On Hawaii's Big Island, you won't find a 'hotter' hangout than Pahoa and Lava Tree State Monument.
If I told you that Pahoa was one of the hottest spots on earth, you'd probably think I was exaggerating or that I was describing a spot with a lot of buzz. But Pahoa, on Hawaii's Big Island, is indeed one of the world's hottest spots and it's all thanks to its neighbour, Kilauea Volcano.
Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and, as recently as 2014-2015, lava flows threatened to destroy part of the town of Pahoa and surrounding communities. Fortunately, the lava stopped just in the nick of time, but local residents were right to be wary. This region bears the scars - and the beauty - of centuries of volcanic power. From delicate wildflowers to the toughest "trees" you've ever seen, nearby Lava Tree State Monument is a captivating tribute to the prowess of mother nature.
In 1790, lava swept through the forest now known Lava Tree State Monument, just a few miles outside of where Pahoa now stands. The fast moving lava enveloped the trees and, when the molten lava made contact with the moist bark, it formed an instantaneous coating, casting a mold of hardened lava around the tree trunk.
When the initial surge of lava subsided and drained away, these molds of tree trunks remained standing. The centers of the 'trunks' are hollow from where the organic matter burned away. From a distance, lava trees resemble petrified, or fossilized, wood but they're really more like a ghosts, a lava imprint of something that once grew and lived on earth.
You'd expect lava trees to be the harsh, charcoal colour of hardened lava, but so much time has passed since this forest was created that the lava trees are now covered in moss and grasses and some even had new trees sprouting out of the top! After over 200 years, the earth is reclaiming the lava trees to provide nutrition and a steady base for new life.
With a little luck, you can spot lava trees at different spots around Hawaii, but a visit to Lava Tree State Monument is worth the trip to remote Pahoa. The paved nature trail (just over a kilometer long) takes you by several fine specimens and offers informative plaques to describe exactly what you're seeing. It really provides an excellent education about the ecosystem and history of the area.
It also gives you the opportunity not just to see the ancient "forest" of the lava trees, but also the very real, still living trees that make up part of Hawaii's rain forest. There are beautiful wildflowers, enormous ferns, colorful shrubs, and a wide variety of trees, some so massive that they have toppled under their own weight and reveal a gargantuan root system. Ryan was absolutely dwarfed by the tree above and it wasn't the biggest one we saw!
Finally, visiting Lava Tree State Monument gives you the opportunity to see neighbouring Pahoa and gain better insight about what life is like living by a lava belt. I used to think that someone would have to be crazy to live so close to such a destructive force! But spending some time in the park reminded me of how nature is always changing and evolving and that there are some beautiful benefits to living in Kilauea's shadow, from the gorgeous plant life that can only come from volcanic soil to gaining an appreciation of living in the moment.
Lava Tree State Monument was one of our favourite experiences around Pahoa and we highly recommend it to other travelers. A visit takes about an hour and the paved nature trail is generally very flat, with one or two modest hills near the end. Like all state parks in Hawaii, admission and parking is free and there are basic bathroom facilities and picnic shelters on site. If you haven't packed your own picnic to enjoy in the park, here are some of our favourite foodie spots in Pahoa.
Our picks for where to eat and drink in Pahoa.
Sirius Coffee (15-2874 Pahoa Village Rd) is a one stop shop for everything that makes me happy when I travel. It's a small (okay, it's absolutely tiny) coffee shop and internet cafe. You'll find espresso based drinks and standard coffees all made from locally grown beans, as well as cafe standards like smoothies and tea and baked goods. The lattes really are impeccable, absolutely superb, and you'll get friendly service from the staff. Other bonuses include a little 'library' where you can pick up a new book (or lighten your pack and donate one you just finished), as well as its location on the main drag, with a laundromat just behind the neighbouring building.
If you're used to road tripping through mainland North America and stocking up on cheap caffeine at truck stops, you might have a little sticker shock here. But the prices are fair - you're in a remote area and this is an independent small business serving only locally grown and roasted coffee and offering up free Wi-Fi. Well worth the visit and investment.
For more substantial fare in Pahoa, we went to Kaleo's Bar and Grill. They have a nice patio area overlooking the main road. The staff looked at us like we were crazy when we requested a table outside as it was overcast and rainy during our visit, but it was a wonderful change from the Canadian winter we had just left behind. It was hard to convince them that we really did think it was beautiful weather, but it gave us prime, private seating..
I lucked out with my choice, a lunch special of chicken skewers with spicy peanut sauce. You know how much I love peanut sauce! Ryan reports that his basic burger plate was decent fare and, at $10 it was reasonably priced, but he was far more enamored with the previous day's "gravy burger" at the Black Rock Cafe, on the other side of town. (Never got a picture - sorry!) Black Rock has a much more diner-ish, greasy spoon vibe, the prices are cheap ($6.50 for the gravy burger), and it's a great spot for the basics like bacon and eggs or sandwich platters.