Visit the Puna District on the Big Island of Hawaii
This comprehensive guide to the Puna District on the Big Island of Hawaii shows you all the best of travel and lifestyle in the area with the cities of Keaau and Pahoa as the hub centers to this vast area of East Hawaii. The lands around the Puna district consist primarily of wild and lush forests, agriculture farmlands and growing subdivisions that is making Puna the fastest growing area in the entire state of Hawaii. Why do you ask, probably because real estate for raw land or resale homes are the most affordable here in all of the districts in Hawaii at the moment.
Overview of the Puna District
The area of Puna covers over 320,000 acres which is equivalent to around 500 square miles. This is almost comparable to the landmass of Kauai alone. You’ll notice all the wild vegetation amid farms and then major subdivisions like Hawaiian Paradise Park, Orchidland, Hawaiian Beaches, Ainaloa and so on until your reach the coastline.
The lush nature, expansive and quiet, winding old roads on the coastline, tree tunnels and secret coves and beaches makes Puna so attractive to back packers, bohemians, health addicts and adventure seekers that want to see unspoiled and as natural as you can experience Hawaii to be on the east side of the island.
But the Puna district also covers a vast area of land in the upland areas of the district leading towards towards the Volcano area and national park and that includes areas at Mountain View, Hawaiian Acres, Kurtistown, Volcano Village, Eden Roc and Fern Forest. Here, locals love the cooler and more open areas of the Puna district and up country all the way to Volcano Village.
History of the Puna District
The land around the Puna district is always evolving and changing with lava eruptions, developments in population centers and growth in the many subdivisions around Puna because of affordable prices. But this also comes as a risk as the district is volatile with earthquakes and even lava intrusions as early as the 2018 Lerz eruption that created drastic effects to the region and devasted many subdivisions, attractions and favorite places for locals and visitors to enjoy on the east side. The Puna district captured the attention of the world with this lava eruption that devastated the entire region and destroyed hundreds of homes, landmarks and beautiful places that will take a long time to heal and turn into lush areas again.
The result of all these changes has enticed visitors to explore the area and also people from around the country to move and live in the Puna district. Despite all the challenges and infrastructure needs in this large area, Puna still maintains that quality of old Hawaii and Aloha that permeates the entire district and is so attractive to see.
Check out my video highlight tour visiting the Puna district
Top things to explore in the Puna district
In the heart of Puna, Pahoa is funky and old town combined with new shopping centers and conveniences. This juxtaposition of old vs new works for the downtown district with its collection of quirky shops, vintage stores and amazing restaurants and two shopping areas that focus primarily on shopping needs and fast-food take-out choices.
The old town of Pahoa is still charming with its colorful buildings and western style downtown area to explore and find a nice meal to enjoy locally made foods from the area. The newer parts of the town at Malama Market area and the New Puna Kai shopping center have that Hawaiian western motif architecture but still focus on daily needs like gyms, banks, grocery stores and dining.
The Red Road (Kapoho-Kalapana Road)
One of the most scenic areas of the Puna coastline, the locals favorite named “Red Road” is actually the Kapoho – Kalapana Road and was entirely of red asphalt and one lane back in the days. Even though the road is paved black nowadays, it still is stunning with winding roads and tree tunnels, hidden beaches and coves and stunning views of the coastline that you want to stop at every bend to take a photograph so you can capture all the moments of driving down this gorgeous road. Popular places to stop on the Red Road include Kaimu and Uncle Robert’s, Kahena black sand beach, Seaview lawn area (for whale watching and picnics), Secret Beach and Malama Keys, MacKenzie State Park and Pohoiki Black sand Beach.
This sweet primitive and Hawaiian styled folklore hand painted church was moved from its present spot and saved from the lava eruptions that devastated the entire village close by in 1990. Officially name the Star of the Sea Painted Church, the church sits majestic and surrounded by some beautiful tropical plants and flowers. When you tour the inside, you’ll see some of the lovely primitive style hand painted details on the walls and altar along with some stained-glass panels of the Saints of Hawaii, Father Damian and Sister Marianne of Molokai.
Kaimu and Uncle Roberts
The Kaimu area has a new black sand beach developing from recent eruptions to the area that is constantly shifting sands into the bay area. Most of the beautiful black sand beach is accessible through a small cliff and if there are rough waves and undertow developing, it is not advisable to try to enter the beach, but you can hike around the areas and cliffs with gorgeous views. This is a fantastic spot to enjoy sunrise with hardly anyone one else on the beach.
Close to Kaimu at the end of the block is Uncle Roberts, a Kava and bar that used to host Wednesday night farmers markets but now just hosts a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings that are busy and fun to explore. You can drop by Uncle Roberts daily for a drink and some impromptu musicians performing on the stage some nights.
Alternative beach scene at Kehena Beach
Kehena Beach on the Puna coastline is a popular local beach and alternative lifestyles with clothing optional on the beach. Secluded by small cliffs you have to climb down to, the black sand beach is striking and if you are okay with clothing optional on the beach then this is the place to hang out with people of like mind.
Kalapana in Puna
One of the most scenic parts of the Puna coast with a legendary black sand beach and Queen’s bath, the devasted area of Kalapana that was overrun by lava eruptions in the area and down to the sea and buried the town and homesteads under 50 feet of lava. What you see now is mostly large acreage of exposed black lava hills and jagged outcrops from the top of the eruption in the mountains all the way down to the ocean. But with the advent of very cheap real estate and no infrastructure, many locals and others moved back to build a very simple lifestyle collecting water on their roof for use, building their own sewage needs and living off grid with solar panels. It’s a fascinating place to visit and see how people live simply and off grid in this new and revived part of Kalapana.
Before the lava eruption of 2018, this popular surf spot, boat launch and swimming hole area at Pohoiki was a popular gathering spot and family friendly play area off the boat ramp on the east side. With the devastation to a large part of the park and covering the boat ramp with thousands of acres of new black sand, the new black sand beach at Pohoiki is now a popular spot to relax on the beach and check out some of the hot ponds in the area to soak in. Even though there are lifeguard stations on the beach, the waves and undertow are heavy most times that swimming is not always advisable. But you can enjoy a nice large beach to walk through and check out the devastating lava flow on the far-left side of the beach as a reminder of the devastation of the 2018 Lerz Eruption to the Puna District.
The other newly formed beach on the other side of Pohoiki Back sand beach is this one in Kapoho with no official name. There are no facilities, lifeguards and water here, plus you have to hike about an hour to get to this gorgeous beach. That’s what makes it enticing that few are willing to hike to this off the beaten path beach in the Puna district.
Lava Tree State park and monument
Just outside of Pahoa town on the Pahoa – Pohoiki Road is Lava Trees State Park and very unusual place with trees that were buried with lava and creating these strange looking lava molds of the tree stumps around the landscape. You can explore the area and take a .7mile loop trail through lush forests and tropical plants and enjoy this quiet and wild space. It’s a fantastic space to see the natural work of lava left into these vertical molds of the ohia trunks that grew there and are still growing around the park.
Government Beach road loop to a new Kapoho black sand beach
This scenic loop road travels along the coastline and connects to the new Pahoa-Kapoho Road back into Goverment Beach Road through a lush coastal area. Even though the road is newly paved it still feels very old with the windy roads, gorgeous coastlines and huge mango trees that you’ll find along with lush jungle areas. There are many other sweet local spots to visit here including the Mermaid Ponds, Black Sand dunes and the nurseries and tropical fruit stands at Papaya Farms Road, but you’ll have to ask locals about how to get there since that’s just how the locals like it.
The new black sand beach around the light house and Kapoho actually has no name to it yet and the hour hike to get there makes this still an unknown beach to even locals in the area.
The Maku’u Farmers Market lively and fun to experience every Sunday (except for extreme weather conditions) just west of Pahoa town, entrance and parking to the market is free for the time being and is a fun way to shop, buy local produce and some delicious food prepared by vendors creating some delicious local sweets and breads and an international flavor of food choices. In addition to the wonderful foods, you can find some good souvenirs and take-aways from hand crafted goods, local goat cheese, honey, macadamia nuts, jams, chocolates to a whole list of locally made and delicious foods you can purchase for gifts or your own consumption.
The Market is open from 8am to 2pm on Sundays and parking is $2 per car. No pets/dogs are allowed except for service guide dogs.
**Masks and social distancing is mandatory at the Maku’u farmers market
This state park of mostly 13 acres is both haunting and gorgeous with sheer cliffs that protect the rugged coastline and huge surf swells that create a spectacular display ocean and raw power of waves pounding the coastline and surrounding cliffs. Exploring the cliff areas is fun along with the jungle areas and hidden caves at Mackenzie or visiting for a fantastic sunrise experience here on the Puna Coast.
Hiking venues in Puna
There are a few short and easy hiking places to explore the gorgeous Puna coastlines, forests and unique areas of the district below.
Botanical garden and hike around Lava Tree State Park
Hike the Kings road and cliffsides at MacKenzie State Park
Explore and hike the new Kapoho black sand beach
Visiting the devastated areas of new lava eruptions to the Puna District
With large fields of Lava left from the Lerz Eruptions in Puna in 2018, you’ll find some areas are accessible from the new roads that you can travel including Pohoiki beach and through the gravel roads set directly on the newly formed lava beds and also the paved loop road of the Pahoa-Pohoiki road from downtown Pahoa around the coastal areas into the Hawaiian Shores/Beach area.
Off beaten path Beaches and coves of the Puna District
There are several hidden beaches and coves along the Kalapana – Pohoiki road to stop and enjoy the water safely or at least with some public access. The most popular places to visit are Kaimu Black sand, Kahena Beach and Pohoiki Beach areas. Not as well known are secret beach, Malama ponds and so many of the smaller coves with tiny play beaches perfect for families. You’ll have to ask a local or drive some of these places slowly to see what is safe and doable, because that’s just how the locals like it here in Puna.
Keaau town on Highway 11
The little town of Keaau off Highway 11 is mostly used for conveniences with the Keaau shopping center, fast food stores, coffee shops and gas stations in the town center area. There is also a small farmers market located by the MacDonalds and behind the Shell gas station. Other things to note in the area is the Puna Honwanji and the newer Longs Drugs store that services the Puna district which this one large drug store.
Places to visit along the Highway 11 corridor to Volcano
Along the Highway 11 corridor are smaller communities including Kurtistown and Mountain View with small convenience stores, gas stations and eateries along the way. Popular places to visit on this route includes:
The Hilo Coffee mill – A coffee and tea plantation
Farmers market at The Mill – happens every Saturday from
Akatsuka’s Orchid Nursery – a fanastic nursery you can visit for the many different types of local cattleyas, dendrobiums, Phaps and other species of orchids you can visit on a self tour.
Volcano Village – the village is where most of the accommodations, restaurants and conveniences are for the National Park, there’s a lot of cool hikes, art galleries, golfing and other attractions to visit in the village.
Volcanoes National Park – The main attraction to visit in East Hawaii to view the active lava eruptions at the main caldera called Kilauea. Volcanoes National Park is located in the Kau district and is distinct as a Unesco World Heritage site and also a USA National Park. Seeing the lava eruptions at Volcanoes National Park is a life in a lifetime experience to see nature coming into full view especially at night is amazing experience to do in the park.
Other details to visiting the Puna district
Little Fire Ants
They are everywhere on the trees, shrubs and jungles of Puna and are so minute that you cannot see these fire ants. A word to the wise is not to climb trees, shake the plants for fruit to get off the trees or be in the vicinity of any dense plantings or you may get some nasty and unexpected bites that are extremely itchy and painful
Weather in Puna
The weather in the Puna district ranges depending on your location from sea level up to the mountain areas at over 1000-foot elevations to the district. Weather is always variable but the rule of thumb is that along the coastal areas it is more sunny and cloudy and cold conditions in the upper areas of the district. But this changes daily with ongoing weather patterns and it’s always advisable to bring layers or umbrellas if you are visiting the area. Also bring sunscreen and insect repellant to the more exposed to forested areas of Puna that you visit.
Seeing the aftermath of the Lava Eruptions in Puna
There are many areas along the Kalapana – Pohoiki road and also the Pahoa – Pohoiki road where you will be passing through newly formed lava fields. You can also drive to Pahoa to check out the Pahoa Lava Zone museum for education and stuff collected from the lava eruptions. Visiting the actual areas of devastation in subdivisions like Leilani and still very raw and emotional that touches at the heart of locals and they do not like the intrusions to their privacy and neighborhoods to be invaded with tourists wanting to see the lava fields started in the area.
Culture and off limit areas
There are still a lot of areas that are cultural sites and very sensitive areas to locals in the area. When you see signs that say stay out or Kapu, that means stay out because locals do not want you to intrude into their privacy or special places of gathering.
Where to eat in the Puna district
There are plenty of good dining options around the Puna district depending on what type of food you are interested in trying
Ning’s in Pahoa – fantastic traditional Thai food in a semi open area in the old town area serving fresh and delicious Thai cuisine
Kaleo’s – (Pahoa area) open air and inside dining room areas serving Pan Asian and innovative Hawaii style cuisine with live music
Loquins – (Pahoa area) Mexican food in a fun environment and large portioned sized meals
Island Natural Deli and Grocery – (Pahoa area) take out deli counter with organic salads and other vegan offerings perfect for picnic food
Tin Shack Bakery – (Pahoa area) A healthy food alternative with delicious baked goods, sandwiches and breakfast meals
Pahoa Fresh Fish – at the Malama market area with delicious local fried fish and chips
Coco Cantina – (Pahoa area) at the Puna Kai Center with typical and authentic Mexican fare
Thep Thai – (Pahoa area) at the Puna Kai Center with innovative Asian style foods along with traditional Thai specialty dishes
Pho 19 – (Pahoa area) Across from the 7/11 with authentic Pho, appetizers and over rice plates that are hearty and delicious
Paolo’s Bistro – (Pahoa area) Authentic Italian food from Liguria region, authentic and hearty
Dining in the Volcano area
Kilauea Lodge – (Volcano Village) European inspired with fresh Hawaiian ingredients
Cafe Ono – (Volcano Village) locally grown and organic fresh salads, sandwich and lunch fare
Ohelo Cafe – (Volcano Village) Hawaiian, Italian, pizza and fusion style
Aunty Pon’s Thai food truck – (Volcano Village) cheap delicious and fast Thai food at the community center.
Where to stay in Puna
Most of the places to stay in the area are in Volcano area or down in Hilo, towards Pahoa and the coastline most of the accommodations area with small Bnbs, Air Bnb and VRBO which you can rent out rooms or whole homes from both sites.
In Pahoa area
There are small inns and mom and pop cottages in Pahoa and you can check these TripAdvisor reviews here for the best rates and availability in the area.
You can check places to stay on the VRBO site here for more listings of private homes and rooms to let in the Pahoa to Kahena area of Puna.
Or Check with Air Bnb listings here for more properties or rooms you can stay in the area.
In the Volcano area of Puna
There are smaller inns and Bnb style places to stay in Volcano, check the best reviews here with current prices and availability on Trip Advisor.
Conclusion on Visiting the Puna District
You’ll love exploring the Old town district of Hilo and the surrounding attractions and fun places just outside. Stay in Puna as your base and enjoy some of the fun things to do in the Puna district to be easy and fun in this unique and colorful district of East Hawaii
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