Wheeling the southernmost point in the U.S.
Man has always been intrigued by extremes, and four-wheelers are no exception. Whether traversing the most severe terrain imaginable or performing excessive modifications to our vehicles, 'wheelers love to push things to the limit. This was exactly what we had in mind with our latest expedition. We wanted to go to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost land mass in the western hemisphere, but time and finances would not allow such a journey. Instead we traveled to the southernmost point in the United States.
Most assume that this point is in the Florida Keys, but this is incorrect. The southernmost point in the United States is actually South Point (also known by its Hawaiian name of Ka Lae) on the big island of Hawaii. South Point lies at a latitude of 18 degrees, while Key West sits at 24 degrees above the equator. Like Tierra del Fuego, the next landmass due south of South Point is Antarctica. South Point is the site where the first Polynesian settlers arrived via canoe around 500 AD. For our adventure, we chose to forgo the canoe in favor of a four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.
We started by driving down the west coast of the Big Island, past the luxury hotels and condos of Kona. As we headed south, the landscape became sparser and vegetation was replaced by lava flows in every direction. We continued on to a nondescript road leading south from Highway 11 at Mile Marker 69. The poorly maintained road led us south for 12 miles past farms and pastureland. Much of the area is Hawaiian Home Lands, a program started in 1920 to provide native Hawaiians with affordable land on which to farm and homestead.
Beyond the pastureland, we encountered the Kama'oa Wind Farm. It is a fitting location, since the unprotected coast is constantly assaulted by tradewinds. Each of the wind-turbine generators is said to be capable of producing enough electricity for 100 families. During our visit, however, the wind farm looked more like a graveyard, with only four of the 36 turbines in operation.
From the wind farm, we continued south to the rocky coast and to take advantage of the slower pace of life to enjoy our surroundings. Few road signs are found here, but guidebooks and friendly locals can steer you in the right direction should you ever become disoriented. When the lava spewed forth from nearby Kilauea came in contact with the cool ocean water, it rapidly cooled, forming 30-foot-high basalt cliffs along the southern tip of the island. This is the location where those first Polynesians arrived so long ago and where they remained to fish after their arrival. Tourist attractions are nonexistent in this area, making it a welcome change from the bustle and commercialism of Kona. Instead, locals continue the tradition of fishing from canoes and kayaks lashed to the shore so they are not swept out to sea. Others fish from the cliffs, taking advantage of the bountiful fishing that results from the confluence of currents from the east and west sides of the island.
Not daring enough to venture down the rusty ladders to the ocean waters below, we continued another 10 miles northeast along rutted two-track to the Green Sand Beach, known in Hawaiian as Papakolea. This beach is located in a large cove at the bottom of an eroding olivine outcropping. The olivine combines with black basalt to form a shimmering olive green beach. While beautiful, the strong winds made it difficult to enjoy the views without having our eyes exfoliated. We enjoyed lunch from the safety of our Land Cruiser before returning to South Point.
The road from South Point to and from Green Sand Beach alternates between silt beds, lava outcroppings, and pastureland. Several paths of varying difficulty are present, but they all lead to the same destination. Along the way, we stopped to investigate the numerous tidepools and various objects that had washed up on shore. With more time, we would be inclined to camp along the coast and explore further, as we encountered an abundance of interesting sea life and very few other travelers.
Unfortunately, we were not equipped for an overnight trip, and soon we were back to the pavement to air up the tires and unlock the hubs. With the low-fuel light shining, we began our journey back to Kona, leaving the traditional canoe moorings and rock walls behind for our oceanfront condo and luau dinner. It may not be Tierra del Fuego, but our trip to South Point will still be remembered as the highlight of our Hawaiian vacation.
Shipping a vehicle from the mainland to the Hawaiian Islands takes approximately four weeks and costs nearly $1,000, making it a possible, but not practical, option for the visiting four-wheeler. A more reasonable option is to rent a 4WD vehicle once arriving on the island. We have found Harper (808/969-1478) to be the most accommodating regarding off-pavement use, but most of the major car rental companies operating out of Kona have 4x4s for rent. The most common vehicles in local rental fleets include Jeep Wranglers, Wrangler Unlimiteds, Grand Cherokees, and Chevy Trailblazers. None of these vehicles should have any issues reaching South Point and the Green Sand Beach unscathed, but careful driving and spotting are recommended. Read your rental contract carefully for any restrictions and expect to pay around $75 a day for a four-wheel-drive vehicle.