Road Tripping Hawaii: The Volcanic Wonders of the Big Island

The Big Island—the largest (and youngest) member of the Hawaiian archipelago—is a choose-your-own-adventure road trip through moonscape deserts, lush jungles, basaltic lava fields, tropical beaches and emerald valleys.

It’s a dynamic, ever-changing land, flipping between the beautiful and the barren at almost every turn. And whichever road you take here, you’re bound to arrive at the same the conclusion: the Big Island owes its diversity, let alone its very existence, to its beating volcanic heart.

Volcanoes and lava tubes

Forged by volcanic activity and still in its infancy, the Big Island is nothing else but an island-in-progress. Its most recognisable volcanic features are its five shield volcanoes—Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualālai and Kohala—each playing a vital role in shaping its geographical profile. Splintering off these volcanoes underground are arteries of lava tubes: the hollowed out remains of magma rivers that once flowed here. Kazumura Cave is the longest—and deepest—lava tube system in the world, tunnelling 1101m into the ground and running for 65km from the eastern slope of Kilauea all the way to southern coast.

Beaches and valleys

The Big Island’s volcanic character is also reflected in its black sand beaches. Ringed by coconut palms and remnants of an ancient lava flow, Punalu'u Beach on the south coast is one of the more popular ones, visited by both tourists and locals—including hundreds of endangered hawksbill and green turtles. Nearby Papakolea Beach gets its distinctive green sand from the island’s volcanic composition too, due to the high levels of olivine found in lava. Up in the northeast, the verdant amphitheatre of Waipi‘o Valley flaunts a patchwork of emeralds, limes and dark greens—taro plantations beneath the surrounding Kohala Mountains, themselves sliced by cascading waterfalls.

Coffee and crops

Besides taro, a staple of the Hawaiian diet for centuries, another crop colonises much of the Big Island’s 10,432sq km. And no, it’s not macadamia nuts or pineapples—although these crops thrive in this agricultural bounty, thanks to the island’s mineral-rich volcanic soil. Cultivated for nearly 200 years on the slopes of two volcanoes, Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the north and south Kona districts, Kona coffee is adored by connoisseurs all around the world for its medium body and rich, floral aromas. With countless farms in this western part of the island offering free tastings and tours of their coffee plantations, tasting the Big Island’s volcanic soul is literally priceless.