In the continental United States, Florida's Ballast Key is the country's southernmost point, and Key West is its southernmost city. But even closer to the equator than these is the region of the Big Island of Hawaii known as South Point.
Ka Lae, which is Hawaiian for South Point, is a rocky outcropping that stretches to meet the Pacific Ocean at a latitude of 18°55'N, almost six degrees further south than Ballast Key. The area's main community, Naalehu, sits at 19°3?57?N, making it America's southernmost town.
In fact, Naalehu is 497 miles further south than Miami and 994 miles further south than Los Angeles. If you were to set out by boat from Ka Lae and head due south, the next continental land mass you would reach would be the shores of Antarctica, some 7,500 miles away.
South Point is currently uninhabited, although experts believe this is where Tahitians and other South Sea Islanders landed when they first came to Hawaii, perhaps as early as 400 A.D. Ruins of heiau (temples), fishing shrines and other cultural vestiges can still be seen in the area, which has been declared a National Historical Landmark.
To get to the rocky coast that marks the southern tip of the Big Island, about 52 miles southeast of Kailua-Kona, take the South Point Road turnoff from State Highway 11. The narrow drive to Ka Lae passes through twelve miles of open ranch land en route to the sea. A field of huge white wind turbines can be seen along the way, generating electricity for the region.
The road passes through an area designated as South Point Park before reaching the coastal waters. Visitors should be aware that the last five miles of South Point Road are quite rough, and using a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. The parking area can be found at the end of the road, about a mile past the fork to Green Sand Beach.
The cliffs near South Point Park are commonly used as a mooring spot for fishermen who work the teeming waters here. From the edge of the rocks, the drop is about forty feet to the ocean, and the base of the cliff extends another thirty feet below the water's surface. Ladders have been hung to allow access to the boats, and they may be seen swinging freely in the air above the sea.
Some may be tempted to consider diving into the clear waters from the cliff. This is not advisable, however. A swift current, known as the Halaea Current, runs along the shore and sweep anyone who dives in the water straight out to sea. The current is named after a Hawaiian chief who was carried off to his death here.
Look for a black-and-white light beacon not far from the cliffs. A small heiau can be seen there, marking Ka Lae. Also in the South Point area is Mahana Beach, noted for its green sands that contain flecks of olivine. Other recreational sites in the vicinity include Naalehu Park with its Hawaii County maintained tennis courts and Pahala Park, which has a community center, a swimming pool and a ball field.