Hawaii Road Trip: The Enchanted Red Road in Puna on the Big Island
Multiple lava flows from the ongoing Kilauea volcano eruption have covered parts of this road on May 20, 2018. The entire Red Road is now inaccessible and unsafe for sightseeing. (Updated as of May 29, 2018)
Wild and Scenic Red Road
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 close to the edge of the cliff that you could see the crashing waves below, sometimes 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.
To Get There
From Pahoa village, head east on Hwy 132 (Kapoho Road), follow the curve to the left, drive about 8 miles to a four-way intersection. Turn right onto Hwy 137 (Kapoho Kalapana Road) and start the 15-mile scenic drive. At the end of the road in Kalapana, head north on Hwy 130 and drive 10 miles back to Pahoa village.
- 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 may be 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
About This Article
This is the author's first article. He lives on the Red Road and is thrilled to share its beauty with you. He has spotted several Elvis driving on this road recently! All photos were taken with a Samsung Digimax 301 3.2MP Digital Camera.
© 2011 Viet Doan