again, minus the braces and tiny Scary Spice-inspired glasses (zigazig ah).
3:45 – Kīpukapuaulu Trail
One of Aaron’s coworkers suggested we hike the Kīpukapuaulu Trail. At first glance, this short 1.2-mile level graded path is more of a casual walking trail than a hike. As the informational signs pointed out, this tiny spot of land is unique because the lava flows surround the area cutting the plant life off from the rest of the island. In 1985, it became the park’s first Special Ecological Area. There is a noticeable difference in the size and variety of the trees in such a small space.
It was hard to believe that less than a mile away there are fields of black lava flows with zero vegetation. I’m not a huge bird nerd, but it is nice to see wildlife when on vacation that you are unfamiliar with (as long as it’s not big and scary). This remote patch of land is packed with birds. It sounded like a Disney soundtrack playing in surround sound, and the birds were in plain sight carrying on with their day, unbothered by our presence.
5:30 pm – Mauna Loa Lookout
It wasn’t quite late enough to call it a day as we finished the Kīpukapuaulu Trail, as we got back in the car, we noticed a small road leading to Mauna Loa Lookout; and thought this would be a nice way to end our day. Our map said it was a paved one-lane road; they use the word paved loosely in the Park. The map also failed to mention the bind turns into possible traffic coming down from the lookout. After a few minor close calls with descending traffic, we made it to the top just in time to watch a rainbow appear over the landscape.
7:00 pm – To the Hotel
Not wanting to drive down the one-lane road in the dark, we decided to go ahead and make our way to our hotel to make dinner plans. I wrote about our stay at the Volcano Eco Retreat in last week’s post: Unique Stays in Hawaii; to read about how fantastic our stay was.
The Next Day 10:00 am – Black Sand Beach
We started the day a little later than planned because we took our time at the resort. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and we couldn’t say no to a three-course plant-based breakfast. This pause in the morning gave us time to calculate how much time we had between leaving the resort and arriving at the airport. Our host, Tony, and Gaby recommended stopping by Punalu’u Beach (Black Sands Beach) and Panalu’u Bake Shop, the USA’s southernmost bakery. These stops were both on the way to our planned stop of a hike to Papakōlea Beach (Greens Sand Beach).
Our hosts assured us adding the additional stops along our route would be worth the time, and they were a hundred percent correct. Black Sand Beach was just off the main road, and parking was practically on the beach. As our host predicted, this was the beach to go to if we wanted to see Sea Turtles. As we walked out onto the beach, there laid an enormous turtle. It was basking in the sun, unbothered by the people gathered around it taking pictures. The beach was picturesque; the palm trees and deep dark sand looked like a postcard. Knowing we had other stops and beaches to see, we didn’t spend much time strolling around the beach.
11:00 – Panalu’u Bake Shop
Although we had the most delicious breakfast, we could not pass up the opportunity to pick up some local pastries. Panalu’u Bake Shop was buzzing with locals and tourists stopping in for sandwiches, coffee, and fresh-baked Hawaiian Sweet Bread. We were there for the Malasadas. These airy, perfectly filled donut-like masterpieces were just what we needed for a pre-hike snack. I picked the Lilikoi (passion fruit) flavor, Aaron chose Haupia (coconut pudding), and we both love guava flavored anything, so we agreed to split a guava malasada as well.
As soon as we got back on the road, we broke into the bag of goodies, each one better than the last. It’s not that we needed our arms twisted to make a stop at a bakery, but I’m glad we took both of the recommendations from Tony and Gaby. As Aaron and I talk about our highlights from this vacation to friends and family, these two stops have made our top three favorite things we did while on Hawai’i.
12:30 – Green Sands Beach
Our last stop before driving to the airport was Green Sand Beach. The hike to the beach is just over two and a half miles. We wanted to spend a little bit of time at the beach, if we made it, so we walked faster than normal along the rocky and sandy path. There are many paths cut into the ground by trucks driven by locals, full of tourists, for a small fee. To make the quickest path, we kept the ocean on our right side and only veered in when the path forced us. At times the sand pelted our skin like a sandblaster. As we got closer to the water’s edge, the spray of the waves crashing on the cliffs kept us cool.
Worth the Hike
The view from the top of the cliffs surrounding the beach is worth the hike, alone. We scaled down the steep rock face to the beach below. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was; pictures don’t do this place justice. I had to stop for a minute to take in the beauty of my surroundings. I’d seen blue water throughout our time on the island, but there was something special about the turquoise water against the green sand.
We weren’t planning on swimming once we got to the beach, but the blueness of the water called to us, and we had to jump in. We threw down our packs and ran towards the water; it was shockingly cold but so refreshing. Once acclimated to the temperature, we body surfed back and forth on the waves. I felt like I was a kid again; swimming in my hiking clothes without a care in the world, and just living in the moment.
3:00 – Departing from the Airport
Wet and covered in sand, it was time for us to hike back to the car. The shuffle back didn’t seem as long. We were thankful for the strong winds to help dry us off as we walked. As we drove back to the Kona airport, salty and with sand in every crevice, I couldn’t believe how much we were able to do and see. It was a whirlwind of a trip. I felt like we experienced enough to feel satisfied with our trip, but also left plenty to discover for next time.