There are few places on Big Island that better illustrate the strange intersection of its perennial volcanic activity and its manmade endeavors than Isaac Hale Beach Park. This is where picnickers and sunbathers lounge around astonishingly close to the edge of intimidating walls of jagged, porous, jet-black lava rock which just a couple of years ago were red-hot and crashing downhill toward the sea.
Before the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption, the beach park was a popular yet isolated stretch of rainswept, rocky East Hawaii coastline that boasted the only surf breaks and County-maintained boat ramp for many miles in either direction, both found at the adjacent, picturesque Pohoiki Bay. This made Isaac Hale park a multipurpose catch-all haunt for a large community of ocean-going locals living in the area, from fishermen to tour boat operators, swimmers, snorkelers, surfers, boogie boarders and paddlers. The bay’s beauty was known throughout the islands; there were even ukulele songs, watercolor paintings and professional panoramic photos celebrating its crystal blue waters, shoreline of coconut groves and thick jungles of mangrove-like “lau hala” trees.
Camping was highly popular here back in the day, and it was common to see groupings of brightly colored tents scattered around the park’s extensive lawns on sunny weekend afternoons, many erected in the shade of small stubby trees and occupied by surfers taking siestas between their morning and afternoon sets. Then there were the dog walkers, cyclists, food trucks and joggers, along with occasional gaggles of school kids from the charter school up the road, who would often walk down to catch a few waves on their boogie boards during lunch breaks. There was a handsomely built public bathroom with modern amenities, and several stands of cold-water showers used frequently by surfers, swimmers and snorkelers.
All of this changed in 2018, when massive volcanic fissures began to crop up in the neighborhood of Leilani Estates, and then compounded and expanded for several nerve-wracking weeks before sending a river of molten rock cascading downhill toward the sleepy seaside town of Kapoho. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, miles of highway and countless driveways and side roads were covered, and thousands of Lower Puna residents were forced to evacuate, including many who surfed, fished and swam regularly at Isaac Hale Beach Park.
The lava river met the ocean in Kapoho, exploding into trillions of tiny particles of brittle, glass-like rock and filling in entire bays and sections of rocky coastline with black sand. The flow worked its way south down the coast, destroying historic and well-loved snorkeling grounds and a county park featuring a large geothermal-heated pool known locally as “warm ponds”. The charter school was inundated, too, and for a time seemingly everyone in Lower Puna thought Isaac Hale park and Pohoiki Bay would see the same fate.
But by some miracle, the lava flow’s insidious creep stopped after covering only a minor section of the park, largely sparing its day-use grounds, parking lots and ocean access. However, the forging of so much new black sand nearly filled in Pohoiki Bay, creating a crescent-shaped coastline of large lava cinders mixed with patches of finely pulverized black sand that locals for the past several years have simply called “Pohoiki Beach”. The boat ramp now leads to a pool of brackish, algae-rich water completely cut off from the rest of the remaining bay by a massive berm of lava gravel.
As for the day-use and camping areas, the mindbogglingly destructive flow took out the park’s municipal water line rendering the showers stands and bathroom building inoperable. Besides portable toilets, there are few amenities at Isaac Hale Beach Park these days, and visitors should take this into account and make sure to bring all needed supplies.
A Dramatically Changed Landscape and An Enduring Beauty
Even with so much loss, though, the park is still a wonderful spot to experience; the same cool, salty onshore breeze blows across its spared land, the circular parking lot of towering, shady trees is still populated by friendly locals selling coconuts and stringing up fishing rods, and there’s still a crowd of people lounging on beach blankets and folding chairs at the water’s edge watching the waves roll in. In the day-use area, the lawns and trees are still well-manicured, with inviting swaths of mowed green grass connected by surviving lengths of wide concrete walkway that lead to picnic tables and barbecue pits.
This makes for possibly one of the most peculiar environments at the park: enjoying a delectable barbecue lunch spread out on a picnic table that’s about as close as it could physically be to the edge of an unforgiving-looking lavafield that stretches for miles out to meet the horizon. The scale of the endless sea of jagged rocks compared to how little more distance it would’ve had to travel to destroy the park in its entirety is dizzying. Just a few hundred feet down the road from the string of picnic areas is another classic Big Island volcano photo op: a two-lane striped asphalt road running straight into the lavafield, with the somewhat obvious “No Trespassing” sign posted at its dead-end.
A long line of hazard-yellow vehicle barricades denotes the border between the beach park’s main gravel parking lot and day-use area. Beyond this there are several stands of well-trimmed coconut palms, along with a hedgerow of broad-leafed ornamental trees leading to the closed bathroom facility. Past the trees are the several acres of maintained lawn punctuated with picnic areas, some of which are backed right up against the lava wall.
Although it might seem tempting to leave the grassy area and climb around on the crunching gravel mounds, don’t do it! Lavafields like this are notoriously unstable and dangerous, with brittle, razor-sharp rocks that can lacerate feet, knees, hands and elbows. Keeping a solid footing while walking on this type of lava is nearly impossible, and these flow fields are rife with lava tubes and sinkholes, sometimes with undersurface voids known as “pukas” large enough to swallow up a whole human. So, even though it’s easy to get intimately close to this new, raw and rugged landscape at Isaac Hale Beach Park, experience it from a safe distance and stay off the lava!
How To Get There:
Prior to the 2018 eruption, reaching Isaac Hale Beach Park was very straightforward and simple, accessible from basically all directions. Since the flow took out large sections of Pohoiki Road and the northern stretches of Highway 137 (also known as Kalapana-Kapoho Road or colloquially “Red Road”), accessing the park is only possible these days via the southern portion of Highway 137 coming from the very small fishing village of Opihikao. This route takes visitors from Opihikao – which is easy to miss completely except for its Congregational Church – past MacKenzie State Recreation Area known locally as MacKenzie Park, and past the Malama Ki Forest Reserve. Drivers will climb up the flanks of three small sections of temporary road – places where lava crossed the highway and have since been bulldozed, graded and marked with safety cones.
After crossing the three gravel patches, the road will return to asphalt for a few hundred feet more, before coming to a four-way stop. Turn right here, past the hand-carved wooden sign for Isaac Hale Beach Park, and either park in the large gravel parking lot adjacent to the day-use area, or continue until the road dead-ends at the beachfront loop.
To access Highway 137, take Highway 130 in the town of Pahoa (located roughly eleven miles south of Hilo), and follow the signs for Kalapana. A few miles past Pahoa will be a left-hand turn for Kamaili Road, which is a steep, winding and occasionally one-way paved route down to the coast through horse pastures, homestead farms and thick jungle. This is a shortcut to Isaac Hale Beach Park, but can be a bit precarious and demands cautious, concentrated driving. Staying straight at the turn for Kamaili Road will take drivers on a longer but much easier route to the end of Highway 130, past the historic Star Of The Sea Painted Church, with a left turn lane shortly after leading to the village of Kaimu and its world-famous Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers’ Market.
Turning right at this next intersection leads to Uncle Robert’s, while heading left will take drivers on a roughly 10 mile serene coastal drive north to the beach park, passing Kehena Black Sand Beach on the right, and then the neighborhood of Seaview Estates soon after on the left. Keep heading up Highway 137 for a few miles past Seaview Estates and you’ll spot the church of Opihikao.
Kaimu Corner in Kalapana, right next to Uncle Robert’s bar and market, is the closest spot to pick up beach snacks and barbecue items when visiting Isaac Hale Beach Park and Pohoiki Beach. The prices here can be a bit of a shocker for visitors, though, so for budget-minded travelers, pick up supplies at the brand new Puna Kai Shopping Center located in Pahoa, with its anchor supermarket Malama Market.