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Ode to Red Cinder Road: Driving the Big Island's hidden coastal highway

One of Red Cinder Road's many tree canopies.

Sitting in my rental car at a crossroads marking the north end of Red Cinder Road, I realize I’ve arrived a couple of days too late for a final glimpse of the last stretch of original dull cerise asphalt that gave the rural Big Island thoroughfare its local nickname. The red has already been paved over.

The moment is somewhat sad for me.

When I’d heard in early April that Big Island road crews were days away from laying a fresh blanket of modern asphalt over the final two miles of 50-year-old red cinder once spanning the entirety of Route 137 (Red Cinder Road's official name), I booked a flight to Hilo.

Red Cinder Road winds alongside coastal views like this one.

I’m aware it sounds silly—racing to my former home island to see an old length of asphalt before its obliteration by a new length of asphalt. But I was also anxious to drive Red Cinder Road again. A dozen years had passed since I’d last navigated the 15-mile, single-lane coastal road linking the eastside small towns of Kalapana, Kaimu and Kapoho.

I remembered Red Cinder Road as uniquely scenic—darting into and out of alternately lush and scrubby forest canopy to reveal breathtaking swaths of close-up, wave-weathered Puna coastline. I remembered its surrounding landscape as rugged, unspoiled and—some 30 miles south of Hilo in remote terrain—blissfully devoid of tour groups and tour buses.

A mango tree canopy.

Mostly, however, I recalled Red Cinder Road as a place of comforting memories from my childhood. After mornings watching surf and walking the black sands of Kaimu Beach—now long lost to a 1990 Kilauea volcano lava flow—my grandfather took me for long drives on the bright-red road before heading home. On summer Sundays, my mother and aunt gathered us kids in the car to pick low-hanging fruit off heaving mango trees alongside the road.

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offering hikers access to lava flow’s ocean entry
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