Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
...on the Big Island
The park entrance fee is good for 7 days, so try go back later to see more of this interesting area if you have the time.
The best place to start your tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is at the Visitor Center. There is a small admission charge at the gate to the park, which fully encloses the Kilauea Caldera and other volcanic areas right down to the coastal area.
The Kilauea Caldera is the main feature of the park, and is quite spectacular, as seen here from the Volcano House hotel balcony, which is perched right on the rim of the caldera! Kilauea consists of several craters inside the caldera, all of which were active until quite recently. The Halemaumau Crater today looks quite tame, with only a few steam vents visible in the area. However, only a few years ago, it was very active. Another crater inside Kilauea is Kilauea Iki, or "little Kilauea". This crater has a smooth glassy lava bottom.
As we drive clockwise around Kilauea, across the road from Kilauea Iki is the Thurston Lava Tube. These formations are particularly odd, when you consider that they were a tunnel of hot lava running through cooler lava. The Thurston Lava Tube today is positively tropical in appearance. Contrast this picture or serenity with a laval tube in action! There is a 300 metre long unlit chamber of the Thurston Lava Tube, if you care to bring your own flashlight. When I walk to the end of the lava tube there were a few other people who had brought flashlights, so I wasn't alone.
The turn-off to Chain of Craters Road is next, however we will continue on our clockwise tour of Crater Rim Drive.
Next is the Keanakako'i Crater on the outside of Crater Rim Drive, and the Keanakako'i Overlook on the inside of the road. Have a look at the interesting spatter & smooth flows from the overlook, as well as the deep fissures in the lava.
Halema'uma Overlook is an an area of volcanic fumes (sulpherous), which can be hazardous for some people. For the rest of us, this is a fascinating area. As you walk from the parking lot to the Overlook area, there are numerous sulfur vents.
The Jagger Museum offers the classic view of Kilauea Caldera and Halema'uma'u Crater, but it is often crowed with bus tours. There is an interesting static display inside. You will be facing south into the sun, so photos from this vantage point will often be poor. Typically, this is where tourists take their "I was there" shots next to the rim, but because of the awful backlight, they couldn't pick a worse location.
Tip: Take your "I was there" shot at Halema'uma'u Overlook. The sun will be at your back, and the colorful Halema'uma'u Crater will be behind your subjects.
Continuing clockwise is Kilauea Overlook, which offers good views of Steaming Bluff, Halema'uma Crater, as well as most of the rest of the Kilauea Caldera. This overlook is usually not crowded (unlike the Jagger Museum).
Devastation Trail is a nice short 1 km hike and shows what happens on the ground when a volcanic eruption occurs. In this case, in 1959 Kilauea Iki erupted, throwing hot debris into this area. It is fascinating how vegetation and other wildlife is reclaiming the land, despite it still being covered with cinder rubble.
The Volcano Art Center is the last stop before our clockwise tour ends up back at the main park entrance. Again, this is a favorite with the bus tours, so it can be very crowded. This is also the departure point for many of the guided hikes. Tip: You might want to check on the times these hikes are leaving so you can sign up before you tour the rest of Kilauea by car.
A bit further along the road around Kilauea, we turn off onto Chain of Craters Road, which gets it's name honestly. This area was the site as late as 1974 of some terrific eruptions. Several craters along this road have a recent history of eruptions. The line of fire phenomenon is quite common, as is the lava river, which formed many of the huge black lava flows I described earlier.
Before we proceeded down Chain of Craters Road, we were warned by the Park Service that a tsunami warning had been issued for the south coastal area of the Big Island of Hawaii. We were allowed to proceed down to the steam plume which was visible from the end of the road, providing we turned our car around and parked on the road facing back to safety. This is the site of active lava flows, which in this case flow into the sea, causing a huge steam cloud of hydrochloric acid gas. Needless to say, we didn't get too close!
Along the way back to Kilauea, we came upon a black sand beach along the coastal area. After walking on crunchy, slick, black, hot, fresh lava flows created only last year (see the foreground of the steam plume photo), it is easy to imagine the lava spatter that caused all of this new land to be formed so dramatically. Sometimes humans seem to tempt fate by building subdivisions in the path of the lava flows.
Although Kilauea is only 4,000 feet above sea level, it is very active. It's bigger sister Mauna Loa is 13,679 feet above sea level, and is also active. The third volcano on the Big Island is Mauna Kea, which has research observatories located atop it's peak, and is much less active than the other volcanoes.
In 2009 I venture outside of Volcanoes National Park to see some active lava flows at night. I leave Hilo a bit after 4pm to drive down to view a coastal lava flow at night. I drive Highway 130 as far as it goes, and then a bit further through the outpost community of Waikupanaha, which is built on the active lava flow in the eastern rift zone outside Volcanoes National Park. The civil defence folks are in charge of this area, offering traffic control and safety services. The trail to the viewing area on the coast is about one kilometer west of the active flow, which means a half hour hike across fresh lava to the viewpoint. It is worth the effort, since this is the first time I see hot flowing lava. I take photos with my digital SLR camera which is modified to see infrared better (normally used for astronomy). I also take some video of the flows entering the sea. It is quite spectacular!
If you have heart or breathing problems, or you have infants or pregnant women with you, avoid the volcanic fumes to be found at Sulpher Banks, Halemaumau Crater, and other areas where volcanic fumes are present. Don't stick your head in a fume vent!
If you plan to hike in the park, you should realize lava fields are very hot and there is no shade. Bring lots of water, wear a hat, and wear sunscreen and sunglasses. Wear good hiking shoes and long pants. Don't hike in the dark, and stay on established trails. If you haven't hiked in the park before, why not take one of the many guided hikes lead by the park naturalists? They are both interesting and fun.
When driving, remember you are not on a freeway! Drive slowly and watch for pedestrians and bicyclists. Watch for the Nene (Hawaiian Goose) - the state bird of Hawaii. More Nene are killed by cars than by any other means.
Lava is new land that is quite unstable. Don't walk near edges or near cracks - they may break off without warning!