Back in 2009, I was able to finally cross something big off my bucket list – to see an active volcano. I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii and I saw Kilauea, an active volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about a 45 minute or 30 mile journey from Hilo, Hawaii. Located on the Big Island, the park encompasses a large portion of the southeastern part of the island. As soon as we got close to the national park, I was amazed at how wet and dense the vegetation was so close to an active volcano. For some reason, I just figured the land would be mostly barren, like other places on the island. However, the area was a lush tropical rainforest. In fact, we were going to camp within the park for one night, but the campground was literally underwater in places. (It had been raining heavily and most of the available campsites were flooded. I had no idea that rain would even be an issue. Needless to say, we had to find a room for the night!)
When we entered the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, there were numerous small plumes of smoke, rising up out of the earth. Apparently what I was seeing is known as the Steam Vents. The smoke occurs because rain water falls through cracks in the earth and lands on rocks that are hot from the magma, or liquid rock, below. The ‘smoke’ is actually a steam that seeps out from these cracks. Smoke or steam, I found the geothermal activity incredibly exciting!
As we got an early jump on the day, we arrived at the park before the Visitor’s Center and Jaggar Museum were open. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but as the Visitor’s Center and museum is staffed, they didn’t open till 9 and 10 am respectively.
When we stopped near the museum to get our first look at Kilauea, I was amazed. I was finally seeing an active volcano with my own eyes! The Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, the main crater within Kilauea, was emitting constant fumes. I couldn’t see any lava within the crater, but I didn’t care. I knew it was there, under the surface.
After getting my fill of Kilauea, we headed to Kilauea Iki (a pit crater) for a 4 mile round trip hike with 400 feet of elevation gain. The hike at Kilauea Iki takes you around part of the rim, then down into the crater that last erupted in 1959. In fact, there are areas on the trail with rocks too hot to touch, as well as steam vents from cold rain water falling into the hot rocks below. After walking along the crater’s rim and through dense rainforest, you descend into the crater and follow a well-worn path marked with rock cairns. As someone who loves learning about geology and seeing rocks that were formed from lava only 50 years ago, I found this a fascinating hike. My photos from the hike are below:
Kilauea Iki info:
- 4 mile round trip loop, allow 2-3 hours for the hike
- Approximately a 400 feet elevation loss and gain for the descent and ascent into and out of the crater.
- Find the trailhead at the Kilauea Iki parking lot on Crater Rim drive.
- For more information, click here for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park hiking information.
Here are a few more photos from our hike inside Kilauea Iki:
It’s somewhat surreal to walk in an area that was once filled with lava. The eruption of Kilauea Iki can be viewed below. If you forward through the beginning of the video, you can see some of the eruption that occurred during the daytime as well.
After completing the hike of Kilauea Iki, we walked to Nahuku, or the Thurston Lava Tube. Here you walk a short way to get into the paved and lighted tunnel. This 500 year old tube that once carried lava to the surface takes you on a brief 1/3 mile hike from a tree fern forest into a black cave. Apparently, once there were lava stalactites on the roof of the lava tube. None remain due to visitors removing them from their surfaces. In 2011, they closed the rest of the tube off from visitors as it was unpaved and had no lights. However, since we visited in 2009, we were able to keep walking. Even though we brought headlamps to continue walking into this dark lava tube, it was eerily creepy. I walked as far as I could into the darkness, but not being able to see in front or behind me, while walking underground, was scary. Needless to say, it was an awesome experience to be in the unlit lava tube, but we didn’t stay there long!
Next, we hopped onto the 20 mile Chain of Craters Road and headed south. When we got out at certain view points, sulfur could be smelled in the air at times. In other places, steam was spewing out of the earth.
As our time was limited, we only stopped off at the Puʻu Loa petroglyphs. This amazing preserved area is sacred to the Hawaiian people. Circles, shapes resembling humans, and patterns were abundant! In fact, at this site alone, there are more than 23,000 petroglyphs, with about 84% of them containing holes, gouged from the rock. In order to preserve the petroglyphs within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a boardwalk was built above them, keeping foot traffic and wear away.
For us, our last stop along the Chain of Craters Road, was to drive to the very end, where old lava flow covers the road. When the road became parallel to the shore, I was in awe of the scenery. Driving along the Hawaii shoreline, you can see the ocean below, with its waves crashing against the lava rocks, continuing to shape and form the island. So much natural beauty here.
When we got to the end of the road, we had to walk a little more than half a mile to see where the old lava flow swallowed the road. It’s interesting to see how the lava takes on different forms in different areas. The two most frequently sighted lavas are the pahoehoe and a’a lava. Pahoehoe is smooth and thick, and is also responsible for the interesting ‘rope lava’ that appears like strands of lava. This lava takes it smooth shape because it moves slowly. A’a lava, on the other hand, appears as small, sharp rocks. It’s often lighter in color also. A’a lava gets its form from lava that flows fast; this fast-moving lava then loses heat and eventually thickens, hardens, and gets tumbled around as chunks. A’a is lightweight, sharp, and will hurt you if you fall on it, so please careful around it! Here are some examples of lava types:
To see where the lava once flowed onto the Chain of Craters Road was fascinating. A person can even spot road signs sticking out from the hardened rock. Unfortunately, the only area where there was active lava flowing into the ocean was miles away (See my photo below). We actually booked a helicopter flight to be able to witness it in person, but our flight was cancelled due to rain.
After visiting the NPS website, I learned that in October of 2014, heavy machinery broke through the lava that closed Chain of Craters Road. This was done to clear a path to the town of Kalapana, which is on the other side of the lava flow. Crews crushed and removed the hard lava to allow for an evacuation route out of the park. The end of the road no longer looks like my photos!
As a person who loves science and learning about geology, I absolutely loved our visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We only had one day to spend here, but I would have loved to spend more. Unlike other national parks, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park continues to form to this day. As a result, be sure to always check online at the park’s website to check for any park warnings or closings.
As of this posting, the NPS states that “a portion of Crater Rim Drive, between Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Road junction is closed indefinitely due to the fumes and ashfall from the vent that opened within Halemaʻumaʻu Crater in March 2008. The section of Crater Rim Drive from Chain of Craters Road to Keanakāko’i Crater is open to foot traffic.” For more information on the current air quality in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, click here.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is definitely not a park to be missed!
sources: wikipedia.org; instanthawaii.com; roadsideamerica.com; geo.cornell.edu; nps.gov/havo