Go with the (Lava) Flow on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast

Lava on Hawaii, the Big Island, is like sand on the beach: it’s everywhere. True to its name, the Big Island is the largest of all the Hawaiian islands and the baby of the island chain, continuing to grow as Kilauea erupts. If you’re visiting Hawaii with kids, experiencing the lava on this isle is an education in science and history with a big dose of adventure.

My daughter echoed the thoughts of many first-time visitors when she said, “I saw all that lava and thought, ‘Where am I?’” The airport runway in Kona, built over an 1801 lava flow, has vast views of the glossy black fields that cover the island. The lush, green oasis that visitors are expecting is nearby, however, and comes into view as you drive north toward the 20-mile stretch of manicured resorts and communities called the Kohala Coast, our base for the week.

Lava Coastline on Hawaii Island
Rocky lava gives way to a big sand beach around the corner

Can’t-Miss Lava Adventures with Kids on Hawaii Island

In between our time at the over-the-top pools at the Hilton Waikoloa Village  and the award-winning beaches of Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, we discovered lava adventures all over the island, though we unfortunately ran out of time to do them all.

Experience Kilauea Volcano Up Close

If you want to see Kilauea in action, you have three options: stay overnight in Hilo or Volcano Village for a multi-day visit; take a long day trip from the Kohala Coast; or see it all from the air on a helicopter sightseeing tour.

Kilauea Lava Flow into Ocean
Your best chance to see lava flow is by boat or helicopter. Photo: HTA/Tor Johnson

While we didn’t visit Kilauea this trip, the first time I saw the lava flowing I was immediately reminded of my third grade science class, where the teacher explained how magma comes up to the surface and becomes lava. The hiking opportunities (across extinct craters) and visitors’ center in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are worth your time, and if you’re not up for the long drive from the Kohala Coast, the Volcano Twilight tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail gets rave reviews.

Hawaii Island Lava Graffiti
Love notes in the lava are an unexpected tourist attraction

Ancient Lava Art and Love Notes

Messages from the past in the form of petroglyphs and present-day love notes spelled out in white stones dot the lava flows and walking paths around the Kohala Coast. The Waikoloa petroglyphs are walking distance from the Hilton Waikoloa Village and Waikoloa Marriott Beach Resort & Spa, and the Puako petroglyph fields are adjacent to The Fairmont Orchid. The Big Island’s version of white-stone graffiti is unique in this area and found all over — much prettier than spray paint and easier to erase.

17th Hole at Hualalai Resort
This view explains why Hawaii Island is a golfer’s paradise. Photo by Hualalai Resort

Golf on a Lava Flow

The Kohala Coast is known as the golf capital of Hawaii, paradise for avid fans of the sport. Famous golf course designers like Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones carve fairways through lava fields and turn black into green. One look at the view from the 17th hole at Hualalai, near the CB-recommended Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, and even non-golfers might pick up an iron.

Snorkeling at Fairmont Orchid
Lava outcroppings attract fish and snorkelers at The Fairmont Orchid

Snorkel Over Centuries-Old Lava Flows

The ragged fingers of lava that jut into the sea are the foundation for an entire ecosystem of reefs and marine life. We loved snorkeling at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort amid reef-topped lava flows with colorful fish and green turtles gliding around us. Their one-hour guided tour is perfect for families with beginner snorkelers, and the crescent-shaped beach is a must even if you’re not a guest. The Fairmont Orchid also has a sandy beach with calm waters for snorkeling novices and shady areas for the onlookers.

Pololu Valley Lookout
Rewarding views lead to a black sand beach at the end of the trail

Find the Lava Prize at Pololu Valley Lookout

The Big Island is famous for its black sand beaches, created when hot lava contacts cool water and shatters into tiny fragments. The Pololu Valley Lookout is literally at the end of the road on the Kona side of the island. From the resorts of the Kohala Coast, the drive winds through the farmlands of North Kohala, toward the artsy town of Hawi and to the end of the road at the lookout. After a steep 20- to 30-minute hike down with stunning views, you find the prize: a stretch of black sand. It’s not recommended for swimming and the hike is challenging with toddlers, but with older children this is a rewarding activity. The promise of ice cream in Hawi sweetens the return climb up the hill.

Relevant Links:

Browse all family-friendly accommodations and activities in Hawaii on Ciao Bambino

Walking in the footsteps of King Kamehameha the Great

Big Island of Hawaii Helicopter Review: Paradise Helicopters

Five family-friendly activities on the Big Island of Hawaii with kids

Why Hawaii is the ultimate tropical escape with kids

Kristi participated in a media trip with Kohala Coast Resort Association. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Kristi Marcelle except where noted.

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