Volcanoes emerging from the depths of the Pacific Ocean formed the Hawaiian Islands, one after another, as the ocean floor drifted northwest over the hot spot -- or as Hawaiian legend tells, Pele, the volcano goddess, moved to one new home after another. The oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, Kauai, has the fewest volcanic features; instead its attractions include the verdant, steepled Na Pali Coast. Oahu, with its nearly completed lei of sandy beaches, has lost much of its rawness, although Diamond Head is among the world's most famous landmarks. On Maui, a partially submerged crater attracts snorkeling tours, and Haleakala, a nearly dormant volcano beckons hikers to its colorful cinder cones. And then there is Hawaii Island. Here, at the southeastern end of the chain, the fiery volcano goddess now dwells and continues to rearrange landscapes with her lava flows and eruptions.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park -- Lay of the Land
At Hawaii Island's most visited attraction, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (nps.gov/havo), you can explore Kilauea, which has erupted continuously since 1983. The plural in the park's name alludes to Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984. Mauna Loa's slopes comprise much of the island, and its hiking trails are across the highway from the main section of the park. The main entrance to Volcanoes National Park sits near the summit of Kilauea about 30 minutes south of Hilo. Driving to the park on Highway 11 you pass miles of lush forest, thick with koa trees, ferns and in summer, fragrant yellow ginger. You feel a cool freshness as the temperature drops about 10 degrees lower than Hilo's at sea level. Weather changes often in the park, so layered clothing is a good idea.
Kilauea is not the type of volcano shown in kitschy movies that blows its top off. Kilauea and Mauna Loa are shield volcanoes, meaning their lava pours or erupts from vents. The town of Volcano, with its historical general store, thrives near the park's entrance. Across from the park, you'll find a golf course community and winery.
Health and Safety
Generally, Volcanoes National Park is awe-inspiring, but it is home to active volcanoes. Visitors need to adhere to safety rules provided on its website and by rangers in the park's Visitor Center. Lava flows in the east rift zone to the sea, at time of publication. In recent years, though, lava has destroyed communities, including Kalapana and the subdivision of Royal Gardens, but no lives were lost. However, some visitors to the park who have ignored warning signs and hiked out on unstable lava shelves over the sea and/or within reach of the fallout from lava exploding into the ocean have lost their lives, and many have been injured. Also, a health concern for some is vog, a volcanic version of smog. Depending on the person and the level of sulfuric acid, vog can create headaches, sore throats, asthma episodes or worse. The National Park Service continually tracks and reports sulfur dioxide levels on its website. The park has evacuated when levels were dangerously high for the general public.
Exploring the Park
After paying the entrance fee at the gate, your first stop should be the Visitor Center. Surrounded by cedar trees, the center provides maps and safety brochures, and rangers are on hand to answer questions and help you plan your day here. A movie about Hawaii's evolution from volcanoes and the park itself shows almost continually. As you drive the park's Chain of Craters Road, you'll see signs pointing out various features, such as steam vents, craters and lava flows. The landscape varies from moonscapes to upland rain forest. A short trail through a songbird-filled tree-fern forest leads to Thurston Lava Tube, which is well lit and wheelchair accessible. If you plan to hike across the craters, bring water, sunscreen and a light jacket. The weather can change quickly up here.
One of the highlight's of Volcanoes National Park is Halemaumau Crater. At night, the lava bubbling more than 600 feet below the surface gives a red glow to the plume, which you can see from the deck of the park’s Thomas A. Jaggar Museum. Inside the museum, view seismographs recording the constant activity beneath your feet along with volcanology and cultural displays. If you want to spend the night or dine in the park, Volcano House (hawaiivolcanohouse.com) has a hotel, cabins and restaurant; Kilauea Military Camp (kmc-volcano.com) has a commissary and cabins for military and guests.
Kalapana Lava Viewing
For a chance to see lava pouring over the ocean cliffs, drive to the Kalapana Viewing Site outside the national park at the end of Highway 130, south of the town of Pahoa. The 1-mile hike to the viewpoint takes you across an uneven field of lava rock, so wear close-toed shoes and bring a flashlight. While lava had stopped pouring into the sea in 2012, at the time of publication it's once again exploding into the ocean -- but conditions change day to day. Call for the daily update provided by the Hawaii County Civil Defense in a recorded message at 808-961-8093. Distance of the lava flows vary. For a closer look, there's Lava Ocean Boat Tours (lavaocean.com) and Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours (bluehawaiian.com).