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Hawaii Road Trip: The Enchanted Red Road in Puna on the Big Island

This author lives near the New Kaimu Black Sand Beach and enjoys hiking there with his partner to catch the famous Puna sunset.

A magical tree tunnel to drive under!

A magical tree tunnel to drive under!

About Red Road in Hawaii

The Kapoho Kalapana Road, also known as the Red Road, travels 15 miles along the coastline of the lower Puna district on the Big Island. It is one of the most scenic roads in the state of Hawaii. Yet only a few visitors have discovered it. Located in a remote and sparsely populated area (southeast of Pahoa village), this road takes you through some of the most spectacular scenery reminiscent of the old Hawaii of yesteryear. It used to be paved with red cinder gravels, now it is paved with black asphalt, but local residents still affectionately call it the Red Road. The road follows the rugged coastline; sometimes it curves so closely to the edge of the cliff that you could see the crashing waves below, while at other times it burrows through a dense tree tunnel where dangling jungle vines would touch the roof of your car! The road takes you through rocky lava fields, lush coconut groves, tropical rainforests, old plantations, black sand beaches (one is a very popular surfing spot), peaceful oceanside parks, and a few quaint residential neighborhoods. This winding one-lane road is barely wide enough for cars to pass each other. Look for colorful patches of wild impatiens along the roadside and whimsical wind-sculpted trees that remind you of a Tolkien fantasy novel! You may also encounter a few fishermen fishing by the surf's edge or an artist painting under the shade of a mango tree or if you’re really lucky, a hula halau practicing en plein air at a roadside park where dancers dance to some beautiful and timeless Hawaiian love songs.

Rainbow over the Red Road.

Rainbow over the Red Road.

The road curves (sometime very close!) along ocean cliffs.

The road curves (sometime very close!) along ocean cliffs.

You can almost hear the lush jungle growing!

You can almost hear the lush jungle growing!

To Get There

Take Hwy 130 all the way down to the lower Puna coastline. At the intersection of Hwy 137, turn left and enjoy the scenic Red Road for the next 11 miles or so, until you reach Isaac Hale Park. Beyond this park, unfortunately, the road is buried under a massive field of cooling lava from Kilauea volcanic eruption in May-Aug 2018. Many famous landmarks along this part of the road, including the beloved Ahalanui Warm Pond, Green Lake, and Kapoho Tidepools (snorkeling) have been completely destroyed by lava.

Before the eruption, you can also reach the Red Road by taking Hwy 132 from Pahoa. This road is now open only the first few miles, the rest is impassable, completely blocked by a great wall of lava!

A scenic spot on the Red Road.

A scenic spot on the Red Road.

Driving Tips

  • Best time to see the Red Road is during the week when you might be the only driver on the road. Avoid weekends and holidays.
  • Rent a convertible, drive with the top down, put on some Hawaiian music and pretend you were Elvis in the 1961 movie "Blue Hawaii".
  • Drive slow, it’s a narrow and winding road. If another car wants to pass (from behind or in opposite direction), pull your car over to the side to yield.
  • Pack a lunch. There are many spots along the road where you can stop and have a picnic with a breathtaking view! Look for dolphins and sea turtles in the water or maybe a rainbow in the sky.
  • Look also for self-serve fruit stands by the roadside to buy fresh delicious avocado, papaya, mango, or banana.
  • No hotel or gas station along the road (and no cell phone service either!) so fill up your car and get food/water in Pahoa village before heading down to the coastline.
  • Bring your camera and a good pair of binoculars.
hidden-hawaii-wild-and-scenic-puna-coast-on-the-big-island
hidden-hawaii-wild-and-scenic-puna-coast-on-the-big-island
Many sections of the road are shaded by tree tunnels.

Many sections of the road are shaded by tree tunnels.

Relax and Enjoy The Red Road

Whether you visit the Red Road in the morning, afternoon, or at night, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience.

If you're on the Red Road early in the morning, you will catch the dramatic sunrise on the makai (towards the sea) side as the sun comes up from under the blue ocean. It’s also the best time to spot spinner dolphins frolicking in some calm shallow coves. In late afternoon, as the sun sinks behind the rainforest on the mauka (towards the mountain) side, you will get to witness a magical light show: golden rays of sunlight, highlighted by sea spray mist, radiating all over the road through tree branches.

Old church on roadside.

Old church on roadside.

Another scenic lookout along the road.

Another scenic lookout along the road.

Driving on the Red Road after sunset is a whole different experience, especially if it is a wet rainy night! It could get quite spooky and dangerous driving in pitch-black darkness. The high beams on your car won’t help much because you still cannot see very far ahead due to the winding curves. It is not recommended for visitors to drive on the Red Road after dark. Even local residents stay off it. There are also plenty of legends about ancient spirits or "night marchers" who roam the Red Road at night.

Surfers walk to Pohoiki Beach Park.

Surfers walk to Pohoiki Beach Park.

Under a Full Moon

However, if there is a full moon, the Red Road can take on a charming and nostalgic look. The gleaming ocean surface reflects the bright moon on the sky. The surf pounding against the rocky shoreline becomes so intensely white. Night fishermen gather around a campfire, playing their ukulele and sharing "talk story". You might see a pueo flies across the road. Pueo is considered to be a sacred guardian in Hawaiian culture, so feel safe and blessed if you see one. As you drive along, listen to the chirping sound of coqui frogs everywhere. Listen carefully, you might also hear the soulful singing of a humpback whale echoing through the night under the moonlight. Humpback whales come to the warm waters of Hawaii during the winter months to give birth and breed. You can see and hear them from the Red Road even at night.

View from Red Road toward Kalapana where the lava flows into the ocean.

View from Red Road toward Kalapana where the lava flows into the ocean.

Warm Aloha

When you visit the Red Road on the Big Island, or travel to any islands on your Hawaii vacation, please always be respectful to the kama'aina (local people) and the aina (land).

Drive off into the sunset.

Drive off into the sunset.

Questions & Answers

Question: is the Kilauea volcano's lava flow close by to Red Road?

Answer: Lava from current Kilauea volcano eruption has crossed and covered parts of the Red Road (under 30-40 feet of lava) as of May 20. More lava flows continue to head toward the coastline, threaten to cover more sections of the Red Road.

Question: Is Alahanui Park safe to visit? I am hoping it will survive.

Answer: As of today, May 31, 2018, more lava flows are heading toward the coastline, threaten to cover more sections of the Red Road and surrounding area. Alahanui warm pond park is ok for now, but this could change tomorrow or next few days.

Question: Would it be safe to bike on the Red Road January/February?

Answer: I don't recommend biking on the Red Road at ANYTIME! It's too narrow, has too many blind curves and no shoulder on either side. Parts of the road are just a single lane, barely wide enough for one car to drive through. Traffic has been increased (including tour buses) on this little road, unfortunately! Drivers can be distracted easily by the scenery and don't see a biker only a few inches away from their cars! Bike at your own risk if you must.

© 2011 Viet Doan