Home Traveling Adventures Hawaii: Cycling the Lava-Ravaged Red Road in Puna

Hawaii: Cycling the Lava-Ravaged Red Road in Puna

by bromptoning
Highway 137 to Kaimu Black Sand Beach, Hawaii

The photo above is an accurate summary of this ride—a welcoming dead end! Let me explain…

We did this ride in February 2020, less than two years after Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupted and spread lava over 35 square-kms of land in the Puna area. Lava flowed across roads too, blocking access to such places as Isaac Hale Park. By the time we went to Hawaii, Highway 137 to Isaac Hale Park was passable, but Pohoiki Road was not. That meant that we’d get two-thirds around the triangle loop we wanted to ride and would have to turn back whence we came. But despite this ride being long and ending on a punishing uphill slog, it was our favourite of this Big Island trip!

RIDE STATS – PUNA, HAWAI’I – Pahoa to Isaac Hale Park

Distance – 69 km

Average Speed – 20 km/hr

Top Speed – 50 km/hr

Cycling Time – 3 hours 26 minutes

Climbed/Descended – 640m

Elevation (Highest/Lowest) – 330m / 10m

Steepest Grade – 6%

Total Trip Time – 6 hours 29 minutes

NOTE: At the time of posting this blog, Google indicates Pohoiki Road is still closed to car traffic, but Kamaili Rd/Opihakao Dr is now open, so that would have shaved off 12km from our round trip if we’d been able to take that shortcut back to Pahoa.

Bromptons on the Bus to Pahoa

We opted to catch the 7:30am bus from Hilo to Pahoa so we’d have tons of time to explore and wouldn’t have to worry about rushing to catch the bus home. Plus, we were jet lagged and still waking up at 5:30am, so 7:30am didn’t even feel early. 

Unlike the big buses we took from Kona to Hilo, this was a little tour bus, and there were only a couple other people on board.

Hele-On bus from Hilo to Pahoa

It’s just a half hour drive to Pahoa, but the bus takes an hour since it makes a few stops in Hilo before finally hitting the highway. We could have biked from Hilo to Pahoa in an hour and a half, but Komoot estimated our ride around Puna would take 4 hours, so we decided not to make the day longer than necessary. Besides, the bus only costs $2 per person! That’s insanely cheap. There’s a $1 charge for bikes, but none of the bus drivers charged us for our folding bikes (except for the driver to Kona on our very last bus ride). 

Plus, it intermittently poured rain on the drive to Pahoa! We were glad we’d decided not to bike it.

Rain through the Hele-On bus window.

Pre-Ride Fuel

It was still raining when we arrived in Pahoa, so we decided to go somewhere for second breakfast. The bus dropped us off just past the Black Rock Cafe, so we went there. This is a greasy spoon diner that serves cheap basic breakfasts – and the portions are BIG. We’d already had first breakfast, so we decided to split an omelette. The servers put it on two plates for us, but that is how much food ONE serving is supposed to be!

I also ordered the Hawaiian staple POG juice – a mix of passionfruit, orange and guava juice.

If you’re looking for quick, cheap eats with the locals, this is the place. 

First Leg 🚴 – Pahoa to New Kaimu Beach

In the time we were in the Black Rock Cafe, it had switched between sunshine and torrential rain at least three times. Just when we thought we were safe to leave, it started pouring again. Well, at least it was warm outside! So we put on the rain capes and cycled out of Pahoa…

We were barely out of town when the sun came out and we took off the capes and turned right onto Highway 130. 

Pier cycling south on Highway 130 just outside Pahoa.

The first third of this highway was a gentle uphill, but we knew once we reached the top we were in for a screaming descent – and we were not disappointed! Our top speed racing down to sea level was 50km/hr! Too fast to take photos, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this section of the highway had super wide, smooth shoulders. It was glorious! Though we were not looking forward to coming back up. But that was end-of-the-day Heather and Pier’s problem.

At the bottom, Highway 130 veers right into lava land, so we turned left onto a short section of Highway 137 and took the next (and only) right onto this Dead End road.

📍Sight to See — New Kaimu Black Sand Beach

At the end of this short road is a parking lot, a market, and the start of the Kaimu Kalapana New Black Sand Beach Historical Eco Hike. Walk up the stairs and you’ll find this sign showing you the way:

As per usual on the Big Island, there’s no official bike parking, so we just parked to the sign. Then we followed the red cinder gravel trail to New Kaimu Black Sand Beach.

Red cinder gravel trail leading to New Kaimu Beach. The Big Island, Hawaii
Red cinder gravel trail leading to New Kaimu Beach.

This lava flow is from 1990. It covered the old Kaimu Beach with 60 feet of lava and extended the shoreline many acres to create New Kaimu Beach. Google maps shows the distance between the old Kaimu Beach and New Kaimu Beach, with Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers Market in between. The market is where you’ll find the parking lot and the start of the hike.

“Kaimu Beach” is where the shore was before 1990!

The hike is short and quite interesting, if you like looking at all the different kinds of rock formations lava creates, which we do.

Kaimu Beach Park
Heather in Kaimu Beach Park

After about 10 minutes, we arrived at a breathtaking view of New Kaimu Black Sand Beach:

New Kaimu Black Sand Beach, The Big Island, Hawaii
New Kaimu Black Sand Beach

There’s black sand under the water, but we were here during high tide and saw only rocks amidst the crashing surf. Black sand is the result of lava rock being pulverized by crashing waves. 

A neat thing to note is all the young coconut trees growing in the lava rock. Locals have planted hundreds of them in an effort to rebuild their beach in the vision of the old Kaimu beach, which was the most famous black sand beach in the world with a long curving bay with numerous stately palm trees. These trees are very slow growing, so as you can see from the photo below, they’re still pretty short.

Young coconut trees in Kaimu Beach Park

We returned to the market area, but only the smoothie place (and the bar?!) was open this early on a Friday morning (around 10am). Even the bathrooms were still locked up, much to my disappointment. Then, out of nowhere, it poured again!

Waiting for the rain to stop by Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar, Kaimu Beach, Puna, Hawaii.
Waiting for the rain to stop by Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar.

We waited for the rain to subside, put on our rain capes, and began the next part of the ride…

Second Leg 🚴 – The Red Road📍

Officially, this is Highway 137 or Kalapana-Kapoho Road, but it is called The Red Road because it used to be paved with red cinder gravels. Even though it’s now black asphalt, locals still call it The Red Road. It’s a beautiful, scenic ride through residential neighbourhoods, old plantations, lush coconut groves, tropical rainforests, oceanside parks, rocky lava fields, and black sand beaches. 

Tourist info we read warned this road is only one lane wide, but we discovered it’s now two lanes for the first half, narrowing down to one lane about halfway to Isaac Hale Park. We could actually see the new asphalt that’s been added to the sides of the road to make it wider. We did this ride late Friday morning, and there was very little traffic (though we hear it’s busier on weekends). The cars we encountered gave us a lot of room when passing, sometimes even waiting until the road widened or there was a spot we could pull over.  

Cycling east on a road that hugs the coastline meant we were riding right into a fierce ocean headwind, but once we got to the beautiful tree-lined part of The Red Road, we were sheltered from the brunt of it.

Coast view just before Kehena Beach. Puna, Hawaii
Coast view just before Kehena Beach.
Tree canopy over The Red Road. Puna, Hawaii
Tree canopy over The Red Road.
Section of old Red Road gets really close to the shore. Puna, Hawaii
Section of old road gets really close to the shore.
Little cemetery between Red Road and ocean. Puna, Hawaii
Little cemetery between road and ocean.
Self-serve fruit stand. Puna, Hawaii
Self-serve fruit stand.

And finally we arrived at Mackenzie State Park.

Arriving at Mackenzie State Park. Puna, Hawaii
Arriving at Mackenzie State Park.
Incredible view from cliffs at Mackenzie State Park. Puna, Hawaii
Incredible view from cliffs at Mackenzie State Park.

This park has sheltered picnic tables and pit toilets. We stopped here to eat the peanut butter sandwiches we’d packed before riding on. 

TIP: Bring lots of food and water on this ride, because except for a couple self-serve fruit stands and a tiny coffee convenience store, there’s nowhere to buy food or get water. 

During the 2018 eruption, lots of fissures erupted in Puna, and one flowed directly between Mackenzie State Park and Isaac Hale Park. We were about to see the freshest lava flow on the island…

Lava flow inland from The Red Road between Mackenzie State Park and Isaac Hale Park.
Lava flow, looking inland.
Lava flow to the ocean between Mackenzie State Park and Isaac Hale Park.
Lava flow to the ocean between Mackenzie State Park and Isaac Hale Park.

And through this hardened lava, they cut a new road.

New section of Highway 137 (The Red Road) cut through the lava.
New section of Highway 137.

I’m not sure the photos do it justice, but the sheer expanse of the lava flow was intimidating. It took us a while to bike through (there were a couple sections), and as I did I thought about how terrifying a sight it must have been when the lava was red-hot and flowing.

When we got to the intersection of Highway 137 and Pohoiki Road, we turned right into Isaac Hale Park to see one of Hawaii’s newest beaches…

📍Sight to See — New Pohoiki Black Sand Beach

This beach was born in August 2018. After the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent collapsed on April 30 causing the Halama’uma’u lava lake to drain on May 2, the Kīlauea Volcano lower East Rift Zone (LERZ) eruption in lower Puna began on May 3 when several fissures in the Leilani Estates subdivision opened. When it was all over, the lava had just barely missed completely covering Isaac Hale Park.

Lava rock on the edge of Isaac Hale Park. Puna, Hawaii
Lava rock on the edge of Isaac Hale Park.

Though the new black sand beach curves around the park and completely blocks the old boat ramp into the ocean.

Boat ramp railing
Boat launch blocked by new black sand.

Notice the signs in the photo still warning swimmers of the strong current, which is now obviously gone since this ramp no longer connects with the ocean.

Sadly, the LERZ eruption covered the Kapoho Tide Pools and the Ahalanui Hot Ponds, which were apparently the most beautiful sights in Puna, and are now lost under thousands of pounds of lava rock. 

Third Leg 🚴 – Racing The Red Road, Wind At Our Backs

It was time to head back to Pahoa! As we were leaving Isaac Hale Park, we checked the sign on Pohoiki Road…

Yep, still impassable. There was no shortcut to Pahoa yet. We had to cycle the long way back! At least heading west, we had a tailwind!

We raced along The Red Road, wind at our backs, only stopping for a snack at a sign for a cafe. Though it was more of a convenience store that made coffee. So we just bought a couple fruit juices, used the bathroom, petted the kitty, and continued on our way.

And before we knew it, we were back at the intersection of Highway 137 and 130.

Fourth Leg 🚴 – The Long Uphill

We weren’t too far along on this section when we came upon the Star of the Sea Church. This historic building was constructed in 1928, but was directly in the path of the 1990 lava flow, so it was wrenched from its foundations and relocated here.

Break time over, we continued up and up and up and up… and 45 minutes later, we reached this sign!

1000ft elevation sign on Highway 130 in Puna, Hawaii.
We did it! … almost.

We’d gone up 1000 feet (305m)! Alas, we still were not at the very top. But 15 minutes later we made it to the peak at 329m. In total, we climbed steady for ONE HOUR, which is a helluva hill for two urban cyclists who hail from a relatively flat city. 

Bromptons on the Bus back to Hilo

We made it back to Pahoa in plenty of time to catch the 4:15 bus, but not enough time to add 8km to our trip to check out Lava Tree Park. However, the bus does stop at the Nanawale Estates just outside of the Lava Tree Park, so if we’d known that at the time, we could have seen the lava trees and caught that bus. But we didn’t, so we biked back into Pahoa. 

Where to catch buses in Hawaii is not very clear. We knew we’d need to stand on the other side of the street to go back to Hilo, but there wasn’t a sign across the road from where the bus had dropped us off in the morning. So we asked some locals. The first person didn’t know. This seemed to be fairly common on the Big Island; the bus is not their main form of transportation. But the next person we asked pointed us further down the street to the 7 Eleven. Sure enough, in front of the convenience store parking lot across from The Black Rock Cafe was a Hele-On Bus sign.

The Paloa bus stop in front of 7 Eleven.

On the bus ride back, we were shocked to find another Brompton in the back seat! It belonged to a woman from France who was traveling with her child. Notice the kid seat on it? 

Another Brompton on the bus!

Overall Impressions on Cycling Puna

Except for cycling uphill for an hour on the way back to Pahoa, this wasn’t a difficult ride. The Red Road undulates quite a bit, but you’re never ascending for more than 20 seconds before you get to descend again. 

The highlight of the ride was the changing scenery of The Red Road. We certainly didn’t take enough photos to do it justice! Perhaps the video Pier is making will show more. 

 Up next… Volcanoes National Park!

Hawaii Bike Rides so far…

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