Escape to (from?) the Big Island

Hawaii, The Big Island, Travel, United States

The Big Island of Hawaii has been in the news a lot lately. In case you haven’t seen it, the volcano there has been erupting non-stop in the middle of a residential area since the beginning of May. We were (un)fortunate enough to be there on a week-long vacation when it all started!

Somewhere around the middle of March, Jon and I decided that we wanted to take a break from all of the wedding planning. Since we’re still trying to save every penny for the wedding, we decided to use some of the mileage points that I had saved up and take a trip to Hawaii. Just about two years earlier, we had visited Oahu. This time we wanted to try a new island and so, we landed on the Big Island.

We took off and landed at the Kailua-Kona International airport on the last Friday of April and spent the first half of our trip on the Kona side. Everyone that we talked to said that they really liked the Kona side because they felt like there was more to do and that it was drier than the Hilo side. In an attempt to save money, we booked a last minute learn-the-hotel-after-you-pay deal and ended up with the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa, which was a very nice place to spend four nights. Much to my own surprise, I even voluntarily went in the pool multiple times!

Our first three days we spent on the Kona side of the island, with the intention of hitting Volanoes National Park on our way over to Hilo side of the island half way through the trip. We spent the first day wandering through the town of Kona and then driving up the north side of the island. Unfortunately, it was rainy so we didn’t get out of the car a lot. However, we did stop to walk around the Puako Petroglyphs and then the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Just a bit farther down the road still, we came to Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company. While there isn’t a lot around, the macadamia nut factory store is worth a visit for all of the samples! The rest of our day was spent driving up the rest of the northeastern coast and then back down through Waimea (though again, we didn’t get out because it was pouring rain).

Day two looked like it was going to turn out to be a nice day on the southern end of the island so that’s where we headed. Our first destination was the Papakōlea Beach, also known as the green sand beach. Rather than take a “taxi”, we hiked the several mile hike along the cliffs out to the green sand beach. In the perfect light, the beach does look somewhat green, but under most light it looks like a normal beach. The day turned really hot as we dragged ourselves back to our car. Once back, our next stop was Southern Point, which is the most southern point in the U.S. There were lots of people there, though there wasn’t a lot two see. As we left Southern Point, the clouds opened up and started to pour once again. We stopped off at a great little coffee shop before deciding to hit the Punalu’u black sand beach. But once there, we found the parking lots full and the rain still falling, so we decided to end our day with the plan to come back later.

On our last full day in Kona, we again headed north (always trying to find the sun) and went to the black sand beach at Kiholo Bay. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a large herd of goats just wandering through parking lot and campground. We spent most of the morning walking along the lava rock shore south of the bay. We found lunch back at the north end of Kona before heading back to Kua Bay to relax on the beach (and have a photoshoot) for a couple hours. However, we made sure to return home in time to make it to Island Ono Loa Grill. We had laughed at their little A-frame sign back on our first day in Kona that read “8th best burgers on Yelp”, but after reading the reviews on Yelp, we became very intrigued and decided we had to visit before we left. And it certainly was worth the visit! Their burgers were different from anywhere else that we have been and their onion rings were absolutely perfect!

Looking for more info on what we did while in Hawaii? Check out all of our hikes and eats

We should have known our island vacation was on the verge of an adventure when, as we were checking out of our hotel, the front desk assistant told us that she had heard something about activity at the Volcanoes National Park. We didn’t think a whole lot about it except to hope that maybe more lava was coming into the crater. We were on our way to Hilo that day and our primary plan for the day was to visit Volcanoes National Park. We made a detour at the start of the day to go back to Punalu’u beach so we could see the black sand beach and sea turtles. Then it was on to the park!

Inside the park, we stopped by the visitor center to find out where to visit, then headed to the Jaggar Museum & Overlook to see the lava in the Kilauea summit crater. From the overlook, we could see a little spark of lava every once in a while. From there, we made a quick stop at the steam vents and then we exited the park to go find some lunch. Pro tip: Hit up Tuk Tuk Thai Food Truck for a quick and delicious lunch just outside the park! After filling lunch, we headed back to the park and started out on the Kilauea Iki Trail. For the first half of the trail, we hiked along the top of the crater rim until we reached the far end, then we descended down to the crater floor for the walk back. On the way back to the car, we stopped at the Thurston Lava Tube to do the obligatory cave walk. To finish our day out at Volcanoes National Park, we parked at Devastation Trail and walked out Old Crater Rim Drive as far as we were allowed. Feeling thoroughly hiked out, we finished our drive into Hilo and then had a great dinner at Pineapples restaurant in town.

For our four days in Hilo, we stayed at the Castle Hilo Hawaiian hotel. Our room had a great view out over the water and Coconut Island.  (Be sure to walk out to the island so that you can tell all your friends you visited two Hawaiian Islands on your trip!) Fully rested, we hopped in the car and started driving up Saddle Road in the middle of the island until we reached the Pu’u O’o trailhead. It’s right off the road and in the middle of the blazing sun. After lathering up in sunscreen, we set off along the lava rock trail. Every once in a while the trail wanders through a patch of trees and shrubs, but for the most part, you’re following the cairns or piles of lava rock out in the open. While not the most scenic trail we’ve done in Hawaii, it was very different than most any other trail that we have done before. After three to four miles, the trail intersects the “Powerline” 4WD trail. We turned back and started hiking back on this trail, but within 30 minutes, the bright sun gave way to ominous clouds. We stopped to examine another lava tube that had caved in just off the trail, before deciding to hike with new expedience. In the distance, we could see the flashes of lightning, at which point I asked Jon, “what are we supposed to do if we get caught in the middle a thunderstorm out on this lava rock?!” Jon’s answer was “duck low and run as fast as you can towards the next patch of trees!” Such a comforting thought…

After another 30 minutes, we passed a group of early 20-somethings out for a hike, with no backpacks, water, or even jackets. They didn’t seem to mind the approaching storm, but did stop to ask us where they were. After giving them some directions (and hoping that they didn’t get trapped out in this barren landscape), we continued on and while we avoided the thunder, we did get caught in the rainstorm. Now completely drenched, I was really in no mood for hiking but still had at least another mile to the road. Jon assured me it was almost there, just as he always does, but the highway took forever to arrive. And once it did arrive, I received the next surprise that we were still half a mile from the car which meant hiking up the side of Saddle Road. Needless to say, not my favorite hike in Hawaii.

Back in the car, which was now in the sweltering sun again, we made a plan to head back to Volcanoes and finish the rest of the drive that we hadn’t done. We drove all the way down the Chain of Craters Road, admiring the sites along the way and occasionally stopping to take a few pictures. Finally, we made it to the Sea Arch where we took yet more photos and then hiked a little ways down the closed emergency exit road before returning to the car and heading home for the day.

The weather on day six looked to be decent, so we headed north along the east side of the island up to the Waipola Valley. For those that don’t know, there are two roads on the Big Island where all but one rental car company says not to take your vehicle. One is past the Mauna Kea visitor center and the other is the Waipola Valley. So we did what most people do and we walked in. The road into the Waipola Valley is incredibly steep and is mostly one lane. You have good views of the valley going down, but you want to make sure your feet are planted firmly so that you don’t take an express trip down to the bottom. I was scared I was going to lose my grip and fall (especially since I’d watched others do it), so it was a very slow downhill walk. Once in the valley, you can walk out to the beach to begin your adventure. Our plan was to walk down the beach and then begin to make our way back up the switchbacks on the other side of the valley. Unfortunately, all of the rain had made the creek swell up rather high. We had the good sense to watch some of the fishermen fjord the creek and after watching them sink in all the way up to their chests, we decided to cut our day (very) short in the Waipola Valley and find something else to do. Neither of us were in the mood for a full-on swim session, and this was just low tide! We also had the good fortunate to be offered a ride in the bed of someone’s truck on the way back up, so that what could have been an hour long hike in the heat and humidity turned into a breezy ten minute ride.

To make up for our short morning in the valley, we stopped at Akaka Falls on the way back to Hilo. It’s a short walk on a paved trail to one of Hawaii’s tallest waterfalls. It’s a tourist stop, so be prepared for crowds! From there, we continued on to Mauna Loa to see the Macadamia nut factory and to get some Macadamia nut ice cream. Moving on, we stopped off at Kaumana Cave, which was more exciting than we were expecting for just a little park in a local neighborhood, and then finished off the day checking out Rainbow Falls.

Jon’s always on the lookout for botanical gardens no matter where we go, so I finally indulged him when we went to the Botanical Garden in Hilo. It’s a beautiful spot filled with lots of flowers, including lots of orchids. But for every flower that exists in the garden, there are ten thousand mostly invisible mosquitoes, so don’t forget your bug spray. Once we were done with the Botanical Garden, we made our way back through town and stopped off for lunch at a local Mexican restaurant that was absolutely delicious and well priced. Running out of options to do, we decided to head further south and take in the local (free) Zo0. While driving to the Zoo, we heard the Hawaii Civil Defense announcement come on the radio proclaiming that a 5.6 earthquake had just hit near Hilo. We were so disappointed to have missed it! At the zoo, we heard chatter from a few folks talking about the earthquake they just had felt and the gift shop said that their internet had just back online. We wandered through the park, looking at the pretty birds, reptiles, and other creatures. We had just finished comparing the zoo’s two tigers to Opal and Jasper (coincidentally they too had an orange kitty and a white kitty), and turned our back to them to look at a bird. The bird started rustling a lot and making an awful lot of noise, I commented that it seemed strange and I started to look around me when I realized that we were in the middle of an earthquake! I grabbed Jon’s arm and said: IT’S AN EARTHQUAKE, LOOK! We turned to see the nearby archway swaying, people stumbling, and panicked tigers running quickly around their cage. I was even able to capture some of it on camera. The earthquake turned out to be a 6.9 tremor, our own new record for largest earthquake we’ve experienced, barely edging out the Nisqually earthquake. It was also a record for Hawaii, being tied for the fourth largest earthquake in Hawaii’s history.

After the excitement at the zoo, we did what most sane people would do and headed back to Volcanoes National Park and to the center of the earthquake. Our hope was to get a better view of the lava. The park entrance was still accepting visitors, but as we we approached Jagger museum, we were turned around. So we drove just down the next road to the next overlook. The view from there was almost as good as at Jagger museum and we did see more lava than we had seen before. We also found out that the lookout we were standing on had started to fall away during the day’s earthquakes. The area was very active and we saw parts of the cone continue to crumble while we were there. Deciding to move on from that cliff, we continued to walk up the trail towards Jaggar Museum. Upon arriving at Jaggar, we were informed by the rangers that the park had been closed and they wanted to know how we were still here. We told them that we had parked with a bunch of other folks at the next overlook and walked up, but that we would walk back to our car now and head out of the park. Apparently that wasn’t fast enough for the rangers because they told us to jump in their truck and they would drive us back to our car. So that’s how we got to go for a personal tour with the Park Rangers. As we drove back to the car, we asked questions of the ranger about how often this happens and how long it takes to get everyone out of the park. His response was that today’s events were historic and a full evacuation of the park was rare. It would generally take four or so hours to get everyone out of the park.

With no more adventuring around the Volcanoes National Park as an option, we decided to do another item on our list: star gazing at Mauna Kea Visitor Center. But unfortunately, nearly every night so far had been cloudy and even rainy. Fortunately, on our last night in Hawaii, the forecast opened up just enough that there was a chance of a sunset and star gazing. We made the long uphill drive to the Visitor’s Center (we can understand why they say rental cars can only go that far). From the Visitor’s Center, we hiked under the road and up a nearby hill to join the throngs of other people who were waiting for a magnificent sunset. While the sunset was pretty, there were just too many clouds too high in the sky to ever get that pristine and perfect sunset shot, but it was still breathtakingly beautiful (and surprisingly cold!). In the twilight, we hiked back to the Visitor’s Center and hung around for an hour for the guided star tour. The clouds stayed away decently well so as to allow the guide to go through his program fairly well, though he couldn’t quite find all of the stars from the haze over head. It did dry out enough though that they could pull out their really expensive telescopes and we could have a peak at the stars up close.

On our last day in Hawaii, we checked out of the hotel and made our way to the Farmer’s Market in Hilo. This is the largest one on the Big Island and had lots of vendors to look at (though not as big as the one we went to on Oahu). From there, we wandered down the front street in Hilo, ducking into a couple shops when something piqued our interest. Still having time to kill before we needed to head back to Kona, we went over to Imiloa Astronomy Center so Jon could geek out a bit. The museum part was interesting, but the most exciting part was actually the planetarium.  The guide did an excellent job of pointing out the constellations in the sky, and then from their slowly backing out of the universe, making you feel incredibly tiny in comparison to what else is out there (to be completely honest, I may or may not have taken a little nap during this). Once finished with our star tour, we hopped in the car and made our journey back to the other side of the island by way of Saddle Road. We arrived in Kona with time to kill, so we stopped in to a coffee shop on the water to enjoy some last views of the ocean before heading for our red-eye flight back home.