Few places on Big Island have been changed by its recent volcanic activity quite as much as Pohoiki Beach, which until a few years ago wasn’t a beach at all.
What is today a long stretch of raw, isolated oceanfront land – a gently-sloping shoreline of smooth lava rocks mixed with finely pulverized black sand – was once a picturesque bay fringed with coconut palms and frequented by swimmers, surfers, boaters and boogie boarders of every stripe. Back then the place was known as “Pohoiki Bay” (POE-HOE-EE-KEY), and boasted the only viable surf breaks along Puna District’s entire Kalapana Coast – an otherwise rocky and unforgiving swath of the island’s windward side with very few safe swimming spots.
Old Pohoiki featured a formidable concrete boat ramp that sloped down to the water’s edge, delivering swimmers, surfers and boaters into a miniature manmade inlet of protected ocean, made possible by the giant pier of stacked lava boulders and cement blocks that look like reused WW2 tank traps. This breakwater used to jut out into the bay, protecting the boat ramp and creating a shallow, placid swimming area that was immensely popular with kids. Lava tour boats would launch and haul out from here, and it was a truly spectacular sight to see a bustling throng of swimmers part down the middle to let the boats go through, all beside the many warning signs posted on the pier saying “No Swimming”.
These concrete structures are still there at Pohoiki, but are thoroughly surrounded by (and in places covered in) giant drifts of black sand and crushed lava stones created during the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption. The arrival of all this new material extended the coastline out to sea several hundred feet, and created expansive, hilly tracts of jet black gravel that seem highly unstable in some places. Now the boat ramp leads to nowhere; walls of lava rock enclose it in a stagnant, sometimes sickly green looking lagoon. This uninviting green hue contrasts sharply with the crystal-blue waves breaking across the beach, which mellow out enough on calm days for swimmers to ply the waters close to shore.
Favorable conditions at Pohoiki are rare, though, and getting in the water here can be extremely hazardous, and a non-starter for those who aren’t strong swimmers. This is obviated by the well-outfitted lifeguard crew making use of four-wheelers, life rings and multiple observation posts. Since the beach is so new, locals haven’t had time to familiarize themselves with safer areas, and much of its underwater structure is constantly shifting and rearranging with the swelling surf and stormwater runoff.
Many visitors to the beach decide to stay out of the water, opting instead to explore the many nooks and crannies along the coast and get a first-hand look at how dramatically lava flows can change a place. Some are shocked to see just how close Pohoiki came in 2018 to complete destruction; the wall of jagged lava rock making up the beach’s new northern boundary nearly encircles the parking lot.
Considering that the flow had advanced south along the coast many miles at this point, destroying many other well-loved swimming spots like Kapoho Tidepools and Ahalanui Beach Park, it is nothing short of a miracle that somehow the wall of destruction stopped just a stone’s throw from the beach’s only access road. Had the fury of the eruption kept up for just a few more days, and had a few more million gallons of lava come crashing down the hill from Leilani, and it’s highly likely that Pohoiki today would be but a cherished memory.
Creating Black Sand With Fire And Water
The scale of the 2018 eruption was mindbogglingly, starting with the cropping up of two-dozen volcanic fissures in the neighborhood of Leilani Estates, which went on to feed a miles-long lava river that steamrolled downhill to the coast and completely destroyed the quiet, affluent seaside village of Kapoho.
It destroyed hundreds of homes, consumed miles of public roads, severed electricity and water lines and forced thousands of Lower Puna residents to evacuate, at an estimated cost of recovery of 800 million dollars. The flow also created nearly 900 acres of new land along Big Island’s eastern coastline, in a swath of barren lavafield that stretches from Kumukahi Lighthouse in the north to the very edge of Pohoiki Beach in the south.
At its height, the main fissure in Leilani feeding the river was pumping out tens of thousands of gallons of lava per second, which made its long, looping journey down to the ocean. Once the molten rock entered the cool seawater, it exploded; this is thanks to a strange phenomenon where lava – measuring in the thousands of degrees Fahrenheit – rapidly cools and fractures in the water, creating trillions of tiny particles that wash back to shore as beach sand. This phenomenon is what filled in Pohoiki Bay and created the isolated, rocky beach that still manages to draw a crowd.
How To Get There
Back in the day, the trip to Pohoiki Bay was an easy one – it could be accessed from three directions, and via a nearly straight shot from the town of Pahoa. Getting to Pohoiki Beach now is a bit more complicated, though, thanks to the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption destroying large sections of highway that have yet to be rebuilt.
Both the Highway 137 north and Pohoiki Road routes are no longer viable, leaving the only access to the beach via Highway 137 south, otherwise known as “Red Road”. This way takes visitors through the tiny fishing village of Opihikao and past its prominent church, which is an easy-to-spot landmark. Just a few miles past the village is a hand-carved wooden sign on the right side of the road for MacKenzie State Park – a sprawling forest of ironwood trees and tall, scraggly sea cliffs great for hiking and wave-watching.
For awhile the park was the end of the road, as several pioneering lobes of lava from the eruption had crossed Highway 137 north of there and completely cut off Pohoiki. Several months after the volcano became dormant again, County of Hawaii bulldozers were hard at work clearing those overrun sections and building a series of steep temporary gravel roads in order to regain access. Crossing these rugged, rocky patches between stretches of asphalt is still to this day the only way to reach Pohoiki Beach.
There are two ways to get to the village of Opihikao from the main lower Puna District town of Pahoa. Both begin on Highway 130 following signs for the village of Kalapana. Roughly three miles outside of Pahoa is a left-hand turn for Kamaili Road – a steep and winding route that meanders down the hill, snaking past livestock pasture, homestead farms and towering green jungle. This is the shorter of the two routes, but is incredibly steep in some spots and demands alert and cautious driving, especially in rainy conditions and low visibility.
The longer route involves staying straight at the turn for Kamaili Road and continuing along Highway