Aloha Loop: Hawaii: USA
A wondrous work in progress, this idyllic, incredibly diverse island — embracing snowy peaks and sandy shores, lush valleys, and barren lava deserts — is easily explored on a richly rewarding loop tour. At 1 million years of age, Hawaii’s Big Island is the youngest of the islands that constitute our 50th state. But its size more than makes up for its youth. The Big Island, as locals call it, is nearly twice as large as all the others combined — and it’s growing bigger every year. Since 1986, volcanic activity has added several hundred acres to this truly living landscape.
Despite the fact that it’s the second-largest city in Hawaii, Hilo paces itself to a slow beat. Its once-raffish waterfront has been transformed into a genteel park, and the old neighborhoods are now dotted with cappuccino shops. But vintage clapboard buildings and weathered Chinese storefronts still adorn this tropical town. With over 120 inches of rainfall per year, Hilo is not only the wettest city in America, but a virtual greenhouse.
Many of the town’s gardens and nurseries are open to the public, including the Nani Mau Gardens, which boasts the island’s largest collection of orchids, and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Banyan Drive — named for the multi-trunked trees that line the road, each one of them planted by a different American celebrity during the 1930s — skirts the edge of Waiakea Peninsula before reaching Liliuokalani Gardens.
A footbridge leads from this serene Japanese-style haven to Coconut Island, a palm-fringed hideaway that is perfect for picnicking. You can take a dip here too, but the best place for swimming and surfing is at the black sand beach in Richardson’s Ocean Park, just to the east of town. Traveling north on Rte. 19 (the Bayfront Highway), turn inland — mauka, as the locals say — on Waianuenue Avenue for a detour to Wailuku River State Park.
The park’s main draw is Rainbow Falls, a sight that becomes downright dazzling after heavy rains, when the spray shimmers with vivid hues. Farther upstream, the water pours into a series of pools with such turbulence that they have been dubbed the Boiling Pots.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Back on Rte. 19 (now known as the Mamalahoa Highway), continue north along the Hamakua Coast. At the town of Papaikou, turn east toward the sea — makai, in common parlance — and follow Onomea Scenic Drive to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. This 17-acre preserve feaures more than 2,000 species of plants — a collection that is believed to be the world’s largest assortment of tropical plants growing in a natural environment. Numerous trails throughout the garden invite visitors to meander past preening parrots, squawking cockatoos, hidden waterfalls, and hushed lily ponds.
Akaka Falls State Park
At Honomu follow Rte. 220 inland past dense fields of sugarcane to Akaka Falls State Park, 66 acres of ferns, orchids, and bamboo groves. A short nature trail overhung with verdant, sweetly scented vegetation circles past cascading Kahuna Falls and the astonishing Akaka Falls.
Laupahoehoe Beach Park
Located on a small peninsula, this grassy park is shaded by spreading ironwood trees and tall coconut palms — an ideal setting for a relaxing picnic. The park takes its name from pahoehoe, the smooth, ropey type of lava found here. Inky black, the lava contrasts vividly with the frothy, white-tipped waves that pound against the shore.
Kalopa State Recreation Area
A few miles past Paauilo, an old plantation town dating back to Hawaii’s sugarcane era, a turnoff leads to Kalopa State Recreation Area. Nestled on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, this lush 615-acre forest reserve is laced with several well-marked hiking trails.
Waipo Valley Lookout
To visit Waipo Valley is to get a glimpse of the Garden of Eden. One mile wide and six miles long, this singularly beautiful spot was so favored by Hawaiian royalty that it is nicknamed the Valley of the Kings. Its splendor is indeed regal: perpetually green, thanks to numerous streams, waterfalls, and ancient fish ponds, the enchanted rain forest here is so productive that in times of famine it sustained the island’s entire population. Since the road down into the valley resembles a zigzagging roller coaster, motorists without four-wheel drive should take a tour instead. Shuttles depart hourly from the Waipo Valley Lookout at the end of Rte. 240, but advance reservations are advised.
From the gorgeous greens of Waipo, backtrack to Rte. 19 and head inland past sweeping high-country pastures and, to the south, 13,796-foot-tall Mauna Kea. Measured from its base on the floor of the sea, this dormant volcano, at some 32,000 feet, ranks as the world’s highest peak. Because it is surrounded by ocean, Mauna Kea is blessed with pollution-free air so crystal-clear that its summit is the best spot on earth for stargazing. (No fewer than 13 observatories crown the peak’s summit.)
As the drive heads west to Waimea, you might find it hard to believe you’re still in the tropics. In far-off meadows, cowboys on horseback tend grazing cattle. These colorful Hawaiian cowpokes are called paniolo, and many of them work for the 225,000-acre Parker Ranch, said to be among the largest farm farmsteads in the United States. The ranch’s history is detailed at a visitor center, which also features a video on ranching and a tour of the ranch’s historic homes. Paniolo can be seen in action at rodeos held in Waimea all summer long.
Mookini Luakini Heiau
Rte. 250 (the Kohala Mountain Road) breezes past green volcanic pastures. Vistas are wide and handsome, as hills ripple one into another on their way to the sea. The most famous of Hawaii’s warrior kings, King Kamehameha I, who united all of the islands by 1810, launched his military campaign from North Kohala. This little-visited region is awash with sacred and historic sites, including many stone temples (heiaus). One of the oldest is Mookini Luakini, built in A.D. 480; it stands along the same dirt road as King Kamehameha’s birthplace, just beyond the turnoff to Upolu Airport as you head farther west on Rte. 270.
Lapakahi State Historical Park
Tucked above a flawless beach, this 260-acre park chronicles early Hawaiian village life through reenactments of daily activities. Paths wander past the stone walls and foundations of a partially restored 600-year-old coastal settlement where people lived off the land. Some of the plants they depended on — hau wood for canoes, hala leaves for woven baskets, and medicinal noni fruits — still flourish here.
Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Just south of Kawaihae, the reef-protected shore at Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park offers the best swimming and snorkeling in the area. A path from the beach leads to the Puukohola National Historic Site, where King Kamehameha I, acting on the advice of a prophet, erected a temple in honor of a war god to ensure victory over his adversaries. Measuring 224 feet by 100 feet, the heiau was built from rocks and boulders that were fitted together without mortar.
Rejoin Rte.19 (now known as the Queen Kaahumanu Highway) as it speeds southward. Just beyond the turnoff for Hapuna Beach State Park is the entrance to the Mauna Lani Resort, where a sign shows the way to the Puako Petroglyphs. A half-mile trail winds past lava boulders incised with mysterious markings from the past: turtles, warriors, fish, and enigmatic spirals. The 3,000 petroglyphs in and near Puako are some of the oldest and best rock carvings in Hawaii.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
Continuing south, you’ll find an intriguing waypoint. Designated as a National Historical Landmark in 1962, then a National Park in 1978, there are more than 200 archaeological sites to be found in this 1,160-acre park. Its resources hold the secrets to Hawaii’s historic culture and its unique wildlife. Remember that half the park is oceanfront — take time to swim, hike, and birdwatch.
As Rte. 19 continues south, bougainvilleas brighten miles of the monochromatic lava moonscape beside the highway. Inland are the steep slopes of long-dormant Mt. Hualalai; on the seaward side the lava cascades to the water’s edge. In the resort town of Kailua-Kona, Rte.19 becomes Rte.11. Napoopoo Road, branching off at the town of Captain Cook, careers through plots of coffee trees — the only gourmet coffee crop in the United States — on its way to Kealakekua Bay. Divers and snorkelers converge at the park here, a Marine Life Conservation District where tropical fish prowl the coral reefs. In 1779 Capt. James Cook, the British explorer, sailed into this bay shortly before he was killed by natives. An obelisk on a spit of land across the bay commemorates his death.
Puuhonua O Honaunau Landmark
Rte. 160, a narrow coastal route, crosses the crusty lava of the Keei plain as it heads south toward Honaunau Bay and Puuhonua, the island’s only remaining ancient place of refuge. Until 1819 the protocol of daily life in Hawaii was governed by kapu, a sacred code of rules and prohibitions. Sanctuaries like the one here were set aside for defeated warriors and transgressors, who were spared execution and reinstated into society if they managed to reach one of these havens. Highlights at the 180-acre historical park include ancient royal fish ponds, a wall fitted with jagged lava, a heiau that once held the remains of 23 chiefs, and countless wide-eyed tiki idols. From Puuhonua Rte.160 winds through groves of macadamia nut trees. A side road leads to St. Benedict’s Church. Its interior is embellished with folksy biblical murals — the handiwork of a priest.
A paved spur off Rte. 11 descends to the black sands of Hookena Beach Park, a good spot for surfing. Farther south, a narrow road weaves across sterile lava flows toward Milolii, where fishermen ply the waters in motorized outriggers, one of Hawaii’s last fishing villages.
As the drive rounds the southern tip of the island, take the turnoff at South Point Road for a visit to Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States — nearly 500 miles farther south than Key West. Some historians believe that Hawaii’s first settlers landed here, perhaps as early as A.D. 150.
Punaluu Beach Park
Rte. 11 passes through Naalehu — the southernmost town in America — before angling north to squeeze between the coastline and Mauna Loa’s massive shoulder. Up ahead is one of the region’s best recreation spots, Punaluu Black Sand Beach, made popular by its blacksand beach and sea turtles.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
As Rte.11 climbs between Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive mountain, and Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, the drama mounts with every passing mile. The Hawaiian islands grew over millions of years as rivers of lava poured from their volcanoes, and the spurts of glowing red lava that Kilauea coughs up remind us that the process continues today.
Leaving the visitor center, follow Crater Rim Drive for 11 miles encircles Kilauea Caldera. Stops along the way include the Jaggar Museum, panoramic overlooks of multiple craters, and short walks to steam vents. The half-mile-Devastation Trail winds through what had been an ohia forest before a 1959 eruption devastated the area.
At Thurston (Nahuku) Tube, thick tree ferns and ohia trees nearly engulf lava tunnels, leftovers from an ancient flow. Barren landscapes quickly give way to forested slopes as the loop draws to a close. Descending 4,000 feet from volcanic marvels to a black lava shoreline, the drive reveals more of the scenic diversity of Hawaii’s Big Island paradise.