Living on the Edge
The majestic town of Kalapana
“It was exciting but heartbreaking at the same time,” says Kalapana resident, Rose Jeranium, as she recalls the lava that crept nearer and nearer before finally engulfing her home in the spring of 1990. “The air quality was terrible, like Los Angeles,” she says, describing how it was almost impossible to breathe for those who were fiercely clinging to their properties before Civil Defense eventually forced their evacuation. Jeranium remembers a local band joined the despondency by playing a “blues relocation song.”
Once a thriving, yet uniquely laidback, Big Island beach town, Kalapana had it all—jaw dropping scenery, amazing fishing, a beautiful black sand beach and a renowned surf break. But the tiny community was seemingly vulnerable to the destructive volcanic eruptions caused by the island’s most active volcano, Kilauea. Kalapana had been disrupted by lava more than once. First, in late 1986, a flow had taken the seven mile journey from the Puu Oo Vent on the south-eastern flank of Kilauea in what is known as the Kupaianaha Eruption, one that erased asphalt roads under 30 feet of lava and covered 17 homes (reportedly 14 of which were all destroyed on one fateful December day). Unfortunately, this was only a portent of worse things to come.
Just four years later, the Kalapana community was again inundated by lava, including the residential neighborhoods of Kalapana Gardens and Royal Gardens (175 homes in total). Both long-established subdivisions were built on steep slopes with one street rising 1,400 vertical feet in just two miles. Local hot spot, Walter’s Kalapana Store and Drive Inn, was famous for serving up hot meals, cold beer and boasted the oldest water well in the region, but it literally became a “hot spot” after the low viscosity, basaltic flow overran the beloved location.
Almost as soon as the lava had cooled, allowing blue-green algae, moss, lichen and ferns to poke through the terrain, residents and new homesteaders began moving back to this desolate territory. The landscape was lunar-like—still largely void of life and lacking common comforts such as electricity and running water. Yet, as one area resident explained, she feels that there is an extreme energy created by the lava fields; she is “more alive” in Kalapana and wants her young son to grow up in this place of such vibrancy. When thinking deeply on the matter, she claims that the land has chosen he—not the other way around.
To reach the quaint town of Kalapana, take Highway 130 from Hilo just past mile marker 21. If traveling from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, follow Highway 11 to Kea‘au where you will meet Highway 130 and head toward Pāhoa. Look for the green highway sign just past mile marker 21 and turn left. At the stop sign, turn right and follow the road to the dead end.
In the cozy town, you will find a tiny general store, a charming cafe, as well as an awa bar. Awa, also known as kava, is a plant that was used for centuries by Hawaiians and other Polynesians for a wide variety of reasons, from relieving the teething pains of infants to energizing fatigued muscles. Be forewarned—though a popular supplement, the somewhat bitter-tasting juice may cause numbness of the mouth. The bar occasionally features family-style hula performances and you may be lucky enough to catch a show. Community members also tend to set up makeshift vending stands where they sell everything from wonderful art, local crafts and homemade jewelry. It’s truly a small town with a village feel, home to friendly faces and a landscape of exuberant energy.
Though Madame Pele (Hawaiian goddess of fire) has engulfed the picturesque, famed black sand beaches of Kalapana’s past, she has endowed a new beach destination, one with surrounding scenery that can change almost hourly. A short path from the parking area at the cafe and awa bar is edged by young coconut palms and leads to the new and secluded black sand beach. The trail to the beach is fairly moderate and easy to navigate, though you may want to opt for comfortable walking shoes as the path is unpaved and leads over lava stones, sand and gravel.
Either before or after your trip to Kalapana, visit the lava viewing area at the “end of the road.” To reach it, head back out to Highway 130 from Kalapana and turn left at the stop sign. Follow the road for approximately two miles. The pavement will narrow and, in some areas, it has degraded to a rutted gravel trail, so drive slowly and with caution. There is a parking area at the well-marked trailhead, but note that the gates close at 10 p.m. The volume of visitors varies on whether the lava is flowing near, far or if it is even visible entering the ocean. Souvenir vendors may be present selling photos, food and other volcano related items.
Above all else, be wary, safe and alert when in volcano country. To enjoy your visit to the edge, always pack plenty of water and stay hydrated, pack extra snacks, wear rugged shoes that protect your feet, carry a good flashlight with extra batteries, and stick to the paths, especially after dark. Let someone know where you are headed including your place of lodging.