Kaimu Black Sand Beach is a quarter-mile hike across a barren lava field of smooth, ropey-looking black rock, following a footpath paved with finely crushed red cinder stones, to the rocky shore of crashing waves and tumbling boulders of Kaimu Black Sand Beach.
This is an isolated and stunningly beautiful stretch of coastline carpeted with forests of young coconut palms, beach grasses, sprigs of ferns, and other pioneer species popping up out of the cracked rock. The onshore breeze carries a faint whiff of salt that grows stronger as hikers near the shoreline, where the rumble of crashing waves can be heard long before they are seen. The loose red rock shifts about underfoot with a satisfying crunch until it is replaced by black sand upon reaching the beach, where the new palm forest falls away and reveals the full ocean vista.
From this vantage point, the horizon is an impossibly straight line, separating a cloudy baby-blue sky from the darker bluish-grey ocean churning about below. Jagged bluffs of black rock border the rugged beach on both sides – headlands which the powerful incoming surf strike first in mesmerizing explosions of white sea spray. Although the word “beach” can be found in the name of this place, swimming here is exceptionally hazardous and generally frowned upon by locals who don’t want the bad publicity of hapless swimmers being swept out to sea and rescued by the Coast Guard. So, play it safe while visiting Kaimu and stay out of the water.
The hazardous nature of the coast here is easy to notice on high surf days, when big rolling waves make their way into the beach and toss about the round lava stones lining the shore. This whirlpool of tumbling rocks the size of engine blocks and violently rushing water makes going for a dip pretty uninviting, in tandem with the grinding sound of the rocks smashing against each other in the fray.
“New” Kaimu Beach Was Once “Old” Kaimu Beach
The stretch of rocky, desolate shoreline along Big Island’s Kalapana Coast known among locals as the “new” Kaimu Black Sand Beach is indeed just that – new.
It looked much different three decades ago, when it was a picturesque crescent-shaped stretch of black sand, fringed by a long line of mature coconut groves that cast shade on the beach and gave it an iconic, postcard quality. This was the “old” Kaimu Beach; a much beloved local swimming hole where generations of native Hawaiians and island-born haoles (foreigners) learned to surf, paddle and fish among the turquoise waters of the bay, where an offshore reef of sunken lava boulders tempered the force of incoming waves and made for an unmatched surf break.
The beach was a windswept, laid-back destination nestled in the jungle, its popularity amplified by the fact that Puna District is notoriously lacking in safe swimming and surfing spots. It was the local ocean access for multiple different communities found along the Kalapana Coast and farther inland, and one of the natural features driving the growth of its nearest town, Kaimu (kie-moo) – which had been a sleepy old-time Hawaii fishing village for centuries. These days, Kaimu Bay and its associated beach are remembered fondly by locals living in the area who are old enough to have seen that iconic palm-lined crescent of black sand with their own eyes so many years ago.
Those who remember the beach’s formed glory are the ones who lived through its destruction, when in 1990 lava flows from an eruption of Kilauea Volcano starting spilling out of a new fissure. This sent an avalanche of molten rock tumbling down the mountain’s flanks towards the villages of Kaimu and Kalapana. Entire neighborhoods were completely wiped out save for a few surviving lots, including the subdivisions of Kalapana Gardens and the nearby Royal Gardens. The lava flow destroyed more than 150 homes in less than a year of activity, and covered cars, parks, stores, utility lines and roads beneath a sea of black rock that measures nearly 100 feet deep in some places.
The charging red hot rock met the ocean at last and quickly proceeded to destroy the world-famous Old Kaimu Beach and fill in Kaimu Bay, creating a large swath of new coastline that is almost a quarter-mile wide at its thickest point. By early 1991, the rogue flow had petered out thanks to new lava tubes opening in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which diverted the flow away from Kalapana and back into uninhabited land. The eruption would continue for many more years, occasionally creeping back across the boundary and causing more havoc, like in July 2010 when lava consumed a home in the Kalapana Gardens neighborhood that was only five years old at the time.
For years after the eruption, the inundated land lay almost completely vacant, looking like a scraggly moonscape of shiny cracked black rock. But some families chose to stay and live on the outskirts of the lavafield, building small off-grid structures and planting the vast stretches of desolate land with ti plants, young coconut palms, breadfruit, papaya trees and many other pioneer plants. Over the years, the Kalapana and Kaimu communities have revived, and have become a destination of sorts for the burgeoning Big Island cottage industry of “lava tourism”.
The recovery of the area is perhaps best exemplified by the main commercial hub of Kalapana known as “Uncle Robert’s” – an open-air market and music venue space at the very end of the road that hosts raucous Wednesday night parties featuring the beloved house band called the Kalapana Awa Band. Attached to the market space is a large parking lot where food trucks usually set up on busy days, with a convenience store at the far end called Kaimu Korner selling beer, groceries and pre-made food. Adjacent to the store is the House of Fire Gallery, an art studio and showroom featuring many, many pieces inspired by volcanoes, lava and the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele.
This entire complex, including the gallery and store, is simply known as “Uncle’s” among locals, named in honor of the beloved patriarch of old Kalapana Village, Robert Keli’iho’omalu. It is “Uncle Robert’s” children who run the day-to-day operations of the market these days, and several of his sons are members of the Kalapana Awa Band.
How to Get to Kaimu Black Sand Beach
To reach the parking lot and trailhead for the quarter-mile hike out to Kaimu Black Sand Beach, just use Highway 130 coming from the small East Hawaii hippie town of Pahoa and follow signs for Kalapana. Roughly ten miles outside of Pahoa along a road that gradually slopes downhill to the coast, a sign will appear that the highway is ending.
Here there will be a left turn lane, and taking this left will bring drivers to a “T” in the road after heading a few hundred more feet downhill past a roadside water filling station on the left. From this intersection, going right will take visitors another quarter-mile to the main market complex’s parking lot. At around 6:00pm or 7:00pm on Wednesday evenings during tourism’s high season, there will already be a long stretch of cars parked along the shoulder of this road leading down to Uncle Robert’s.
On every other day of the week, this intersection is usually deserted except for an occasional fruit seller, and parking spaces are plentiful both near the market and the convenience store out back.
From the main market parking lot, the trailhead leading to Kaimu Black Sand Beach is marked by a small sign leading up a rock staircase with a bulky stainless steel handrail, but it can be easy to miss. So, if you’re having some trouble finding where the trail to the beach starts, just ask around at the market, which features a restaurant and smoothie shack that are open every day but Sunday and run by friendly, laid-back locals who are usually happy to see any customers at all.
The best way for visitors to experience the whole Kalapana-Kaimu area in a single afternoon is to show up early on a sunny Wednesday around 3:00pm or 4:00pm, easily find parking in front of the market, pick up some drinks at Kaimu Korner, and then make their way to the trailhead and hike down to the beach to watch the waves crash.
Right at sunset, they can make their way back to the market area since the beach trail can be a bit hazardous to walk in the dark. Then find something that looks good for dinner from the many different food stalls serving up everything from potstickers to spring rolls to tacos to vegan cuisine. After one or two warm-up acts, the Kalapana Awa Band will take the stage and they will typically play until closing.