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Camping on The Big Island
Holidaying in Hawaii doesn't have to mean shelling out resort fees that break the bank. Try camping!
By John Simeon

Out my back window, the high desert summer is maturing. The days have been shortening and cooling to the high fifties and sixties. The few strands of summer green have become muted amongst the grays and browns of the sagebrush. It is late August in the mountains of California. The Eastside of California or "the right side of California" as I sometimes call it. Though, some might not call it that for one reason: The short season for swimming. It takes time for mountain lake waters and streams to lose their iciness. Swimming in May one bathes in solitude. In June, bathing requires fortitude. But in July and August, if you know where to go, the pristine waters of the Eastern Sierra's water holes and lakes is unparalleled, at least in the freshwater swimming department.

However, sometimes the body yearns for something more. It wants to return to the salty waters from which it came. It wants to wallow in the warm embrace of a tropical nature. Even now I have visions of warm waters, coral and beaches drifting by. It's calling now, and it called to me last year when I realized that it had been some time since I had spent time in a tropical paradise, and my wife, daughter of seven and I had never been to Hawaii. With that, it was decided that we simply had to vacation in Hawaii, but for how long? Well, for my family, one week is just enough to get used to the idea of a place, two weeks allows us to settle into that place and the third week allows us to be that place. Three weeks of paradise was the answer, but the question was how to be there without breaking the educators' bank. Fortunately, my wife and I are of the adventurous bent, and we don't mind roughin' it a little.

Our local California airports with service to Hawaii are San Diego (seven hours), L.A. (six hours), Oakland (six hours), and San Francisco (seven hours). So, when a friend told me that the cheapest flights to anywhere in Hawaii are always from Oakland to Hilo, the decision was straightforward. ATA airlines (www.ata.com) had a flight that didn't arrive too late and was just over $300 per person. We were going from mid-July to the first week of August. NOTE: ATA has since gone bankrupt and I remember one of the flight attendants joking that ATA was an acronym for All Times Approximate.

A friend who had been to Hawaii many times recommended a guidebook to us: Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, by Andrew Doughty. This book bills itself as "the ultimate guidebook", and we found its maps, directions, information and recommendations to be spot-on for both the Big Island and Kauai. I highly recommend them.

We arrived in Hilo on a mid-July afternoon. We tried to rent a small four-wheel drive vehicle from Budget, but we got upgraded to a larger SUV. When you go to the Big Island, you must have a four-wheel drive vehicle. Many of the "roads" you may want to be on snake through tortuous lava fields, dusty island plains and mountain passes. Your rental agreement will tell you that these by-ways are not okay to drive on. I will say that if you know how to handle a four-wheel vehicle in rough terrain this is entirely okay, if not mandatory.

After picking up our vehicle, we went to the one hotel we would be staying at on the Big Island of Hawaii. We booked a room at The Hilo Seaside (Tel: 800-560-5557) through Travelocity. It was spacious, basic and clean. It was what I expected given its price, and perfect given that all we really wanted was a no-frills spot close to Hilo and the airport to lay our heads down for the night. Before retiring for the evening, we walked to a nearby Thai restaurant called Sombat's (88 Kanoelehua Ave, Tel: 969-9336). It was simply awesome. The locally grown produce and spices made for an aerobic workout of the taste buds. My daughter still talks about it. It has become our bar for other Thai restaurants to aspire.

California time had us waking early the next morning. We walked to Ken's House of Pancakes (1730 Kamehameha, Tel: 935-8711). It was a classic looking establishment, open 24 hours a day, featuring large portions of decent diner food with a Hawaiian twist. Afterward, we returned to our hotel to grab our car, but not to check out quite yet. The waterfalls near Hilo were waiting for us. A short drive out of downtown Hilo had us ascending a hill towards Rainbow Falls and beyond. We got out at Rainbow Falls and started hiking a trail along the high riverbank through a forest of banyan trees. Banyan trees have to be seen to be believed. Additionally, they need to be climbed into to be truly experienced. The banyan's trunk puts out branches that become roots, rooms, highways, and then trunks again climbing and falling through the shade-filled humid air. After playing in the trees for a while we pried ourselves away from them and made our way down to the river. At this time, Northeastern Hawaii was in the grips of a drought. The water in the Wailuku River slowly flowed over the falls and down the black basalt canyon. The water filled pools and basins as it flowed toward the ocean. Perfect for swimming from hole to hole. This is not always possible during times of heavy rain, and proved to be the highlight of our short time in Hilo. We swam for an hour or more before going back to our car and repeating the adventure further up the road at the "Boiling Pots". The pots were water deprived and not roiling. This allowed us to swim up the river and over a few bits of rock to Pe'epe'e Falls. No one was around nor were there mosquitoes there. It was inspiring. We stayed as long as we could before checkout and a few errands called to us. Errands? "Come now", you say. "You have only just arrived in Paradise." But you see, we were planning on doing a bit of camping during our stay and we needed a few supplies.

We found and loaded up on fresh fruit and vegetables at the local Farmer's Market in downtown Hilo. Always support local agriculture when you can. Then we hit the local health food store, Wal-Mart for snorkeling equipment (they sell spear fishing equipment too), and a grocery before slipping out of town on our way to Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park.

It's only a 25-minute drive or so to Volcanoes National Park from Hilo. We arrived at the park in mid-afternoon, in time to see a series of Hawaiian dances at the cultural center. Afterward, we took a short drive for a sightseeing excursion to the Sulfur Banks, Steam Vents and Kilauea Caldera overlook; all evidence of the sleeping earth power beneath our feet. Growing tired, we found our way to the Namakani Paio campgrounds just outside the park. It's free, for those inclined, with your park admission. That's right, a FREE place to stay in Hawaii. We cooked risotto with cheese and local broccoli over our little portable stove and called it a night.

The next day we slipped into the park again. Having stayed so close to the park, there was hardly anyone there that early in the morning. We took a short hike through the tropical forest and made our way to the Thurston Lava Tube. The lava river is gone but the skeletal tunnel remains and you can walk through it to complete a nice short loop back to your car. We then drove a short distance to the Kilauea Iki overlook. Kilauea Iki Crater last erupted in 1959. It spewed lava fountains 1,900 feet into the air and filled its crater with a lava lake. Now it is one of the best hikes on the Big Island. You start in a fern filled forest before dropping on switchbacks 500 feet into the crater. You hike across the barren rock lake where Ohi'a trees and fern are slowly re-colonizing the hardened lava. Steam and sulfur still gas from hidden vents below. On the other side of the crater you pass the cinder hill were most of the 1959 eruption occurred before hiking slowly back up the other side of the crater into the lush green of the crater rim. The hike is only four miles and well worth the effort. Afterwards, we were ready for a picnic lunch at the Jagger Museum and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

From there we made our way down the 20 mile long Chain of Craters Road to the ocean below. At the ocean edge, the Pacific Ocean pounds the fresh shoreline. Steep lava cliffs drop to the water and the wind blows. Unfortunately, recent volcanic activity had caused lava flows to stop in the National Park while we were there. So we did not get to see any lava or its flowing into the ocean. Fortunately, this has given us a reason to return to Hawaii when it does begin to flow again. On the return trip, we stopped for one last short hike across the lava fields on the Pu'u Loa Petroglyph Trail, where ancient Hawaiians pecked turtles, humans and abstract figures and shapes into the rocks. That evening we returned to the same campground as the night before, but we stayed in the rustic cabins that are also located there and run by the Volcano House Concession in the National Park. Honestly, for the price of $50, you really have the right to expect something more. Nearby Volcano Village has better deals at quaint Bed & Breakfasts. It did rain hard that evening though, so a roof sturdier than our nylon tent was appreciated ... not to mention the hot showers.

The next day we backtracked to Hilo and re-supplied our food stash before heading to the southeast corner of the island or Puna District. Our first stop was a spot called the Champagne Ponds. The ponds are a child-friendly spot on what can be a very rough coast of sharp, recently laid lava flows. To get to the ponds, which are on the coast and heated by volcanic activity, a four-wheel drive road must be traversed. Once there we did not want to leave. There were a few local families, which is nice when your daughter is itching for a playmate. The swimming was luxurious in the ponds, and additionally there was a small, protected bay on the ocean side allowing for a good snorkeling adventure. When we finally did tear ourselves away from this beautiful spot we headed further down along the coast until we came to a park called Ahalanui.

The attraction of Ahalanui is that it has a protected pool that is alternately fed by hot springs or the ocean waves which crash over a small wall on the ocean side of a large pool. Did I mention that our family has an affinity for naturally fed hot springs? After soaking in the thermal waters, we finally staggered off down another few miles of road to our campground at Mackenzie State Recreation Area; a very remote spot in a magical forest perched on top of volcanic cliffs spotted with caves and lava tubes. We practically had the place to ourselves, though there were a few other campers. It was $5 a night through Hawaii State Parks. I awoke early the next morning and waited for the sun to rise from the ocean and cover the coast and Ironwood trees in an ethereal reddish misty glow.

When the rest of the family awoke we had breakfast and backtracked up the coast to an area called the Kapoho Tide pools. We were the first to arrive and spent four hours snorkeling from pool to pool. This area was very child-friendly. The tide was out and all the pools were crystal clear, filled with fish and calm as could be. Don't forget your water shoes, though, when snorkeling over and near the harsh lava of Hawaii's rugged east coast. Well, we couldn't snorkel forever, though my daughter had her doubts. So, we moved on yet again.

We drove across the southern side of the island past the National Park again. We left the wet and lush eastern side of the island and entered the rain shadow of the Big Island volcanoes. The plains felt hot and mongoose scurried across the road to hide in dry grasses and amongst the black rock that slowly rose to the heights of Mauna Loa just to the north at 13,000 feet. We were headed for a spot near South Point called Green Sand Beach. South Point is the southernmost point in Hawaii and for that matter the United States. Exiting Highway 11, a dilapidated road slowly descends down the flank of Mauna Loa. Lower and lower it goes until a small road shoots off to the left. Many people leave their cars here for the hot three-mile walk one-way to Green Sand Beach. This was reason number two for our four-wheel drive. Slowly, we rolled over gnarled volcanic rock, steep inclines beset with jagged landmines, and serpentine trenches of sand and dirt weaving across and disappearing into the grassy plain. Passing walkers on the way in, we were glad we were not they. It was windy and hot here and evening was approaching. The beach was beautiful and protected from the open ocean, and the sand was indeed green from its ancient source of volcanic Olivine rock. The surf was not too rough on this day, and we frolicked for an hour or more before backtracking to Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, a county park that allows camping. It cost $12 for the three of us for the night.

We awoke early the next morning and made our way to the black sand beach. Green turtles lounged in the sand. They also popped their heads from the water in between meals of algae growing on the rough rock in the sea. We donned our snorkeling equipment and swam with them and the other sea life. Shortly before noon several school buses arrived, our cue to move on. We made our way back west heading for the Kona side of the Big Island. We stopped in Na'alehu at another farmers' market, refilling our cooler with fresh organic produce.

Our first stop on the Kona side was Kealakekua Bay. It is known for some of the best snorkeling in the whole state of Hawaii. It is also where explorer Captain Cook met his demise after years of discovery and adventuring in the Pacific Ocean. There is a monument to him on the north side of the bay. This is also where the best snorkeling is. We rented a kayak at the old harbor quay on the south side of the bay: $60 for a half-day tandem kayak from one of the Kona Boys. The other side of the bay is only a half mile row or so away. It is an easy row even for the watercraft challenged. The bay was inspiring. Cliffs climbing high up the mountainside to the east. We pulled our kayak up on the rough lava near the Cook Monument. It is possible to hike down, down, down to this spot from above. However, you also have to hike up, up, up afterward … no thanks. The snorkeling was awesome. The clear water above the reef dropped down into the deep blue of the bay. The schools of fish were large and the coral intricate and varied. My seven-year-old swam for close to three hours here before our row back. Tour boats also ply this spot. They come down from the north somewhere. They arrived en masse just before we left. To avoid them I would arrive here early. Boats are not always available on the bay; however, you can always pick one up on your drive to the bay.

From the bay we traveled south to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau or the Place of Refuge. It is a National Park, though no fee was collected. It figures prominently into the politics of the early Hawaiians. Turtles sunbathed amongst the basalt walls, old fish farm pools, sculptures and cultural displays. We spent the evening at another county park nearby called Ho'okena Beach Park ($12). The swimming was good and the snorkeling all right. The waves crashed endlessly on as we fell asleep 40 feet away.

We spent much of the next morning swimming and playing in the sand at Ho'okena. Then we made our way north into Kona. I knew the place was going to be crowded, and it was. We went to a Thai restaurant, but it was unremarkable compared to Sombat's in Hilo. They all can't be perfect. We hightailed it quickly out of Kona and went to our last spot on the Big Island. We reserved an A-frame cabin through the county ($20) near Hapuna Beach on the northern portion of the Kona coast. This was a super rustic accommodation, but a much better deal than the cabin at Volcanoes National Park. The beach had more people than any of the other beaches we'd visited, but this was because Hapuna Beach is a white crescent of tropical perfection. The body surfing and boogie boarding were decent, and while the sun set on our last full Big Island day, the beach cleared out a bit. Leaving us to the sun dipping itself into the ocean beyond. All in all a perfect ending to a beautiful week on the Big Island of Hawaii.

John Simeon, though born in England, is a native of Connecticut. After attending school at the University of Pennsylvania he moved out west. Living in both Seattle and Steamboat Springs, Colorado before moving to the Eastern Sierra of California were he currently resides. He has been married for nine years and has an eight-year-old daughter. He is a self-professed jack-of-all-trades and photographer currently pursuing a career in education.

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Pics From

The Trip


Rainbow Falls


Zenya climbs a Banyan Tree

Swimming in the Wailuku River

The non-roiling Boiling Pots

Pe’epe’e Waterfall

Under the Pe’epe’e Falls

Steam Vents above Kilauea Crater, Volcanoes National Park

Rainforest above Thurston Lava Tube

Kilauea Iki Crater to Mauna Loa

A fern colonizes the Kilauea Iki Crater Floor


An O’hia Tree on the crater floor

Lava and ocean at the top of the Chain of Craters Road

Descending to the coast in Volcanoes National Park

The raw coastline of Volcanoes National Park

Hawaiians on the Pu’u Loa Petroglyph Trail

Ahalanui warm spring

Tide pool reflection at Ahalanui

Sunrise at Mackenzie State Recreation Area

Lava tube and Ironwood forest at Mackenzie State Recreation Area

Snorkeling at Kapoho tide pools


Lava Tree State Park


Above Green Sand Beach

Sandstone cliff at Green Sand Beach

Green Turtle at Puunaluu Beach

Lagoon at Puunaluu Black Sand Beach

Coral and fish in Kealakekua Bay

Snorkeling view at Kealakekua Bay

Zenya and Julia snorkeling

The kids frolicking at Hapuna Beach

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