Edge of Hawai’i: 3 Adventures at the Southernmost Point in the US

The Island of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island, is covered in worthwhile destinations, but three of them are located right next to one another in the southern point of the island. Here, I discovered a beach comprised of green sand, an extensive system of lava caves, and the southernmost point itself.

Ka Lae

I visited Key West, Florida, as a small child and have a photograph of me standing next to a marker that declares it is the Southernmost Point in the Continental USA. Naturally, when planning my trip to Hawai’i, I made sure to include a stop at the southernmost point of all fifty states. This time, I wasn’t greeted by a giant indicator defining it as the edge of the country, but the natural beauty of the area is more photogenic than a sign.

The landscape is dominated by black and blue. However, to say that only two colors were present ignores the fact that endless shades of blue truly fill the view.  The rocky black ground is surrounded by the blue of the ocean, sky, and reflections in the pools of water that collect on the shore. The turbulent waves contrasted the still puddles on the rocks. I thoroughly enjoyed walking along the uneven ground, staying far enough from the edge to avoid getting hit by waves, but close enough to enjoy the sights. Perhaps it was the geographical knowledge in the back of my mind, but this area felt like I really was standing on the edge of the country.

Kula Kai Caverns

I must admit, my first views of the area around Kula Kai caverns were nothing like I expected. Rather than a park or other publicly-owned area, the tour took place in a gated residential neighborhood. We entered the code provided by the tour company and drove to the address listed. Since we were early, we sat in the car a few minutes to wait for the rest of the group to arrive. This turned out to be pointless. As we soon discovered, we were the only guests on this tour.

While the thought of us going into a cave with a total stranger initially made me fear the worst, my doubts quickly faded when I met our guide. As he talked to us about geology, his enthusiasm for the subject was positively contagious. I can’t say that my interest level in geology had ever been high, but our lesson on the formation of the caves and the Hawaiian Islands themselves proved to be fascinating. The guide presented topographical maps and described how the islands are gradually moving along a hot spot on the Earth which causes the volcanic eruptions that create the islands. Then it was time for us to head underground.

The cool air of the caves was a welcome change from the heat that had persisted through most of the trip. Our guide explained that the roots hanging down from the ceiling of the cave were reaching all that distance in a search for water.  He pointed out geological formations on the walls of the caves and let us spend plenty of time taking pictures and wondering at the inside of the caverns. I had no idea the cave network would extend so deep into the earth and branch out in so many directions. Though I was thoroughly satisfied with the tour, I still felt as though I had only seen a fraction of the tunnels. Perhaps if I return to Kula Kai, I’ll have to take the more adventurous spelunking tour that takes visitors crawling through some of the less accessible passages.

Green Sand Beach

The last of my three stops in this region was by far the hardest to reach. Getting to Papakolea Beach, the Green Sand Beach, involves either a 2-to-3 mile hike each way or paying a local resident for a bumpy ride in the back of a truck. Being both cheap and skeptical about the safety of the ride, I chose the former option. I had prepared for this, wearing hiking shoes and carrying plenty of water. Otherwise, the hike would have been unbearable. The path to the beach is dusty and windy, and there is virtually no shade along the route. There is, however, plenty of scenery to distract hikers from the walk. Fields of grass surround the path, and lava rocks line the shore and extend out into the sea.

The first sight that comes into view upon arriving at Papakolea is the cliffs that line the far side of the beach. The distinctive horizontal layers of earth that signaled the nearness of the beach were a very welcome sight by the time I reached them. As I got closer and saw the sand of the beach, my initial thoughts were not positive ones. I wasn’t expecting a vibrant emerald green, but I was anticipating a more noticeable green than what I was seeing. Instead, the sand appeared slightly off-color, maybe even golden, but not a definitive green. It was only when I picked up a handful of sand and looked more closely that I was fully convinced it was truly green. Seeing those individual green grains encouraged me. I was at one of the four green sand beaches that exist on Earth. The rarity of the beach alone made it worth the effort.

The path that makes its way down the cliffs is the final challenge to access the beach. After descending along the steep and narrow route, I was finally able to spend some time relaxing on the beach and dipping my feet in the ocean. All in all, the journey to and from Papakolea was somewhat difficult and occasionally unpleasant, but the uniqueness of the destination certainly made it worth the effort.


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