In America, when someone mentions “the South,” does the Dixie region automatically come to mind? The American South is steeped in history, culture, and notoriety. Southerners are a proud people. And rightfully so, however, they cannot claim exclusive rights to being the geographical south of the United States. That distinction lies on a tiny “Big” island in the middle of the Pacific. Welcome to…Ka Lae, the true southern point of the United States.
I must admit, even I had been unaware of this until recent years. I’ve been a resident of Hawai’i Island or the Big Island for over a year now and have heard of South Point before my arrival. So when some friends contacted me about going “holo holo” for a day out there, I eagerly accepted. Hilo, the eastern coast of Hawai’i Island and where I currently reside, seems like a world away from Ka Lae. That did not deter us from embarking on our journey via Highway 11 on our way to sunny skies. It’s a beautiful scenic drive, as is anywhere on the island.
First ascending towards Volcanoes National Park, where the air is noticeably frigid and the native trees are standing guard on either side. It then routes you through Ka’u, an unlikely desert climate with sparse foliage thriving atop ancient lava fields. Just by admiring it’s grandeur, you would never notice the time passing. Miles had gone by before I saw any settlements and it seemed as if I was traveling through time, to a bygone age of when the Hawaiians first set foot on these islands. Finally, we came upon the Punalu’u stretch and I could see the ocean off the coast in it’s deepest, bluest hues. And coffee farms sprouted up along the highway.
It wasn’t too long before the road brought us to Na’alehu and our host announced that we were almost there. The actual road to South Point reminds me of a remote country pass that was rarely travelled. There are houses in this area but it doesn’t have the particular sense of a neighborhood that you and I may be accustomed to. It was simpler. The grassy fields beyond was littered with livestock and horses. There were hardly any trees taller than 25 feet. Enormous windmills dotted the landscape. The road itself was narrow, and unpaved. But the sky was vast and cast a sunny disposition upon us, compelling us to move forward. Finally, we had reached Ka Lae.
The declaration of the southern most point of the United States was evident by the marker at the fork of the road. We turned onto a dirt expanse that served as a parking lot. There were at least 100 adventurous, brave souls wandering the area. I got out of the vehicle and drank it all in. This is the spot historically thought of as the first landing area of the voyaging Polynesians that eventually settled these islands. While the ocean took center stage, the panoramic view of the cliffs caught my fancy. I walked over to what seemed like a fisherman’s device that was fastened to the cliff directly across from the parking lot. Probably a hoist of some kind to bring up large fish like Ulua. But that wasn’t the attraction here. A scant wooden boardwalk extended out over the cliff from the hoist. And people were leaping into the ocean from this structure.
I peeked over and estimated the fall to be upwards of 50 feet into a lucid blue green ocean with an active current. An aluminum ladder swayed about 2 feet from the ocean’s surface so that swimmers could climb back to the cliff above. If I had my swim trunks with me, I definitely would’ve taken the plunge. It’s a rite of passage to come here and commemorate your visit by diving into the ocean at Ka Lae. I don’t encourage it however if you are not a strong swimmer because the current can take you out to sea or smash you against any number of sharp rocky edges along the coast. Please! Use your discretion! I probed the area extensively and even climbed down into a natural “blow hole” that is located a few paces from the hoist. (Again, I don’t recommend anyone to do this unless you are familiar with ocean tides AND is a strong swimmer.)
Further down, eastward, there is a rocky beach front that is popular with local fisherman and is teeming with tide pools rife for exploration. We spent an hour there just enjoying the natural beauty and history of Ka Lae. But our time had come to return to Hilo. If you enjoy long picturesque drives and natural wonders, Ka Lae should be on your list of things to do. There is also a green sand beach that welcomes visitors to sunbathe and swim. And don’t forget to visit Punalu’u bakery located in the adjacent town. They are known for their fresh sweetbread varieties amongst other baked goods and local food wares. Below are a few pointers when visiting South Point/Ka Lae.
1) Bring beverages and snacks, it’s a long drive and the remote area does not have convenience stores.
2) Wear comfortable foot wear, the ground is unpaved, watch your step!
3) If you are thinking about jumping off the cliff, firstly, bring a towel (that’s a no-brainer), secondly, don’t do it if you are not an adept swimmer. The currents are very strong here and is known as the “Halaea Current” named after the Hawaiian Chief whom was carried off to his death.
4) Lock your car doors! Don’t be foolish! There could be some small kine Hawaiian borrowing if you’re not attentive!
5) Try to stop along the way to use the restroom. There are portables at the site but they can get pretty rank!