Kaʻu is the largest and southern most district of the Big Island of Hawaii. It is one of the least visited and lived in regions on the Big Island and boasts a stunning and wild landscape that is both diverse and impressive! Kaʻu is larger than the complete island of Oahu (922 sq. miles or 2388 sq. km!) and yet there are less than 6000 inhabitants registered in the district.
The combination of sweeping grass and pasture lands, some of the largest remnants of native Hawaiian rainforest, and expansive black lava flows make the district of Kaʻu incredibly scenic. Have fun planning a few stops here while you are traveling between Kona and Volcano Village, or dedicate one or two full days in this quiet, rural and spectacular district on the island of Hawai’i!
Map of activities in Kaʻu
All places discussed in this guide are also listed on the map below. You can read more information on each location either by clicking on the relevant link in the table of contents shown above, or by selecting one of the items shown on the map, reading the short description, and clicking on the link in the description.
Kaʻu background and recent history
The Kaʻu district lies wedged between the Puna district to the east and the Kona district to the west. It is the largest of the 9 districts that make up the island of Hawai’i and home to rich Hawaiian history!
Kaʻu is the place where the first Polynesian settlers reached the Hawaiian Islands by sailing canoe, either Ka Lae (South Point) or Punalu`u Black Sand Beach. It also was home to the Kaʻu Sugar Co in the days that sugar was king. For more than a century (from 1876 to 1990) the wild and rolling hills and rocky valleys were covered in sugar cane. After the closure of the sugar plantation, Ka’u Coffee Mill began producing award winning specialty coffee with the rich soil.
Things to do in the Kaʻū district
The Kaʻū district is a mystical place where you can discover the spirit of aloha first hand and is home to some of the most popular attraction on the Big Island: the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and Papakolea Green Sand Beach.
You can read about some of our favorite places to stop while in Kaʻu below:
1: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Punalu’u is your best bet to see the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (honu) sunbathing on the coarse jet-black sand. Green Sea Turtles like to relax on the warm sand, just like the visiting humans.
The combination of colors, from vibrant green coconut trees to charcoal black sand to shimmering blue waters is something out of a fairy tale, making this the most popular black sand beach on the Big Island for good reasons!
Read more about visiting Punalu’u Black sand beach on our website.
2: Ka Lae (South Point)
Said to be the general area where the Polynesians first landed, this historical area is the southernmost point of the Hawaiian Islands and the second southernmost point in the United States. (to wit: the most southern point is the US territory of Palmyra Island, source).
South Point has a very special vibe with its wind-swept plains and vibrant blue waves crashing upon charcoal black lava surrounded by copper colored cliffs. A confluence of ocean currents makes this a very popular spot for local fishermen, but you can also explore the area and walk around ruins of an ancient Hawaiian temple (heiau) and take in the expansive views of West Kaʻu and the Ka Lae cliffs:
Ka Lae is a great place to watch the sun rise or set, so bring your camera for extraordinary photos. It is also very close to the parking lot for the famous Papakolea beach (green sand beach) discussed next:
3: Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
One of the many multi-colored beaches in the Hawaiian Islands, Green Sand Beach is a dazzling sight. The olivine green mineral and black lava sand mixture creates an olive color beach created when a cinder cone erupted about 50,000 years ago.
You can reach Papakolea with a 1 hour /2.5 mile hike (one way) from the parking lot. Read more about visiting this green sand beach on our website.
4: Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (Kahuku Unit)
In 2003 a 116,000 acre section of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was added by purchasing the land from a large ranch estate. This acquisition nearly doubled the size of the park opening up many trails to impressive landscapes.
There are 6 trails in this part of the park (see map and descriptions below) that lead you to an old cinder cone once used as a quarry, lava fields, lava trees, and other interesting lava features, as well as pastureland and forest, and a forested pit crater. Make sure to time your visit because the Kahuku part of the park is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is closed the other Mondays and Tuesdays as well as on federal holidays (more details on the park website).
The following 6 hikes are currently available in the Kahuku unit of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
- Pu‘u o Lokuana Cinder Cone: 0.4 mi (0.6 km) short but strenuous climb to the top of Pu‘u o Lokuana cinder cone.
Pu‘u o Lokuana Trail: 2.0 mi (3.2 km) loop trail along historic ranch roads to a hidden pasture surrounded by trees. Walk past lava tree molds and onto the lava flows of 1868.
Kamakapa‘a Trail: Easy 0.5 mi (0.8 km) trail to the top of a small cinder cone with sweeping views of Ka’u.
Palm Trail: 2.6 mi (4.6 km) loop trail through scenic pastures for one of best panoramic views in Kahuku.
Pali o Ka‘eo Trail: 2.1 mi (3.4 km) loop trail with great views along the way of the coast of Ka‘ū from Ka Lae (South Point) to Na Pu‘u o Pele.
- Pit Crater Trail (not on map above): arduous 4.75 mi (7.6 km) long loop trail to a forested pit crater with significant elevation change. From the crater’s rim visitors can look down into a rare native forest refuge protected within the sheer walls of the pit.
Kahuku Scenic Drive
You can also explore the park from your car through a 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) scenic drive that takes you 1300 ft up the slopes of Mauna Loa!
5: Whittington Beach Park
Whittington beach park once was the shipping port to the bustling sugar cane plantations. Now all that remains from this history is a rusted skeleton shipping pier jutting into the bay.
A lesser know spot to visit, Whittington Beach Park is brimming with vibrant colors and sunshine with magnificent views of the ocean, tidepools, and surrounding cliffs. This is a pleasant spot to watch the waves crash and appreciate the beauty of the Big Island from the picnic tables lining the shore.
Although called a beach park, this is not an ideal place to go swimming. The waves here are large and the shore break can be violent. Bathroom facilities are available making Whittington beach park a great excuse for a pit-stop for example when you are driving between Kailua Kona and Volcano Village.
6: Manuka State Park
Hike through the native and introduced flora and fauna of the Manukā Natural Area Reserve. This two mile hike is an opportunity to walk among a forest of ohia trees, pass a forested pit crater, and view several eroded archaeological sites in an ancient agricultural area. The trail has a 400 foot elevation gain and decent, making a loop returning you back to the trail head. Be sure to wear hiking shoes and stay hydrated.
More information on the Manuka State Park website. This is also a great pit stop to use the restroom, stretch your legs, or have a picnic as you pass through Kaʻu, and you can also find an arboretum and camping spots in the Manukā Natural Area Reserve.
7: Kula Kai Caverns
The Kula Kai Caverns are a thousand-year-old year old lava tube system. Explore the depths of these caves and go underground on a guided tour and learn about the evolving world of lava tubes, the science of caves, and the historical Hawaiian significance of local lava tubes. Climb down ladders, squeeze through tight spaces, and trek through the labyrinth of these young, dark, deep caverns. There is only one tight squeeze, so even if you get a little claustrophobic the tour is unlike anything you’ll experience on the island.
Wear long pants, a long sleeve t-shirt, and hiking shoes for your tour. The guide will provide you with knee protection, helmets, gloves, and headlight for this epic exploration. Click here for more information about tours of the Kula Kai Caverns.
If you are into lava tubes you should also definitely check out our list of 5 lava tubes that you can visit here on the Big Island!
8: Kaʻu Coffee Mill
I’m sure you’ve heard of Kona Coffee (the black gold of Hawaii, see our list of Kona Coffee tours if you are interested), but we will let you in on a little secret… though the flavors are different, Kaʻu coffee just as good! You will have to try this for yourself of course, and a great place to do this is at Kaʻu Coffee Mill in Pahala.
After the sugar cane plantations in Kaʻu plummeted, coffee mills began to appear on the vacant land. Since May of 2012 Kaʻu Coffee Mill has been supplying visitors and locals with specialty, flavored, and custom award winning coffee. Free farm and coffee tours with tastings are available daily. Be sure to stop in their shop with a large selection of coffee and gifts that can be mailed to anywhere in the world.
9: Wood Valley Temple
Known as Wood Valley Temple, this quiet, charming and peaceful area is a great place to relax, reflect and explore. The traditional wood frame temple is surrounded by an ohia forest with colorful peacocks roaming the grounds. If you are looking for a peaceful, quiet place for reflection and solitude, spend some time meditating in the temple where his Holiness the Dalai Lama has visited and taught.
The temple was established in 1973 by the Venerable Nechung Rinpoche. Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling is a center for the dissemination of the Buddhist teachings but also has guest rooms available to rent. More information on the Wood Valley Temple website.
10: Kaʻu Desert Trailhead
Hidden in plane sight is the Kaʻu Desert Trail which leads to a small shelter with two-hundred year old fossilized human footprints. These prints made in volcanic mud-ash were created by the retreating army of Keōua Kuahuʻula, who was battling the famous Kamehameha I for dominance of the island.
On the way out to the footprints you follow the footsteps of ancient Hawaiians in this desolate place marveling at the strong ohia trees, lava formations, and sandy pathways. This is not technically a desert because the area gets too much rain, but the desert like conditions heed to a lack of vegetation, extreme heat, sulfur from the volcano, and barren landscapes.
Wear hiking shoes and a hat, bring lots of water, and your camera for some interesting lava photos. More information on this hike on the fantastic Big Island Hikes website.
11: Farmers Markets in Kaʻu
There are two farmers markets in the Kaʻu district. One on Wednesday and one on Saturday. Make sure to visit our list of all farmers markets on the Big Island if you like buying local!
1: Ocean View Swap Meet – every Saturday from 7am-1pm
At the Ocean View Swap Meet you’ll find vendors selling in season local produce from mango’s, to apple bananas to coconuts. Other vendors are there selling DVDs, household appliances, beautiful sarongs, and Hawaiian inspired eats from countries around the world. It’s a wonderful mishmash of vendors and the place in town for neighbors meet and talk story once a week. Read more about this swap meet on facebook.
2: Naalehu Farmers Market Wednesday + Saturday from 8am-2pm in front of Ace Hardware
The Naalehu Farmers Market is a traditional farmers market with vendors selling local produce, Hawaiian treasures and gifts and delicious honey produced right in Kaʻu Tip: Be sure to bring cash to the farmers markets and don’t be afraid to haggle a little bit. Read more about this farmers market.
Restaurants and places to eat in Kaʻu
These are some of our favorite places to stop for a snack while in the Kaʻu district:
Ka Lae Thai Food – Ocean View :
Located in Ocean View Ka Lae Garden has the best Thai food around. The Thai chef prepares everything from scratch and uses local produce to create delicious curries, fried rice, and other traditional dishes. Their friendly service is on Hawaiian time, but it’s worth the wait. On your way out, grab some local bananas or avocados for the road from their produce stand inside.
The restaurant is opened Wednesday to Sunday, more information on their website.
Hana Hou Restaurant – Naalehu :
Hana Hou is a charming Hawaiian diner style restaurant dating back to the 1940s and is a favorite spot for the locals and visitors to Kaʻu. They serve Hawaiian style dishes like loco moco, mac salad, and fresh caught fish and you should really sample their homemade pies!
The restaurant is open 7 days a week between 8 AM and 7 PM (Fridays and Saturdays to 8 PM). More information on the Hana Hou website.
Punalu’u Bake Shop – Naalehu:
Known for their malasadas (a Portuguese style sweet bread doughnut and one of our favorite local snacks) Punalu’u Bake Shop is a great stop as you are passing through Kaʻu. Choose from a variety of flavors, from the traditional sweet bread covered in granulated sugar, to the Bismark a sweet bread topped with chocolate ganache filled with Bavarian cream.
Other delicious options are lilikoi (passion fruit) glazed, guava or tarot flavored sweet bread doughnuts and chocolate cream puffs too! Their gift shop is full of special trinkets and gifts for the entire family. Take some time to browse around and sit among the Hawaiian flowers listening to live musicians play traditional music in their garden.
Open daily (except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day) between 8:30 AM to 5 PM, more details on their website.
Ka Lae Coffee – South Point Road:
This place is very conveniently located for if you go to South Point and Green Sand Beach. You can grab a coffee, snack or smoothie at Ka Lae Coffee to go, or you can have it on the lanai (porch) surrounded by colorful Hawaiian orchids and plants. This is a place for relaxation, serenity, and delicious coffee.
This article was created in collaboration with Kaʻu resident Elly Vos.