There are many places in the world I wish everyone could visit. At the top of this list is Hawaii. It’s a great travel destination and for me retains its magic even after multiple visits. Hawaii — the name of the island chain and also it’s biggest island — is one of the most remote places in the world, thousands of miles from other major land masses. Still, hundreds of planes land on these islands each day and much of the island chain is “touristy”, though there’s still a “real Hawaii” to be found. For me the “real Hawaii” is not natives living in primitive conditions but rather in memorable natural beauty — mountains, rain-forest, lava flows, desert and beaches. So the Big Island appeals to me as it’s the youngest of the Hawaiian islands and by far the biggest, with lots of beautiful places to explore (You could fit all the other Hawaiian islands onto the big island TWICE). And the island is still growing, adding more land every year thanks to it’s active volcanoes. According to Hawaiian mythology, this island is the home of Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes.
Evidence of the Big Island’s volcanic heritage is everywhere in its rugged landscapes but is best seen in Volcanoes National Park. Volcanoes Park covers 330,000 acres, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to the world’s most active volcano. Kilauea has been continuously erupting for about three decades (though the precise location of eruption and lava flow varies significantly from time to time). Kilauea has added more than 600 acres to the island in the last few decades and it’s estimated that someday volcanic activity may double the size of the island. [Of note, a brand new Hawaiian island is forming a few dozen miles off the south tip but at this time it’s still well submerged].
If you only have a day or two on the Big Island, I would focus the entire visit on Volcanoes N.P. and nearby Hilo. While some accommodations are available near the park, mostly in Volcano Village, they are limited. And the air around the park often has a sulfurous smell that may make sensitive people ill so I would advise staying a few dozen miles away in Hilo and renting a car to visit the park (you’ll need a car to get around anyway).
A good place to begin your visit to Volcanoes National Park is at the Visitor Center where you can see an great film on the volcano, study the displays and most importantly get up to date information from the rangers on where the volcano’s most active that day (and where there may be dangers you should be aware of). From here I’d head across the road to nearby Volcano House (which is currently closed and receiving a much needed seismic upgrade but should be open soon), a historic hotel, restaurant & bar that sits right beside Kilauea’s rim. When Mark Twain visited this exact site some 125 years earlier the crater was filled with molten lava. In the past century it’s cooled and crusted over but recently has developed large vents hissing sulfurous fumes, with molten lava just beneath the Halema’uma’u Crater’s surface that’s best seen at night (this crater is said to be Pele’s home). The sulfur levels here are dangerously high so the Park has (hopefully temporarily) closed a segment of the nearby Crater Rim Drive at the Jaggar Museum & all trails in the main Kilauea crater. The Jaggar Museum offers the best vantage point for the recent lava activity in the crater, especially on a clear evening (on some days your view will be limited by vog,or ‘volcanic fog’). The Jaggar has exhibits highlighting a lot of geologic and seismic information on the crater and is worth at least a brief visit. Watch for Nene, a rare native goose, around the museum parking lot and as you drive towards the crater as they like to nest in and near the Kilauea.
There’s many other interesting sights and many hiking opportunities near the main Kilauea crater so be prepared with sturdy hiking shoes as the surface is irregular (and often even hot to the touch). A fun stop by the rim is at the steam vents – where large numbers of fissures in the ground release steam (rainwater that has run into deep cracks where it is vaporized by the heat of the volcano & released as hissing steam). There are large numbers of orchids nearby which may be blooming so keep an eye out for them. There are several sulfur vents close to the steam vents which are interesting but really stink and are not for people with breathing problems.
The Thurston Lava Tube offers a safe way to explore one of the many lava tubes in Hawaii. Lava tubes are formed by differential cooling of lava. A rounded outer rim of lava cools, while the inner contents remain hot and liquid – sometimes draining out to leave behind a tube, or cave. Some of these are many miles long and to descent into one of these is to know complete darkness. The Thurston Lava Tube has a paved floor and lighting making it possible to see more than you could with a simple flashlight. There is still an unlit 1000 foot section of the tube which will require a good flashlight. The Lava Tube is a popular place to visit so come early or later to improve your chances of getting a parking spot.
After you’ve completed the Crater Rim Drive head to the Chain of Craters Road. This road is where most of the lava flows have been found these past years and the drive is geologically interesting and beautiful. It takes you past a series of volcanic craters of various size, some quite magnificent, through many different lava flows and past lava tubes. During the last half of the drive you will be treated to wonderfully scenic views of the Pacific Ocean as you descent from around 4000’ to just above sea level. Stop several times and take in the view. Don’t forget to look at your feet and you might see some small wonders – like a blade of grass or small flower struggling for a foothold in the porous rock.
There is one hike I’d particularly recommend which is towards the end of the Chain of Craters road, this leading to the Pu’u Loa’ Petroglyphs. The hike is only about a mile each way and leads to a collection of over 20,000 rock carvings. These etchings are on pahoehoe (smooth) lava and are over 500 years old. The setting, amongst the endless lava, small plants and ocean views is memorable.
There’s a small park office near the road’s end (road was closed because of lava flowing across it). Park and hike out onto the hardened lava flows. Twice when I’ve visited this area lava was flowing nearby but this time there were no active flows. Still, it’s cool to see how the lava has flowed across and closed the roads. Also nearby is the beautiful Holei Sea arch; hear and feel the Pacific Ocean pounding the foundation of the island as you stand near its edge enjoying views of the arch. It’s quite exhilarating!
End your day visiting the site of active or flowing lava (contact park rangers to find out where’s your best opportunity). The best time of day to see the lava flow is around dusk. The bright orange glow becomes more apparent, glowing even brighter as daylight recedes. Even cooler is if you get to see a lava flow enter the ocean, where it instantly vaporizes the seawater (and much of the lava is immediately turned to sand). Remember that molten lava is deadly so be cautious and give it the respect it serves.
The Volcano House has a good restaurant and fine dining is available at the nearby Kilauea Lodge. I once enjoyed a fine meal of roast rabbit here but the service was quite slow. Nearby Hilo also has many good restaurants which I’ll discuss in my next post.
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