Lava Highway 132, Hawaii’s newest lava field is found on Big Island’s eastern flank, in its rural and agricultural Puna District, and is traversed by a gently curving highway that was opened just a few years ago: Lava Highway 132.
This is a pristine broad-shouldered, two-lane road built on top of the vast sea of black rock left in the wake of the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption. It snakes down downhill through patches of spared agricultural land and long stretches of cracked, brittle-looking hills of hardened lava, the road itself a patchwork of old and new segments with their joints clearly noticeable by the different color and texture of the asphalt. Houses that were somehow miraculously untouched by the flow sit by the roadside; what was once a home on a country block is now a solitary structure lying in an island of untouched land with an endless rocky moonscape stretching out to the horizon in all directions.
The views from along the highway are a truly shocking, tragic and astonishing collection of sights to behold; the rusted metal skeleton of a barn sticking halfway out of a lava drift, mindbogglingly huge piles of dead, dried-out trees slowly being eaten away by the elements, the long-since-hardened bank of what was once a ferocious, rushing river of molten rock measuring in the thousands of degrees Fahrenheit now eerily still and quiet. This river was how the billions of gallons of lava spewing from the monstrous Fissure 8, now known by the Hawaiian name Ahuailaau (AH-HOO-EYE-LAW-OW), in the inland neighborhood of Leilani Estates managed to make its way downhill and almost completely destroy the small coastal town of Kapoho and much of its adjacent farmland.
Visitors making their way down Highway 132 today will drive through cross-sections of this riverbed, with its massive walls of cracked, jet-black rock that appear nearly vertical. Several pull-offs along the road allow for closer observations of the strange, curious and sometimes eerie-looking rock formations. All the different textures of lava are on display here: flat sections of hard, smooth, ropey lava known in Hawaiian as “pahoehoe” (PAH-HOY-HOY), bordered by drifts of porous, brittle and exceptionally sharp rock called “a’a” (AH-AH). The texture of the riverbed itself is peculiar: shards of crumpled, rippled rock that catch the sunlight and seem to glitter within the morass, appearing almost like a valley of black broken glass.
Beyond the channel’s far bank is the bright green canopy of a forest of trees growing at the edge of the flow field, which has regrown its foliage after a thorough dose of sulfuric gasses stemming from the eruption left its branches bare. Above the greenery, a baby blue sky full of puffy, cotton-candy clouds completes the tropical volcanic island color scheme: black rock, green jungle, blue sky.
Stunning views featuring all these colors, along with the wide belt of turquoise ocean on the horizon, can be found at many of the pull-offs along the Lava Highway, particularly near its western terminus less than a mile from Lava Tree State Park and Puna Geothermal Venture. From this vantage point, the road winds gently downhill through vast stretches of new, largely flat lavafield, which affords onlookers an unencumbered view for several miles.
It can be tempting to trudge up the bank of mounded boulders beside the road at this point to get an even better view, but be extremely careful: much of the 2018 flow field beyond the rebuilt highway roadbed is still very unstable, and countless undersurface voids such as lava tubes and sinkholes have been encountered by geologists studying the area. These voids can be large enough to swallow a car, and can still be dangerously hot even half a decade since all surface lava has hardened.
During East Hawaii’s rainy season, huge white billowing clouds of steam can still be spotted drifting over the lower stretches of Highway 132, indicating that even years later there’s still enough residual heat deep underground to boil rainwater. To this day, during particularly heavy rainstorms, County of Hawaii roadworkers sometimes have to close the highway completely due to low visibility from the billowing clouds drifting across the lanes.
The Meaning Of “Kipuka”
In Hawaiian, the word “kipuka” (KEE-POO-KAH) refers to an island of untouched land surrounded by lavafield on every side. The 2018 Lower Puna Eruption created countless kipuka as pioneering lobes of lava coming from the two-dozen fissures cropping up in Leilani Estates criss-crossed each other, destroying miles of roads and creating an intricate checkerboard landscape of intact farmland and still-standing structures surrounded by lava drifts. The homes within these islands were inaccessible – some of them still isolated even several years after the eruption – due to road loss.
The largest of these kipuka to form was known as the “Highway 132 Kipuka,” which was comprised of approximately 56 properties and 70 residential structures that were spared from destruction. Much of this was agricultural land, with expansive fields of papayas stretching away from the highway in both directions and small groupings of homestead lots, most of which utilized off-grid solar electric and rain catchment water systems. Almost all of the farmland within the kipuka became overgrown during the year-and-a-half when road access was impossible to the cutoff but still-intact section of highway.
The County of Hawaii government recognized the need to reopen the road and reestablish access to the dozens of surviving properties early on, making it a top priority during planning sessions of eruption recovery work. In early June, 2019, the first bulldozers began the task of clearing more than three miles of covered roadway on either side of the Highway 132 Kipuka. This was made up of two nearly identical-length sections: one from just beyond Lava Tree State Park to the kipuka’s western edge, and the other from its eastern edge down to the former town of Kapoho and the area once called “Four Corners”.
Contractors building the road sections worked quickly, navigating hundred-foot-thick lava hills, lava tubes and other dangerous voids that threatened to gobble up machines and workers, and even pockets of astoundingly high heat. Some of the crews had to pause construction for a time after coming upon 800-degree rocks that would warp bucket blades and melt the machines’ hydraulic hoses. The road was finally opened in late-November 2019 to the relief of dozens of Puna District residents, who slowly trickled back to their former homes and began the often daunting task of reestablishing their lives.
These East Hawaii residents are accustomed to living with a volcano in their backyard, and have time and again shown a palpable resilience, stubbornness and plain grit in the face of so much disaster. Visitors to the area notice this shared quality among the locals almost immediately, and it’s easy to spot while driving along the new highway; the clusters of young coconut palms, ti plants and ornamental shrubs planted by undaunted hands along the stretches of otherwise barren, monochrome landscape.
How To Get There
Lower Puna District’s Lava Highway 132 can be accessed via the small hippie town of Pahoa roughly 10 miles south of Hilo, Big Island’s largest city and home to one of its two main airports, Hilo International Airport (ITO). From the town of Pahoa, continue straight through the traffic light at the far edge of town and follow along the windy, jungle-lined road past the neighborhood of Nanawale Estates, and past the painted wooden sign on the left for Lava Tree State Park and its collection of curious, naturally formed lava monuments.
Less than a quarter-mile past the entrance to the park, the sides of the highway abruptly go from towering dark green jungle to swaths of cracked black rock. This is the beginning of the Lava Highway, which swoops downhill for several more miles before coming to a stop sign at the very bottom of the hill. The most interesting lava formations are arguably along the highway’s upper portion, but its lower lengths are where steam clouds are most prolific after rainstorms, and where heat can still be felt emanating from holes in the rock.
At the far end of the highway, just beyond the stop sign, is a makeshift parking lot with some excellent views of the rocky, deserted coastline and far-off Kumukahi Lighthouse, which has been long-defunct. From this parking area, either continue back up the hill toward Lava Tree Park or take the left turn onto Government Beach Road – a route leading to the naturally formed tidal pools known as Mermaid Ponds. This jungly, sometimes narrow road goes on for roughly six miles until intersecting the neighborhood of Hawaiian Beaches, which is only a few miles down the main arterial Kahakai Boulevard from Pahoa, creating a full loop.