Adventures Hawaii life United States

The Big Island: A Study in Contrasts

By on October 2, 2013


The Big Island in Hawaii is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. On the west side of the island, where we’re staying, is a barren wasteland of obsidian lava and gnarled, standing dead, trees. This badland continues, interrupted periodically by lush, resort oases until suddenly on the southern and northern tips it turns into a verdant rain forest. On one side of the island is a moonscape and the other is a primordial forest with ferns as big as the Apatosaurus you expect to see around the next bend in the trail. 

This is where my family started our Hawaiian vacation. 

The drive from the Kona airport to our hotel was unmemorable besides the occasional flash of scrub grass on the side of the highway. When Sunday dawned we were in for quite a surprise when we realized we were in the middle of a lava-formed desert. To access the quintessential Hawaiian landscapes, we had to travel halfway around the island. And what a treat that vista was!


Our first stop was to the Waipi’o Valley. This valley is scared to native Hawaiians and, as a result, tourists are only allowed to access the black sand beach at the mouth of the Waipi’o Valley. The trip down to the beach can be accomplished in one of two ways, either a mile long hike with about 800 feet of elevation loss (and then gain on the way back) or a drive, providing your car has true 4-wheel drive. Luckily we upgraded our compact car to a Jeep Wrangler, so we had no problem driving straight down to the beach. Except for the fact that my family didn’t trust my judgement on one of the turns and we ended up in the center of the “village” (which I use loosely since it was really only a collection of homes) before seeing a contractor truck and asking for directions. This was not the first time on Sunday that they didn’t trust my judgement and we ended up going the wrong way!


Anyways, once we corrected our error, we were able to drive straight down to our first black sand beach of the trip. The black sand beaches are formed when lava rocks are crushed into a fine sand by the force of the waves beating against the currents (the big island exists as a result of 6 distinct volcanoes whose lava flows merged to form the landmass known as the island of Hawaii). They are beautiful but only exist so long as there is lava rock to pulverize. Otherwise the beaches would be white sand beaches found all around the world. We briefly explored the beach in the Waipi’o Valley before continuing on in search of the Akaka waterfall.

About an hour after leaving the Waipi’o Valley, we found the Akaka waterfall. It free falls for 400 feet before continuing on to the ocean. For contrast, if we had been able to hike through the scared land of the Waipi’o Valley we would have seen a waterfall that falls 1400 feet from top to bottom with over 1000 feet of free fall. It is the longest waterfall in the Hawaiian islands, and one of the longest in the world. 

After leaving the Akaka waterfall, we went to Hilo in search of sushi and mochi. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday and in Hawaii every runs on island time, both places were closed. In fact everything we wanted to see in Hilo was closed. So we went to a local natural foods store to purchase cheese and a Hawaiian ice store to purchase ice and then walked down to the beach to eat apples and cheese and drink wine (and cranberry vodka for my dad). We had planned on driving to Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park to see the lava flows at night, but we were tired and would have to wait 3 hours until sunset, so we decided to drive back to our resort on the other side of the island. Three-quarters of the way home is where my family once again did not listen to my advice and we ended up driving an hour out of our way to Kailua-Kona instead of the quick 15 minutes back to Waikoloa Beach. 

Ohh well. We still made it home safely and stopped to try to see the sunset on the way. Monday dawned and we decided to see the other half of the island. We set off towards the Punalu’u Black Sands beach. The trip took us about 3/8 of the way around the island to the southeastern point. The beach itself was beautiful but less spectacular than the Waipi’o Valley. The real highlights were the sea turtles and wandering around on the old lava flows, watching the surf explode over the rocks. 





After sunbathing for most of the day, we headed north to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see the lava flows. When we got to the entrance, we were informed that the park would be shutting down at 7am the following day due to the looming government shutdown and that the lava flows were in an area that is only accessible by helicopter (re: not accessible to us). In lieu of the lava flows, we could go to the Jagger Museum overlook to see the glow from a lava lake that has closed most of the trails in the park since 2008 because one whiff of the noxious fumes will kill you in less than two minutes. We decided to stay away from that! We also took a quick detour to a lava tube (which was unimpressive due to the lights and railings the park service has installed, making it look like something that Disney would design) and the Kilaeau Caldera, that has been cooling since the mid-1970s.




After viewing the glows from the current lava lake, we continued our trip north to Hilo for some Japanese food and then continued on home for the night. I planned on uploading this post earlier today, and as a result did not plan on including our activities from today. As a result, those will be included in a post. For now, I’m heading to bed because tomorrow my mom and I are doing something epic! Stories to follow. Aloha and goodnight!