Many people, flying along the highway from Kona best places to visit in big sur california to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, dash through South Hawaii as quickly as possible to reach the park without realizing they are missing some of the best, and least visited, places in the whole state. This southern end of the island is where the Polynesians first landed and began their colonization of the Hawaiian Islands; it is home to the beaches where most o the endangered green sea turtles breed and lay their eggs in the main Hawaiian chain, and it is home to some of the most amazing history and awesome history anywhere in the world…let’s take a few minutes and explore some of the fabulous and fantastic things to see and do along the Hawaii Belt Road through South Hawaii.

Mauna Loa South Flank Land Slides
The flanks of the Hawai’ian volcanoes are unusually unstable because of their extreme youth, rapid growth and because the flows are very thin, discontinuous and are comprised of loosely stacked a’a lava, air-fall material, pahoehoe lava with the loose rubble that forms when the lava flows into the sea. Because of this instability, many extremely large landslides in the past have broken loose, and this is the reason for the steep topography on the lower southern flanks of Mauna Loa. The angle of repose of Hawaiian lava flows (how steeply the land must tilt to get the lava to flow) is roughly 6 degrees, and looking at the gentle slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, one sees that they come very close to this angle. Therefore, topography on the island that is steeper than about 6 degrees represents either faulting, erosion due to water movement or to landslides. One such twenty-mile long landslide, from about Mile 109 on Highway 11 to just north of Miloli’i, slid away about 120,000 years ago. One can see the scar from where the landslide broke loose along Kealakekua Bay and the precipitous cliffs that enfold the Captain Cook Monument as well as the steep hills of South Kona and northwest Ka’u. This landslide generated a tsunami wave of sufficient height to completely wash over the 1427-foot tall summit of Kaho’olawe and wash high up on the mountains of Lana’i. Coral rubble deposited by this tsunami can be found to this day on top of Kaho’olawe and at altitudes in excess of 1000 feet on Lana’i.

Old Mamalahoa Highway
A scenic stretch of the old Mamalahoa Highway between mileposts 88 and 86 offers a glimpse into what life in Old Hawai’i was like. This rough old road remnant rolls through macadamia orchard and wild countryside and is worth the detour. Driving this stretch of road, remember that to Island residents, the Hawai’i Belt Highway is relatively new; many people living in Hilo will tell you they haven’t been to Kona in 20 years or more because the road is just too hard to drive, you know they are remembering the old highway like this, as it used to be, not as it exists today.

Manuka State Park
An easy 1-2 hour stroll, a great place for a picnic or a break from driving The Belt Highway, Manuka State Natural Area Reserve and Manuka State Wayside Park lie between the 82 and 81 mile markers and offers the unique setting of both lush wet, and dry-land, forest. The arboretum around the parking lot was planted of native and trees first introduced during the 1930s to the 1950s. The hike, which circles through the forest to a pit crater, takes 1-2 hours and has well-marked nature points of interest along the way. The trail also winds over both newer and older lava flows, so it’s easy to see how the forest develops through stages as the lava ages and weathers. Although an easy walk, some of the footing is loose, so sturdy shoes should be worn; no water is available along the trail, so you should carry a quart per person. This also is a very pleasant place to observe some of Hawai’i’s unique forest birds at dawn and sunset. The cool, inviting and fragrant Wayside Park has ample parking, picnic tables, restrooms and water available. There is a small covered pavilion at which “by permit-only” camping is allowed.

Road To The Sea
Miles of empty, savage land, a pair of lovely green and black sand beaches, great fishing and a brilliant frolic in blue-green water-perhaps the most unique and spectacular spot in Ka’u, this is also one of its wildest and least visited. The wind, tide and currents here are also very strong…all in all, a raw, beautiful and elemental spot. A long, straight and lonely road takes off from Highway 11 between the 79 and 80 mile markers (look for the mailboxes) on six miles and forty-five minutes of bone jarring lava road straight from the highway to the sea to Kaupua’a Beach. Four-wheel drive is definitely a necessity on this road; if you are tempted to try this with a two-wheel drive vehicle, don’t. Swimming at the first beach is delectable during periods of calm water, but don’t go in if there is surf or surge or if there is a strong onshore breeze (onshore breezes cause riptides that pull you away from shore). There is an amazing, deep tide pool just to the north of the road. The second beach is larger and nicer; there are palm trees and some shade at this beach. There is excellent fishing from the cliffs above the Beach, and a heiau rests on the ridge above the beach. There is a beautiful, freshwater (not potable) pool for soaking in, or rinsing salt off, on the north end of the beach. Stay close to shore when swimming to avoid strong currents.

Hawai’ian Ocean View Estates (H.O.V.E.)
Check your gas gage, check your canteen, check your lunch box! Hawai’i Ocean View Estates is the last outpost of civilization for miles around. Hawai’ian Ocean View Estates is the world’s largest residential subdivision. As such, it lacks only three things: water, electrical power and, most importantly, residents. Built in the 1960s, ownership of the subdivision has passed from hand to hand, but lack of utilities has kept residence numbers low. Despite this, a hardy settlement has sprung up with a great sense of community, even though many residents rely strictly on catchment for water and personal generators for electricity. The climate in Ocean View is perfect year round, but there are no public beaches or cultural amenities, so it hasn’t flourished as a town. Ocean View boasts a few stores, restaurants, churches and a post office. Public restrooms are available below the Post Office.

Disaster of 1868/Kahuku Village
Ferocious earthquakes! Floods of glowing lava! Tsunamis swallowing hapless survivors! Between the 71 and 72 mile markers of Highway 11, just west of the South Point Turn-off, is the wild scene of a natural disaster the proportions of a Cecil B. DeMille film. The only remaining reminders of the disaster are the lava flow of 1868 exposed here, and the ruins of Kahuku Village which lie beneath it. Starting on March 27, 1868 and continuing for five relentless days, earthquakes shook the Ka’u region, including the worst earthquake recorded in Hawai’ian history, one of 7.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. Hundreds of landslides were loosed, cinder cones collapsed and small tsunamis continuously licked the Ka’u coastline. On the second of April, after a massive convulsion, a giant river of lava burst through from underneath, inundating everything in its path. A giant tsunami washed over the coastline, swallowing whole villages and canoe fleets, killing 46 people. Massive landslides flowed across the land, burying parts of Punalu’u and Ninole and ultimately killing 31 people.

South Point
This sweeping landscape arches openly and inviting from the tumultuous shore break at Ka Le to the icy heights of Mauna Kea’s summit almost 14,000 feet above. The farthest point south in the entire United States, South Point is haunting, windswept, wild, empty, beautiful. Although still only 1-lane wide in many places, the road to Ka Lae from the Hawai’i Belt Road has been greatly improved in recent years. The roads, beaches, boat launching facilities and parking are all free and on public land, contrary to what some signs and unsavory characters might try to tell you. Just don’t leave valuables in your car, and be sure to lock it up. The brooding and dilapidated wind turbines of the Kamaoa Wind Farm are along the road to Ka Lae. This wind farm, when all of the turbines are operating, can generate enough electricity to power 100 homes; unfortunately, usually 1/3 to ½ of the turbines are out of service at any given time. The surreal setting on the green plain with the cows grazing unconcernedly, coupled with the eerie, “sci-fi” sound of the generators makes this a unique place to stop, look and listen.

The waters at South Point are wild, crystalline turquoise and wicked. It is obvious from the surf and the currents that swimming is right out along most of this coastline. The only recommended snorkeling is at the Kaulana boat launch and at the green sand beach…and then it is recommended only in calm seas. But it is beautiful; perhaps as beautiful and wild a spot to snorkel as anywhere in Hawai’i.