I was standing next to an ominous-looking sign adorned with exclamation points and a skull and crossbones, put there by the folks at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and advising...

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HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — I was standing next to an ominous-looking sign adorned with exclamation points and a skull and crossbones, put there by the folks at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and advising me that to proceed was to risk my death.

Through my binoculars, two dark rock cones 30 to 40 feet tall were sputtering globs of molten rock into the air. They were a mile away, but I could easily make out orange lava shooting up and falling back to earth. I was alone in a weird landscape of cinders and stone, eating a peanut-butter sandwich and telling myself the seven miles I had just hiked across black, hardened lava and through rain forests had been worth the effort.

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Then the show started.

One of the cones suddenly opened with a flash. It became an incandescent mouth, gushing incredible volumes of orange globs, strings and webs, tossing them into the air in slow motion. The lava wasn’t just orange, it was Day-Glo orange, and it kept pushing and bubbling out of the earth, turning to gray as it chilled in midair, slopping to the earth, huffing and chuffing like a sheet snapping in the wind.

I was witnessing one of the recent eruptions in a 21-year history of more or less continuous activity from Pu’u ‘O’o, the active volcanic vent of Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Volcano-watching on the Big Island is a crapshoot. More than a million visitors come to the park every year, most hoping to glimpse geology in awe-inspiring action.

Kilauea eruptions are not the explosive Mount St. Helens-type that spread ash for hundreds of miles; instead, runny lava pours and oozes from a variety of vents, coursing downhill and building the island a little bit bigger almost every day. In the past 35 years, 86 square miles have been covered with lava on the flank of Kilauea, and hundreds of acres of land has been created by the lava spilling into the ocean and hardening.

In February, when I visited, the active vent was miles from any road and in a pretty inaccessible part of the park. At the end of May and continuing this month, lava from Kilauea began spilling into the ocean again for the first time in almost a year, a dramatic spectacle of fire, steam and water.


The park is a wonderland beyond its active eruptions. There are hikes across strange lava formations; stunning views far out into the Pacific; and petroglyphs carved in rock that are the work of the Polynesians who arrived more than 1,600 years ago.

Getting there


From the town of Hilo on the Big Island, it’s about a 30-mile drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (and the village of Volcano). From Kailua Kona, the island’s major resort area, it’s about 100 miles.

Lodging


There are many resorts and hotels in Kailua Kona; some smaller hotels in Hilo; and B&Bs in Volcano. For lodging and other information, contact the Big Island Visitors Bureau, 808-961-5797 or bigisland.gohawaii.com. For B&Bs in Volcano village, see www.stayhawaii.com/volcano.html.

Kilauea information


For the latest information on the Kilauea eruption, go to the Web site of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at hvo.wr.usgs.gov. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Web site has details on where and how to hike out to see the lava (from the end of the Chain of Craters road) and safety tips: www.nps.gov/havo/

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