This may be the biggest twofer of them all -- when you visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, not only do you get two volcanoes but you get them on the most massive mountain on earth, Mauna Loa, which measures some 19,000 cubic miles. Yes, some of it is underwater, but from its ocean base to its peak, it measures 56,000 feet in height, more than 27,000 feet higher than Mount Everest. Volcanoes created the Hawaiian Island chain, and Mauna Loa and Kilauea today continue to add land, as their rivers of molten lava run into the sea. Here, as nowhere else, you can see the beginnings of planet Earth in action. Established in 1916, the park takes in about 209,695 acres. There are three more volcanoes on the island of Hawaii in addition to the two in the national park. The Kilauea volcano puts put about 250,000 to 650,000 cubic yards of lava per day, but, fortunately, most of it flows underground via lava tubes into the ocean, only a small amount above ground.
Mostly, you come to see the lava flow from Mount Kilauea (said to be the world's most active volcano, having been erupting since 1983) into the sea, which happens in the East Rift Zone, at the ocean end of the Chain of Craters Road, near the Holei Sea Arch. You can't miss the flow, as it is the reason the road comes abruptly to its end. The lava flow here has created more than 568 acres of new land along the shore since 1983, and covered nearly nine miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet.
Also fascinating is the Crater Rim Drive, which takes you 10.6 miles around the summit of Kilauea and its caldera and craters, going through rainforest and desert, with well-marked scenic stops and spots for short walks. The last eruptions were on June 17 to 19, 2007, as of time of writing.
There are 13 different day hikes recommended by the park people, as well as four Wilderness Hikes. The day hikes range from one mile to 11.5 miles, the latter being the Crater Rim, which they list as "challenging." It's mostly level, but you should be ready for hot, windy and rainy weather, and to beware of sulfur fumes, getting too close to cliffs and cracks. Even the 'Iliahi (Sandalwood) Trail, which also begins at the Volcano House Hotel, can be scary, the instructions reading "Beware of steep cliffs, deep earth cracks and scalding steam." It's only 1.5 miles, but it's "mostly shady."
The Wilderness Day Hikes include one to Napau, where a free permit is required, and all Wilderness Day Hikes are described as "challenging." They range from 6.6 miles to 15 miles. Permits are required for all overnight Wilderness Hikes, too. The 10.6-mile trek to 'Apua Point sounds difficult, as there is "no shade or shelter along this trail."
If you are in good shape and want to spend three or four days hiking, plan on climbing the 13,677 feet to the summit of Mauna Loa; assume winter conditions even though it may be August. Otherwise, and for most people, drive up as far as 6,662 feet, to the Mauna Loa Lookout. If you take the trouble to go to the other side of the mountain, you can go up to the Mauna Loa Observatory by road, to its site at 11,150 feet, but you're still 2500 feet below the summit, which comes only after you slog up a steep and difficult trail for another five miles or so. Altitude sickness is common, park officials say, on this rough trail.
Swimming in the ocean here is definitely not recommended.
Anyone with lung or heart problems, or pregnant women, small children and the like should be careful of fumes around the volcanoes, as the gases are dangerous and can come up at any time the wind shifts them around.
In addition to preserving the volcanoes so that they can do their thing, the park protects an abundance of wildlife, including birds and plants. In recognition of conservation efforts, the park has been named both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. Among endangered native species are the nene (Hawaiian goose) and the 'lo (Hawaiian hawk). Over 90 percent of Hawaii's native flora and fauna is endemic, meaning that it is found nowhere else on earth. You can observe evolution in action here, as the now-hundred endemic land birds evolved from as few as 20 original ancestors, thousand kinds of flowering plants from 272 colonizers, and about 10,000 kinds of insects and spider species evolved from 350 to 400 precursors, park officials say.
Backcountry camping requires a permit, given when you register at the Kilauea Visitor Center, which is located near the crater and the Volcano House Hotel. The other main activity is hiking, so just remember that walking around on two active volcanoes requires careful preparation. Kilauea Visitor Center, tel. 808/967-7311, www.nps.gov/havo.
New in 2007
There's a new, one-mile, fully accessible Sulphur Bank Trail, taking you into the park's thermally-active areas of steam vents (AKA solftaras), as well as through a steaming meadow and an 'ohi'a (a hardwood tree) forest. After years of careful conservation (including seeding in a greenhouse from collected seeds in the wild, then transplanting the seedlings to fenced enclosures that kept our hungry herbivores), the park says the Mauna Loa silversword is again flourishing in the subalpine regions.
Ranger & Other Programs
"After Dark in the Park" presents lectures and slide shows by guest speakers, two or three Tuesdays a month at 7pm in the Kilauea Visitor Center auditorium. On Wednesdays from 12:30 to 4:30pm you can take the Pua Po'o Wild Lava Tube Tour, reservations required. Phone at 7:45 local time to 808/985-6017, limited to first 12 persons who reserve.
Rangers lead guided walks, specific routes being posted at 9 AM at the visitor center, where there is also a 20-minute film on the hour from 9 to 4, daily. More info on park programs can be had by phoning 808/985-6166 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Number of Visitors
The majority of visitors stay in their cars, using the 11-mile road to the Mauna Loa Lookout or the 38-miles-roudntirp Chain of Craters Road to check out the calderas, craters and lava flows. The park had 1,612,246 visitors in 2006. The park's visitors center is 30 miles from Hilo, 95 miles from Kailua-Kona.
It costs $10 per vehicle, permit good for seven days, or $5 per individual, ditto. You can get a $25 Tri-Park Annual Pass, good for the Volcanoes Park and also for Haleakala and the Pu'uhonua o Honoaunau National Park. The Interagency Annual Pass ($80) gets you into all national parks and areas administered by four other governmental agencies as well.
- The official website is: www.nps.gov/havo.
- Recorded message on eruptions update: 808/985-6000.
- The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website: http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov.
- The US Geological Survey site: www.usgs.gov.
- Official website of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau: www.gohawaii.com.
- Hawaii Natural History Association (operates park bookstore): www.hawaiinaturalhistory.org.
- A good commercial site: www.hawaii.volcanoes.national-park.com.
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