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

As a child, I loved the road's terrain-clinging twists, turns, steep climbs and sudden drops. I associated its red color with its coolness factor. None of the island's dark-paved roads were as adventure-filled.

T-intersection and shelf of hardened lava where Kaimu Black Sand Beach once stood.

Hours before idling at the road's Kapoho crossroads in my rental lamenting my late arrival, I stood at the dark asphalt T-intersection start of the road's southern Kaimu/Kalapana end. Before my feet, where surf once swirled around the trunks of stately palms and luxuriant black sands at Kaimu Beach, a shelf of hardened 20-year-old lava now stretched 1,000 feet out to sea.

Big surf crashing on the road's rugged coastline.

Red Cinder Road was constructed in the early 1960s to connect this seaside community with the agricultural town of Kapoho up the coast. A long-discussed 1950s government plan to bring visitor industry development to the area via a series of modern parkways never panned out. Red cinder was used for the Kalapana-Kapoho connection when plans were scaled down to a single-lane coastal road for area residents. In the years that followed, locals and adventurous visitors would become enamored of the rust-colored road with the unspoiled, unhindered scenery.

Lehua blossoms on an ohia tree alongside the road.

Heading north from Kaimu, I found the road's landscape largely the same as I remembered. Tree forests sparse and lush still rise from ancient lava flows until the pullover for unofficially clothing optional, black sand Kehena Beach. From there, Red Cinder Road winds evenly between forest and coastline, often skirting so close to surf pounding against sea cliffs and shoreline that blankets of thick salt spray waft across the asphalt. Along the way, I guided my rental into makeshift pullovers once part of the original road before erosion from crashing waves necessitated bypass loops around them. At each, I sat to watch the angry ocean fight the lava rock coastline.

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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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