Visitors can easily — and safely — see the ongoing eruption Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and drive and hike amid recent and centuries-old lava flows.
I have a bad case of volcano love.
I’ve hiked up active and dormant volcanoes, from the Pacific Northwest to Nicaragua and Japan. I’ve sailed in a rickety fishing boat to watch red-hot lava from Italy’s Stromboli volcano tumble steaming into the sea.
Yet, until a recent trip to Hawaii, I’d never driven right up to a crater’s edge to peer into the heart of an erupting volcano where a lava lake glows and fumes.
If you go
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
The park is about 100 miles from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii Island’s main visitor area, and about 30 miles from the town of Hilo.
Eruption updates, lava viewing
The U.S. Geological Survey issues daily updates on the Kilauea eruption: hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php
Small lodges and cabins dot Volcano village, a mile from the park entrance. I stayed there at Lotus Garden Cottages, a comfortable and peaceful B&B tucked into the woods. volcanogetaway.com
• The park turns 100 in 2016, and special programs, including free talks and guided hikes, are planned.
• Admission to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is $15 per vehicle, valid for a week. Consider buying the Hawai’i Tri-park Annual Pass, $25 for a year, with admission to Hawaii Volcanoes; the island’s Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park; and Haleakala National Park on Maui.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, nps.gov/have or 808-985-6000
Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau: gohawaii.com/en/big-island
Welcome to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where visitors can easily — and safely — see the ongoing eruption at the summit of Kilauea volcano on the island of Hawaii (the Big Island). It’s a very close look at one of the earth’s most fundamental forces.
If you’re used to the craggy, and sometimes massively explosive, volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest, such as Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, think again. Kilauea is what’s called a shield volcano, a 4,091-foot tall, gradually sloping volcano from which lava usually oozes down the slopes. Yet Kilauea has been powerfully destructive in recent decades, when molten lava flowed outside the park and burned dozens of houses and buried roads, forest and beaches.
Kilauea has been erupting continually since 1983, making it one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. Zipping around Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (which also includes part of the massive Mauna Loa volcano), you could see the most popular sights in a few hours, even though the park sprawls over 330,000 acres,
“It’s certainly great to drive. But on foot you really get to know the park and its treasures,” said park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane. “People don’t realize that there are 155 miles of hiking trails.”
So go take a hike. Or even just a half-hour walk. The slower you go, and the farther from your car, the more desolate, elemental beauty you’ll discover.
Stroll atop lava that’s hardened into billowing pillows and sinuous gray-black patterns. Walk across a barren crater floor, where volcanic steam wafts out of crevices. Hike around or up stark cinder cones, the hundreds-foot-tall signposts of earlier eruptions. And gaze out to the deep blue sea or up to 13,678-foot Mauna Loa, looming above Kilauea.
Ready to go? Here are three don’t-miss roadside sights and my three favorite hikes/walks in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
1. Observation Deck at Jagger Museum: Make a beeline for this heart-of-the volcano viewpoint, just a 10-minute drive from the park entrance. It sits on the rim of Kilauea Caldera, the main six-square-mile crater at the summit. Just a mile away, in a crater within a crater within Kilauea Caldera (yes, volcano geology is complicated), is the lava lake. It rises and falls almost daily, continually pumping out a plume of volcanic gas that towers hundreds of feet in the air.
Join the multinational crowd staring at this eruption. Fascinating by day, it’s mesmerizing at night when the glow from the molten lava is visible, and reflects off the plume and clouds, painting them fiery red.
It’s a dangerous beauty if you’re downwind since the volcano emits sulfur dioxide that’s hazardous to breathe. The prevailing trade winds keep much of the park and the Jagger Museum area clear. But beyond the small geological museum, the park’s Crater Rim Drive and trails are closed. And the gases create “vog” — volcanic smog — that sometimes reaches the island’s main visitor town of Kailua Kona, 100 miles away by road.
Tip: See the eruption’s eerie beauty at night if you can. The park is open 24 hours a day; the Jagger crowds dwindle after 8 p.m. Or go before dawn to see the volcano glowing and the sun rise. “You’ll have it to yourself,” says park spokeswoman Ferracane.
2. Thurston Lava Tube: Another extraordinary roadside volcanic attraction. Walk for two minutes through junglelike forest and into a 600-foot-long lava tube, a natural tunnel that’s dank and spooky (only dimly lit by electric lights). Kids love it.
The 500-year-old lava tube was created, as were others in the park, when the edges of a lava flow cooled and solidified, forming a 20-foot-tall tunnel. When the lava stopped flowing, the empty tube remained.
Lava tubes are scattered through the park. Lava from the Pu’u O’o volcanic vent, Kilauea’s other major (and off-limits) eruption site, has flowed since 1983 including through lava tubes to the ocean where it oozed into the sea in fiery, steaming streams. That stopped several years ago. (Earlier this year lava from Pu’u O’o threatened the small town of Pahoa, but it stalled on the outskirts.)
Tip: Tour buses and day-trippers flock to Thurston Lava Tube, a 5-minute drive from the park entrance. Avoid the busiest time of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
3. Chain of Craters Road: You could spend days exploring the volcanic landscapes along this dramatically scenic route, about 22 miles each way from the park entrance. See small craters, drive (and get out to stroll) across centuries-old lava flows and recent flows where barely a plant grows among the fields of lava that’s hardened into glistening, dark basalt rock.
The road drops thousands of feet to the sea, then dead ends on the rugged coast where a lava flow buried it in 2003.
Tip: As in all the park, be prepared for heat, rain and wind. Wear good shoes so you can walk safely across lava.
3 don’t-miss hikes
1. Crater Rim Trail: Take an otherworldly, eerie nighttime gentle hike on the Crater Rim Trail near the Jagger Museum. I walked a few miles and had the trail, and the volcano’s fiery glow, almost completely to myself.
I started walking from Kilauea Overlook, an overlooked, drive-to viewing area off Crater Rim Drive perched on the 400-foot-high volcano rim. Only a few other people were at the overlook, one laying flowers on the rocks in a tribute to Pele, the traditional Hawaiian volcano goddess. The walking was easy — with a good flashlight — on the flat, partly paved trail.
Tip: For a shorter walk on the Crater Rim Trail, start from the Jagger Museum parking lot. The first few hundred yards are discreetly lit.
2. Kilauea Iki: Standing on the 400-foot-tall crater rim of Kilauea Iki, I saw what looked like clusters of insects scuttling across the barren crater floor. They were hikers, walking a four-mile loop along the lushly forested rim and across Kilauea Iki (“Little Kilauea”) crater.
By the time I hiked down to the crater floor it was raining hard and I had the desolately peaceful place to myself. Reading my trail guide, I learned that back in 1959 where I was standing was a place of spectacular volcanic chaos, the crater a roiling lake of lava with fountains of molten rock spewing hundreds of feet into the air.
Don’t worry. The crater surface is solid now. But there’s still enough heat that some rocks are warm to touch and steam drifts out of crevices.
Tip: Walk counterclockwise from the trailhead at t Kilauea Iki Overlook. It’s more scenic, more knee-friendly and the trail markers that correspond to the excellent Kilauea Iki Trail Guide go counterclockwise. Buy the guide for $2 at the park’s visitor center or see it at nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/upload/Kilauea-Iki-Trail-Guide-2013.pdf.
3. Pu’Huluhulu and Mauna Ulu: Walk in a volcanic wonderland, across lava fields, up volcanic cones and past “lava trees,” stone casts of tree trunks created as lava hardened around burned-out wood. Walk amid smooth, billowing pahoehoe lava and jagged ’a’a lava, created by different cooling processes.
It’s a mostly easygoing 2½-mile round trip to Pu’Huluhulu, a 500-year old volcanic cone cloaked in scrubby trees. The last bit, up to its 210-foot summit, is steep but worth it. At the top, only the size of a couple of dining room tables, get a sweeping view.
Nearby is Mauna Ulu, a stark 400-foot-tall volcanic cone born in an eruption that began in 1969. I began clambering up it, envisaging the eruption that sent lava fountains blowing out of the earth, some an extraordinary 1,770 feet tall, and created waterfalls of molten rock as wide as Niagara Falls.
I didn’t make it to the top. Mauna Ulu’s crusty surface, while completely cooled, is fragile. I broke through once, sinking just ankle deep but scaring myself. Since I was hiking alone, and clouds were swirling in, I turned back. I’ll try again next visit.
Tip: Make sense of this landscape with the Mauna Ulu Eruption Guide; buy it at the visitor center for a few dollars or see nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/upload/mauna_ulu_trail_guide-1.pdf.
There’s no marked trail up Mauna Ulu; the surface is fragile; and at the summit there’s a sheer 100-foot drop into the crater. Wear good hiking boots and be careful. For Mauna Ulu hiking tips, see instanthawaii.com/cgi-bin/hi?Hikes.mulu,