Two scoops of rice, one scoop of macaroni salad, and, well, stuff. The “stuff” can be anything from fried mahi mahi to chicken katsu, a blend of the many ethnicities that call Hawai’i home. That’s the Hawaiian plate lunch: fast food, aloha style. Volcanoes National Park makes me think of food because the first time we went there, we did not have any and the on-site restaurant was closed for renovations. My family has blood sugar issues; they need to be fed on a regular basis or you get something out of The Exorcist. You would be thinking about food as well.
The park can be a day trip or a week long adventure for the camping/biking enthusiasts. About thirty miles south of Hilo (or ninety miles from Kona—my normal route), the park is all about Kilauea Volcano, the most active volcano in the world, and one of the five that make up the big island. It is also considered one of the most “user-friendly” volcanoes. To really appreciate the park, give yourself, at the very least, the day, bring plenty of snacks (maybe a plate lunch), good walking/hiking shoes, and a pull-over (it can be chilly and misty at times in some areas). What you will have to leave behind is any Creationist Theories that you might have.
Creationists believe that the earth was formed 6,000 years ago. It’s a bible thing, calculating all of the “begats” in the old testament. Here, the science of geology is king, and the king bears no fools. Even if you are like me, and have absolutely no interest in geology, you still become a geology geek at the park. How can you not when new land is being created in front of you?
The Big Island is not only the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, it is growing bigger. Each day, between 300,000 to 1,000,000 cubic yards of lava erupts. Since 1983 (when this current eruption began), 475 acres of land have been created.
One perspective is that you are on an island. Another perspective is you are traveling the Alps of the Pacific, though the actual Alps are puny in comparison. About three miles below sea level is the hot spot that forms the chain, about 137 islands. The islands are actually the exposed peaks of the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, moving northwest with the Pacific plate at about 32 miles per million years. The Big Island is the baby brother of the chain, about 400,000 years old with a peak (Mauna Kea) of 13,796 feet. The oldest main island (Kaua’i) is about 5.1 million years old with a peak of 5,243 feet. More reef than land, and about 1400 miles from Hilo, is Kure Atoll, the oldest at 28 million years. See why I just smack my head when I think of creationists?
But to the park…
We’re going to be conventional and start at the beginning, at the visitor center. It is where the geekiness begins to build. From my guide book: ““Despite the fact that it is operated by the federal government, the park seems very well run.” The rangers and staff are excellent and the visitor center is their main stage. Ask them anything. Their knowledge, and their excitement at answering the questions, really impressed me. The visitor center also sports plenty of maps, pictures, a souvenir shop, a small movie theatre and plenty of displays to start teasing the geology geek.
From the visitor center, we’ll drive west along Crater Rim Drive. And I’m pretty upset about this. I didn’t want to. I like the symmetry of a clockwise tour around the island and a clockwise tour of the park, with the visitor center the last stop. But then some idiots ruined it for everybody.
From what I heard, Crater Rim Drive is completely passable for the entire circuit. Recent volcanic activity, however, has forced the rangers to close the southwest portion of the road. Why? Because of idiots. There are poisonous gases. As long as you stayed in your car with the windows up and the AC on, you were fine. But the rangers kept finding the nitwits that just had to get out of their cars to look at something. I don’t think there were too many deaths, and I sort of like the entire “Darwinism at work” aspect, but someone probably sued somebody.
But the next stop is still a nice introduction to the park. We’ll pass the steam vents and arrive at a “destination.” Grouped together is the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Jagger Museum and Kilauea Overlook. You’ll find some great displays at the observatory and museum, and more of those awesome park rangers. The overlook is what has been bringing dignitaries and us normal people for hundreds of years: a panoramic view of Kilauea Caldera and Halema’uma’u Crater, the later being the home of Pele, the volcano goddess. Things are fairly quiet now, but Mark Twain saw a bubbling inferno.
Soak it in, enjoy the sights, have a seat and relax because, next, there is some hiking to do.
We’ll do the backtrack boogie past the steam vents and the visitor center, clockwise along Crater Rim Drive. When you see all of the tour buses, park. On one side is Kilauea Iki Overlook but we’ll continue with the appetizer portion of the tour and start on the other side: Thurston Lava Tube.
It is a few minute walk down into a bowl of tropical rainforest. It is probably no bigger than a 3,500 square foot, three story house. You start in at the “attic” and wind your way down. A well lit, round opening awaits: welcome to the plumbing of the volcano, Thurston Lava Tube. It is easily 10 feet high with smooth walls and floor. The lava tube has been cleaned up of debris and stalactites (unlike the lava tube I clambered into in part 1), but it is an interesting walk. An underground lava flow created this tube, and hundreds like it. It makes me think of lava as an enormous earthworm, burrowing its way through the ground, leaving a hole behind it.
At a crevice in the ground where you see daylight above you, you have the choice to join the large group of tourists going up the ramp and steps, or you can break out your smart phone made flashlight and descend into the rest of the lava tube that has not been cleaned up for tourists. It’s eerie. Once you walk about 100 yards, the light from the opening is gone and it’s just you and that portable battery. The lava tube ends abruptly about 1,000 feet in.
Flick off the lights. The darkness is absolute. Reality seems muffled. You may even lose any sort of spacial orientation so walls, ceiling and floor all seem the same as you “hang” in space. The moist, coolness of the tube is your only sensory input and the absence enfolds you.
Until the next tourist group stumbles along.
You’ll pop back up into the open air, climb the steps out of the bowl, but don’t even think about getting back into your car. Across the street is what I consider the main course of the tour: Kilauea Iki.
Still have those walking shoes on? Some bottled water? Lunch in your backpack? Pullover? Let’s get started then. The Kilauea Iki Overlook is the starting point (and ending) for one of the best hikes on the island. It is a three mile hike that will take you around the rim of the crater, down into it, across, and then back up here. I wouldn’t call it an easy hike, but it isn’t extreme either.
Kilauea Crater is a vast oblong bowl. Tropical rainforest rings the edge and then marches down into devastation. In 1959, what you are looking at was a boiling sea of lava—I called my 14 year-old nephew from inside the bowl and explained that to him and he seemed moderately impressed. The first time here, I just scampered down this side and then came back up, when food was scarce and the family might have had thoughts of cannibalism. The second time, though, I needed to do the entire hike.
It is a well marked trail, rolling gently downward, along the northern edge of the crater. You walk through a variety of plants with overlooks at various stages to catch glimpses of the crater at various angles. On your cell phone, you can call to get recorded messages of what you are looking at. When you get to the western edge, you begin the switchback stage of the hike. It is not as far down as the eastern point, but I remember it being a bit more treacherous. Steps and handrails, though, are there when needed. After 10 minutes or so, you are on the crater floor.
There is a general path down and around, marked, and there will be other groups making their way. The western side is more cracked and difficult, as if the lava spurting had been more violent. You are also still sloping gently downward.
After a certain point, at about 450 feet from the top of the crater, it just opens up into a vast, flat gray stone field, from where the lava lake cooled. Yes, the lava is still down there, as evidenced by the steam vents: rain water collects, drips down, hits the lava a hundred feet below and then hisses back up. (If you get chilly, like my wife did, the steam vents are a good place to get warm.)
We had lunch on one of the outcroppings. It was nice to just sit there and look around. The sharp contrast between the violent, almost sterile devastation around you and the vibrant, tropical wilderness above you is eerily beautiful. Towards the eastern edge, those hardy trees and bushes have begun to sprout, some with bright red blooms, lehua blossoms. I wanted to call them Pele’s Rose, but Tracy wasn’t having any of that, so lehua blossoms they are.
A word of warning: don’t bring back any souvenirs! Leave the lava rocks and lehua blossoms alone or else you’ll piss off Pele, the volcano goddess. You’re hiking through her front porch and she gets pissy when people take things. The state of Hawai’i gets hundreds of pounds of rocks mailed back to them each year from tourists who took something home and their luck turned to crap. Seriously. Be respectful and leave it alone. Or else.
But what goes down…yep, time for the switchbacks again and the Hawaiian Trudge. On the eastern tip, it’s all rainforest, all the way back up, about 450 feet. It is a dirt path, well cleared and traveled, with little chance of falling over the edge. But it is still 450 feet up. For me, this was the hardest part of the hike. My very spry mother-in-law made the trip with a few rest stops. At age *&^%$, she had never done this hike but always wanted to, and she was very proud of herself that she made it.
If Kilauea Iki is the entrée, then Devastation Trail, a mile or so down the road, is the after dinner drink before the dessert. It is a much easier hike, just a 10-15 minute rolling walk through what was once lush forest.
It begins abruptly. One second you are walking in tropical greenery and rich soil and then you are crunching your way along tephra (airborne gas-frothed lava that has cooled as pumice cinders). In 1959, when Kilauea Iki blew, fountains of lava exploded 1,900 feet into the air and it rained fire on this area. This is what was left. It is beautiful in its own unique way, as shades of gray and crunchy pumice are being pushed back by the surrounding forest seeking to reclaim its own.
Ready for the last leg of the tour? Let’s go see the end of the world! Again. Or, in this case, the beginning.
Not too far from the parking lot for Devastation Trail, we’ll come to Chain of Craters Road. If you haven’t figured it out yet, switchbacks and rapid changes in elevation are as much a part of the Big Island as the shaka (that hand thing they do with the pinkie and thumb). You are at about 4,000 feet when you enter the park. In 15-20 minutes down Chain of Craters Road, you’ll be at sea level. It’s a gradually descending, well made road until you pop out of the rain forest onto carved black terraces with an amazing vista of lava fields and—you guessed it—the edge of the world. The road cuts down the side of the volcano along those terraces and tight switchbacks until you make it to the edge of the island. It is a pretty spectacular view up and down.
The road doesn’t stop, but access does. At one time, you could drive back to Route 11, but Pele had other ideas and repaved long stretches in lava. There is now a parking area here with bathrooms and a gift shop. –Snacks too.
A short walk has you looking out over the ocean from the top of a black cliff a couple hundred feet high. It’s shear, from where the lava just folded down over itself, cooled, and stayed. The sights and feelings there are tremendous. That wind pummels you at the cliffs as you stare down at dark blue ocean pounding against the jagged black cliffs that zigzag into the distance. The Holei Sea Arch is one of the more recognizable pictures you will find of this area, where the sea eroded the inner part of the cliff leaving a 300 foot arch.
The actual lava flow is still a few miles away, but don’t get too excited: you’ll never get close enough to see the actual flow. You can walk a couple miles along the closed road, with the wind pushing you every step, but poisonous gases–and top notch rangers–will keep you far enough away so you won’t hurt yourself. The best you can hope for is to see the red glow at night (the park is open 24 hours). You can hear it though, the hissing as molten rock meets crashing waves. Black sands beaches form and then are washed away.
The walk back to your car is the easiest on the island. Enjoy it. There is no Hawaiian Trudge here: just flat, level asphalt with gusting winds at your back, helping you along.
And that’s all he wrote for part 4. In part 5, I’ll use the word “southern” far too much, abuse the citizens of Key West, FL, and we’ll come to my favorite place on the Big Island.