Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other national parks are spectacular, no doubt about it. But in my opinion, they're all ho-hum compared to this one: Here nothing less than the miracle of creation is the daily attraction.
In the 19th century, before tourism became Hawaii's middle name, the islands' singular attraction for visitors wasn't the beach, but the volcano. From the world over, curious spectators gathered on the rim of Kilauea's Halemaumau crater to see one of the greatest wonders of the globe. Nearly a century after it was named a national park (in 1916), Hawaii Volcanoes remains the state's premier natural attraction.
Hawaii Volcanoes has the only rainforest in the U.S. National Park system -- and it's the only park that's home to an active volcano. Most people drive through the park (it has 50 miles of good roads, some of them often covered by lava flows) and call it a day. But it takes at least 3 days to explore the whole park, including such oddities as Halemaumau Crater, a still-fuming pit of steam and sulfur; the intestinal-looking Thurston Lava Tube; Devastation Trail, a short hike through a desolated area destroyed by lava; and, finally, the end of Chain of Craters Road, where lava regularly spills across the man-made two-lane blacktop to create its own red-hot freeway to the sea. In addition to some of the world's weirdest landscapes, the park has hiking trails, rainforests, campgrounds, a historic old hotel on the crater's rim, and that spectacular, still-erupting volcano.
Notes on the Erupting Volcano
Volcanologists refer to Hawaii's volcanic eruptions as "quiet" eruptions because gases escape slowly instead of building up and exploding violently all at once. Hawaii's eruptions produce slow-moving, oozing lava that provides excellent, safe viewing most of the time.
Even so, the volcano has still caused its share of destruction. Since the current eruption of Kilauea began on January 3, 1983, lava has covered some 16,000 acres of lowland and rainforest, threatening rare hawks, honeycreeper birds, spiders, and bats, while destroying power and telephone lines and eliminating water service possibly forever. Some areas have been mantled repeatedly and are now buried underneath 80 feet of lava. At last count, the lava flow had destroyed nearly 200 homes and businesses, wiped out Kaimu Black Sand Beach (once Hawaii's most photographed beach) and Queen's Bath, obliterated entire towns and subdivisions (Kalapana, Royal Gardens, Kalapana Gardens, and Kapaahu Homesteads), and buried natural and historic landmarks (a 12th-c. heiau, the century-old Kalapana Mauna Kea Church, Wahaulu Visitor Center, and thousands of archaeological artifacts and sites). The cost of the destruction -- so far -- is estimated at $100 million. But how do you price the destruction of a 700-year-old temple or a 100-year-old church?
However, Kilauea hasn't just destroyed parts of the island; it has also added to it -- more than 560 acres of new land. The volume of erupted lava over the last 2 decades measures nearly 2 billion cubic yards -- enough new rock to pave a two-lane highway 1.2 million miles long, circling the earth some 50 times. Or, as a spokesperson for the park puts it: "Every 5 days, there is enough lava coming out of Kilauea volcano's eruption to place a thin veneer over Washington, D.C. -- all 63 square miles."
The most prominent vent of the eruption has been Puu Oo, a 760-foot-high cinder-and-spatter cone. The most recent flow -- the one you'll be able to see, if you're lucky -- follows a 7-mile-long tube from the Puu Oo vent area to the sea. This lava flow has extended the Big Island's shoreline seaward and added hundreds of acres of new land along the steep southern slopes. Periodically, the new land proves unstable, falls under its own weight, and slides into the ocean. (These areas of ground gained and lost are not included in the tally of new acreage -- only the land that sticks counts.)
Scientists are also keeping an eye on Mauna Loa, which has been swelling since its last eruption in 1984. If there's a new eruption, there could be a fast-moving flow down the southwest side of the island, possibly into South Kona or Kau.
A Volcano-Visiting Tip -- Thanks to its higher elevation and windward (rainier) location, this neck of the woods is always colder than it is at the beach. If you're coming from the Kona side of the island in summer, expect it to be at least 10° to 20° cooler at the volcano; bring a sweater or light jacket. In the winter months, expect temperatures to be in the 40s or 50s (single digits to midteens Celsius), and dress accordingly. Always have rain gear on hand, especially in winter.
What You're Likely to See -- With luck, the volcano will still be streaming rivers of red lava when you visit the park, but a continuous eruption of this length (more than 2 decades) is setting new ground, so to speak. Kilauea continues to perplex volcanologists because most major eruptions in the past have ended abruptly after only several months.
But neither Mother Nature nor Madame Pele (the volcano goddess) runs on a schedule. The volcano could be shooting fountains of lava hundreds of feet into the air on the day you arrive, or it could be completely quiet -- there are no guarantees. On many days, the lava flows right by accessible roads, and you can get as close as the heat will allow; sometimes, however, the flow is in underground tubes where you can't see it, or miles away from the nearest access point, visible only in the distance. Always ask the park rangers for advice before you set out on any lava-viewing expeditions.
Volcano Vocabulary -- The volcano has its own unique, poetic vocabulary that describes in Hawaiian what cannot be said so well in English. The lava that looks like swirls of chocolate cake frosting is called pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy); it results from a fast-moving flow that curls artistically as it moves. The big, blocky, jumbled lava that looks like a chopped-up parking lot is called aa (ah-ah); it's caused by lava that moves slowly, pulling apart as it overruns itself.
Newer words include vog, which is volcanic smog made of volcanic gases and smoke from forests set on fire by aa and pahoehoe. Laze results when sulfuric acid hits the water and vaporizes, and mixes with chlorine to become, as any chemistry student knows, hydrochloric acid. Both vog and laze sting your eyes and can cause respiratory illness; don't expose yourself to either for too long. Anyone with heart or breathing trouble, as well as women who are pregnant, should avoid both vog and laze.
Just the Facts
When to Go -- The best time to go is when Kilauea is really pumping. If you're lucky, you'll be in the park when the volcano is active and there's a fountain of lava; mostly, the lava runs like a red river downslope into the sea. If you're on another part of the island and hear a TV news bulletin that the volcano is acting up, head to Hilo to see the spectacle. You won't be sorry -- and your favorite beach will still be there when you get back.
Access Points -- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is 29 miles from Hilo, on Hawaii Belt Road (Hwy. 11). If you're staying in Kailua-Kona, it's 100 miles, or about a 2 1/2-hour drive, to the park. At press time, admission was still $10 per vehicle, once you pay the fee, you can come and go as often as you want for 7 days. Hikers and bicyclists pay $5; bikes are allowed only on roads and paved trails.
Visitor Centers & Information -- Contact Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, P.O. Box 52, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI 96718 (www.nps.gov/havo; tel. 808/985-6000). The Kilauea Visitor Center is at the entrance to the park, just off Hwy. 11; it's open daily from 7:45am to 5pm.
Eruption Updates -- Everything you wanted to know about Hawaii's volcanoes, from what's going on with the current eruptions to where the next eruption is likely to be, is now available on the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory's new website, http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo/activity/kilaueastatus.php. The site is divided into areas on Kilauea (the currently erupting volcano), Mauna Loa (which last erupted in 1984), and Hawaii's other volcanoes. Each section provides photos, maps, eruption summaries, and historical information.
You can also get the latest on volcanic activity in the park by calling the park's 24-hour hot line (tel. 808/985-6000). Updates on volcanic activity are posted daily on the bulletin board at the visitor center.
Hiking & Camping in the Park -- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers a wealth of hiking and camping possibilities.
Accommodations in & Around the Park -- If camping isn't your thing, don't worry. There's a hotel, Volcano House, within the park boundary, on the rim of Halemaumau Crater. Volcano Village, however, as we went to press it was closed for renovations but just outside the park, there are plenty of comfortable and convenient hotels and restaurants.
Seeing the Highlights
Your first stop should be Kilauea Visitor Center, a rustic structure in a shady grove of trees just inside the entrance to the park. Here you can get up-to-the-minute reports on the volcano's activity, learn how volcanoes work, see a film showing blasts from the past, get information on hiking and camping, and pick up the obligatory postcards.
Filled with a new understanding of volcanology and the volcano goddess, Pele, you should then walk across the street to Volcano House; go through the lobby and out the other side, where you can get a look at Kilauea Caldera, a 2 1/2-mile wide, 500-foot-deep hole. The caldera used to be a bubbling pit of fountaining lava; today you can still see wisps of steam that might, while you're standing there, turn into something more.
Now get out on the road and drive by the sulfur banks, which smell like rotten eggs, and the steam vents, where trails of smoke, once molten lava, rise from within the inner reaches of the earth. This is one of the places where you feel that the volcano is really alive.
Stop at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum (daily 8:30am-8pm; free admission) for a good look at Halemaumau Crater, which is a half-mile across and 1,000 feet deep. On a clear day, you might also see Mauna Loa, 20 miles to the west. The museum shows video from days when the volcano was really spewing, explains the Pele legend in murals, and monitors earthquakes (a precursor of eruptions) on a seismograph.
When you've seen the museum, drive around the caldera to the south side, park your car, and take the short walk to the edge of Halemaumau Crater, past stinky sulfur banks and steam vents, to stand at the overlook and stare in awe at this once-fuming old fire pit, which still generates ferocious heat out of vestigial vents.
If you feel the need to cool off, go to the Thurston Lava Tube, the coolest place in the park. You'll hike down into a natural bowl in the earth, a forest preserve the lava didn't touch -- full of native birds and giant tree ferns. Then you'll see a black hole in the earth; step in. It's all drippy and cool here, with bare roots hanging down. You can either resurface into the bright daylight or, if you have a flashlight, poke on deeper into the tube, which goes for another .5 mile or so.
If you're still game for a good hike, try Kilauea Iki Trail, a 4-mile, 2-hour hike across the floor of the crater, which became a bubbling pool of lava in 1959 and sent fountains of lava 1,900 feet in the air, completely devastating a nearby ohia forest and leaving another popular hike ominously known as Devastation Trail. This .5-mile walk is a startling look at the powers of a volcanic eruption on the environment.
Check out ancient Hawaiian art at the Puu Loa Petroglyphs, around mile marker 15 down Chain of Craters Road. Look for the stack of rocks on the road. A brief .5-mile walk will bring you to a circular boardwalk where you can see thousands of mysterious Hawaiian petroglyphs carved in stone. (Warning: It's very easy to destroy these ancient works of art. Do not leave the boardwalk, and do not walk on or around the petroglyphs. Rubbings of petroglyphs will destroy them; the best way to capture them is by taking a photo.) This area, Puu Loa, was a sacred place for generations. Fathers came here to bury their newborns' umbilical cords in the numerous small holes in the lava, thus ensuring a long life for the child.
The Volcano After Dark -- If the volcano is erupting, be sure to see it after dark. Brilliant red lava snakes down the side of the mountain and pours into the sea, creating a vivid display you'll never forget. About 1 1/2 hours before sunset, head out of the park and back down Volcano Highway (Hwy. 11). Turn onto Hwy. 130 at Keaau; go past Pahoa to the end of the road. (The drive takes the better part of an hour.) From here (depending on the flow), it's about a mile walk over sharp crusted lava; park rangers will tell you how to get to the best viewing locations, or you can call ahead (tel. 808/985-6000) to check where the current eruption is and how to get there. Be forewarned that the flow changes constantly and, on some days, may be too far from the road to hike, in which case you'll have to be content with seeing it from a distance. Be sure to heed the rangers: In the past, a handful of hikers who ignored these directions died en route; new lava can be unstable and break off without warning. Take water, a flashlight, and your camera, and wear sturdy shoes.
A Bird's-Eye View -- The best way to see Kilauea's bubbling caldera is from on high, in a helicopter. This bird's-eye view puts the enormity of it all into perspective. I recommend Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (www.bluehawaiian.com; tel. 800/745-BLUE or 808/886-1768), a professionally run, locally based company with an excellent safety record; comfortable, top-of-the-line copters; and pilots who are extremely knowledgeable about everything from volcanology to Hawaii lore. The company flies out of both Hilo and Waikoloa (Hilo is cheaper because it's closer). From Hilo, the 45-minute Circle of Fire Tour] takes you over the boiling volcano and then on to a bird's-eye view of the destruction the lava has caused as well as of remote beaches ($223-$274 per person, or $196-$241 online). From Waikoloa, the 2-hour Big Island Spectacular stars the volcano, tropical valleys, Hamakua Coast waterfalls, and the Kohala Mountains (from $450-$563, or $396-$495 online, but worth every penny).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.