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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we hiked through a lush rain forest, explored a long and dark lava tube, learned about the powerful eruptions that created the Hawaiian Islands, examined local plant life on a ranger-led walk, and viewed the billows of steam erupting from the Kilauea crater.
Our journey to the park began with a 2 ½ hour drive from our hotel, mostly on a 2-lane road.
As we headed south, we were treated to an elevated view of the western coast of Hawaii:
Soon we passed through miles of desolate, black lava fields:
Near the southern tip of the island, in the small town of Naalehu, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop at Hana Hou, the self-proclaimed “southernmost restaurant in the USA”:
We were only going to get something to drink, but then we saw the display case packed with homemade pies, cakes and cookies. "Table for 4, please!"
A large sign above the case had advised, “Eat Dessert First”, so we did.
In fact, that’s all we ate. Ben had his favorite pie—banana cream. I had a thick and moist, chocolate-dipped, coconut macaroon—yum! Sebastian ate a slice of rich chocolate pie, and Genevieve chose a delicious brownie that was so huge there was enough left for us to share later at lunch.
Continuing eastward, the grassland sloped gently to the southern coast:
We were approaching the volcano area, so there were no sandy beaches here—only black lava rock:
During the first portion of our drive, the road had been very curvy. Now we had some long straight stretches where we could finally hit the accelerator.
We passed through some fields covered in canopy trees:
Welcome to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!
In 1987, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joining a select group of protected areas around the world whose natural or cultural features are considered part of the “common inheritance of all mankind.”
Our first stop was the Kilauea Visitor’s Center (pronounced “kil uh way’ uh):
Kilauea is one of the two volcanoes within the park, and is located on the side of a larger volcano, Mauna Loa. Both are “shield” volcanoes, which means that their sides spread out in a broad, gently sloped curve (like a shield).
Kilauea is currently the most active volcano in Hawaii. The lava flows are unpredictable, however, and a visit to the park does not guarantee that one will see red lava spurting into the air or creeping along the ground. (Photos of red-hot lava exist on almost all of the brochures and advertisements for visiting the Big Island, and many a tourist has left the island disappointed).
At the visitor’s center, we learned that the lava was flowing outside of the park, with a viewing spot that was about an hour’s drive away. We were given directions and safety instructions, and told that we couldn’t possibly miss it because the lava had crossed the road the night before, creating a scene in which the road appeared to have been on fire. We were thrilled, especially Genevieve!
Since lava is best viewed at night, when the red glow is more distinct, we still had the rest of the afternoon to explore the park.
While at the visitor’s center, we were fortunate to meet Ranger Volunteer Jim Jackson:
He had moved to Hawaii in 1982 from New York and was very knowledgeable about plant-life, volcanic activity, and Hawaiian culture.
At the start of our 1-hour walking tour with Ranger Jackson, he explained that 9 of the 11 climate zones on earth exist on Hawaii. Some parts of the island receive a mere 10 inches of rain each year, while others are inundated with 200 inches. The rainforest area near the visitor’s center receives about 120 inches (10 feet), and has an abundance of ferns and other large plants.
We took a short walk to a fern-covered steam vent that is considered sacred by many Hawaiians.
Ranger Jackson asked us to stretch our hands over the railing and feel the heat. Ahhhhh! A short distance below the surface were rocks hot enough to turn rainwater into vapor. The steam was 160°F just four feet down, cooling to 120°F when it reached the surface.
Hawaiians have traditionally considered the hot steam to be the breath of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes.
About 100,000 years ago, ferns were one of the earliest plants to start growing among the barren lava fields on Hawaii. As the ferns grew, died, and disintegrated, they eventually built up a layer of soil that nurtured other types of plants.
About 90% of the native plants and animals in Hawaii are found only in the Hawaiian islands.
The hau plant, with its yellow flowers, is native to Hawaii.
When the first Hawaiians arrived 1500 to 2000 years ago from the Polynesian area, they were able to use the fibers in the hau branches to make string, rope, nets, and canoe lashes.
The "tree fern" is one of the 137 types of ferns in Hawaii.
Ranger Jackson invited us to touch the reddish brown fuzz that covered the new growth—it was surprisingly downy-soft. The fuzz serves as a sunscreen for the new fern fronds.
The center of the trunk has a core of pure starch, which was very appealing to early pigs on the island. The pigs would eat the core and leave the hollowed trunks behind, which would later collect rainwater. All was fine until Captain Cook arrived by ship, bringing mosquitoes that had collected around the onboard water barrels. The mosquitoes brought 2 viruses that proved fatal to birds, and they started breeding and thriving in the water that sat in the hollowed-out fern trunks.
Ranger Jackson recalled that twenty years ago many wild boar roamed the park area, and there were not many birds in the trees. To eradicate the boar, the park was fenced, and hunters were brought in to get the boar. Now, the chirping of many birds is a common (and delightful) sound throughout the park.
Ranger Jackson's stories made the park come alive for us. Another story that he shared was the Hawaiian legend around the bright red lehua flower, which grows on the ohi’a tree:
In ancient Hawaii, there was a strong warrior named Ohi’a who had a sweetheart named Lehua. Ohi’a caught the eye of the volcano goddess, Pele, who invited Ohi’a to be her consort. He loved Lehua, however, so he declined Pele’s offer. This made Pele very angry—how dare he turn down a goddess?! She turned Ohi’a into a tree—one with dark red/brown wood that is still valued by Hawaiians for its durability and strength. Lehua came looking for Ohi’a and could not find him. Near the tree, she could sense his presence but not see him. She called out to the gods for help. They could not undo Pele’s work by turning Ohi’a back from a tree; however, they could change Lehua into a blossom on the tree so that the two lovers would always be together. Under Hawaiian custom, one is not supposed to pick the lehua blossom or the gods will cry, creating rain.
We then took a short walk on the Crater Rim Trail, which is also called “Earthquake Trail”:
It was once a road for cars; however, earthquakes kept damaging the road, so it was turned into a walkway. Ranger Jackson said that there are still hundreds of earthquakes each day, most of them micro-quakes that cannot be felt. However, he instructed us to sit down for 10 seconds if we felt a big one.
Along the trail, Ranger Jackson pointed out the “climbing fern” and noted that it was not a parasite on the underlying ohi’a tree.
One invasive plant that is almost impossible to get rid of is the flowering ginger plant, native to the Himalayan mountains. Here is Ranger Jackson with a stalk:
He said that in the 1950’s, the wife of a park superintendent brought 3 flowering ginger plants into the park to put next to their home. Those 3 plants were not only hearty, but they produced seeds that traveled all over the park, burrowing into nooks and crannies with a ferocious tenacity. To kill the plant, park staff have to cut off the stalks, spray the remaining plant with poison, and repeat this process yearly until maybe the plant dies.
Here is a large root area from which the flowering ginger stalks have been cut—new green shoots were already sprouting:
Genevieve took a close-up photo of a new frond unfurling in the center of this amau fern, a common plant in Hawaiian rainforests.
She is quite the photographer!
Like the tree fern, the amau has a reddish-brown fuzz on the new growth; however, it feels stubbly, not soft like the tree fern.
Ranger Jackson recounted a Hawaiian story about the rough texture: Once there was a shape-shifting god named Kamapua’a. He ruled over the rainforests, and some say that his face was like a pig. One day he saw Pele and fell in love with her beauty. She scorned him, however, because of his looks. Eventually, they developed a love/hate relationship and would often have battles. She would fling hot fire lava onto him, and he would escape by changing himself into pig or a fern and hiding in the rainforest. One time Pele’s lava hit his hair before he could change into a fern. His singed hair became the reddish bristles on the amau fern.
More of Genevieve’s photography:
We stopped at a viewpoint to admire the magnificent Kilauea caldera:
A fountain of smoke rose from a crater in the caldera floor:
The crater’s name is Halema’uma’u, and tradition holds that this is Pele's home.
The smoke plume was created in March of 2008, when a volcanic explosion ripped open a vent in the crater. Since then, many tons of sulfur dioxide have been emitted into the air every day, which is not only harmful to breathe, but it mixes chemically with other things in the air and creates acid rain that affects crops and plants all over the island.
The bluffs along the right side of the Kilauea caldera were also smoking:
These were merely steam vents, however, not outpourings of sulfur dioxide. The vapor was from rain water that had been transformed by the hot rocks underground. We would be visiting those vents soon, as well as getting closer to Pele’s residence.
Our path back to the Visitor’s Center:
After a picnic lunch (packed this morning—baguettes, cheese, pepperoni, apple slices, yogurt, crackers, and Genevieve’s brownie), we drove a short distance to the Thurston Lava Tube.
Lava tubes are generally tunnels that form when the top of a thick lava flow hardens, leaving molten lava still flowing underneath; when the supply of lava stops, the remaining lava drains away, leaving behind an empty tube. Here is an exhibit with drawings:
Leading down to the lava tube entrance was a paved trail surrounded by dense rainforest:
A small bridge crossed a gully into the mouth of the tube:
Before entering into the tunnel, Sebastian turned on his flashlight:
We had come prepared with two small flashlights from home, but we purchased an additional two at the park visitor’s center so that each of us would have one. Through the first stretch of tube, the floor of the tunnel was graded, with occasional puddles from seeping water. Dim lights had been embedded in the walls, so flashlights weren’t really needed, but they added to the “sense of adventure.”
Our flashlights were essential, however, one we reached the end of the graded trail. The tunnel exit led up some steps and back into the rainforest. Another option was to continue straight ahead, through a chain-link gate, into an undeveloped part of the tube, where natural features had been left undisturbed. Here is a view of the gate, from the top of the exit stairs:
We passed through the gate and reached a small group of people, gathered on the platform-ledge where a section of flat trail transitioned into a pile of rocks and the darkness beyond. After peering into the black interior for a few seconds, Ben switched on his flashlight and led the way into the tube.
It was a bit eerie being in such an enclosed and dark place, knowing that a river of red-hot lava had pushed through this space just a few hundred years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose mind drifted into the dark side of “what if’s”—e.g., what if the earth started rumbling and lava came rushing through this tube again?
Sometimes the ceiling was a bit low, or we had to climb over a pile of rocks:
The lumpy walls were a shimmering silver color:
Part of the excitement was not knowing what lay at the end of the tunnel—did it drop off into a chasm?
Given the possibilities created by our overactive imaginations, the end of the tube was a bit anticlimactic. After about 1000 yards, the tunnel ceiling simply sloped down until it reached the floor.
Sebastian and Genevieve, at the end of the tube:
Back through the tunnel, and up into the rainforest, we were still on an “adventure high” as we walked back to the car.
Just a mile down the road was the Pu’u Pua’i overlook, giving us expansive view of the Kilauea Iki Crater:
This crater sits on the eastern edge of the main Kilauea Caldera. In 1959, it created an amazing spectacle by spewing red lava about 1/3 mile into the air. That would have been quite a sight, as shown by one of the park exhibits:
Today, however, all was quiet in the Iki crater . . . except for Genevieve’s loud calls into the void for the purpose of creating an echo—one of the requirements for obtaining a Jr. Ranger badge here.
Far below, we could see tiny figures walking along the bottom of the crater.
We had originally intended to hike through this crater, but we had heard that the hike to get to the flowing lava could be long and strenuous, and we wanted to save our energy.
Sebastian, on the edge of Iki crater:
We then backtracked, past the visitor’s center, and continued along Crater Rim Drive to reach the Steam Vents that we had seen earlier.
Here is a park map showing our location:
Genevieve and I walked together along the cliff edge:
Through the steam, we could see the smoke rising from the Halema’uma’u crater:
Scientists believe that the soil here may be too hot for large trees to grow.
Ben and the kids—note Sebastian’s tight grip on his dad and sister (he loves big hugs):
A steam vent in the parking lot area:
We continued along the edge of the caldera until we reached the Jaggar Museum at the end of the road.
The road used to make a big loop all of the way around the caldera, but it was closed beyond Jaggar Museum after the March 2008 eruption. Because of the continuing billows of toxic fumes from the crater, the road remains closed.
From the Jaggar Museum overlook, we had a great view of the Halema’uma’u crater:
The crater measures about 425 feet across. About that same distance downward sits a lake of churning lava. The lake level fluctuates and sometimes falls another 165 feet or so, depending on pressures that build up within the volcano.
Between the years 1823 and 1924, the lava lake was right at the surface. Here is a park photo from the year 1894, showing visitors standing right beside the molten lake, which is splashing over the edges:
The volcanic pressure that brought the lava so close to the surface reached a peak in 1924, when the crater exploded and doubled its size.
Today, the pressure within the volcano is being released not only via the vent that is shooting gases out of the crater, but also via fissures that are oozing lava down the eastern side of the volcano (where we would be going this evening).
The Jaggar Museum contained many exhibits on volcanology, including this wonderful pictorial explanation on the formation of the Hawaiian Islands:
In summary: The floor of the Pacific Ocean is made up of several plates. The largest one, the Pacific plate, moves northward about 4 inches each year. Millions of years ago, a stationary bed of molten rock forced magma up through a weak spot in the earth's crust to form a volcanic island. As the Pacific plate moved north, however, the island moved north with it; then another island was formed over the hot spot, in a continuing process. The Big Island of Hawaii is the southernmost island in the chain, and the newest island to be formed from the hot spot.
After visiting the museum, we returned to the main visitor’s center so that Genevieve could turn in all of the hard work that she had done for a Jr. Ranger badge. She was lucky in getting Ranger Kalena Blakemore to review her booklet.
We had talked with Ranger Blakemore earlier today, and it was obvious from her enthusiasm and extensive knowledge that she was passionate about her job. She carefully reviewed Genevieve’s work, asking questions about various things that Genevieve had discovered.
As a child, Ranger Blakemore had lived only 20 minutes from our home (in Santa Cruz County, California). Her mother is Hawaiian, and Ranger Blakemore had moved to Hawaii from California when she was nine years old.
Here is Genevieve getting sworn in as a Jr. Ranger:
Thank you, Ranger Blakemore! You added a special touch to our visit at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
Next, we were off to view some flowing lava! We left the park and drove east to Highway 130, where we turned south and followed the road until it ended.
The lava viewing area was managed by the Hawaii County Civil Defense, and the signs were well-marked.
Our road crossed over broad expanses of hardened lava:
We ended in a crowded parking lot—we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see some lava!
We were in the midst of a residential area that is known as Kalapana Gardens, where over 100 homes had been destroyed in a 1990 lava flow.
Some hearty souls had rebuilt on top of the hardened black swirls. One owner had created a small oasis, with plenty of green plants surrounding the home.
Genevieve, Ben and Sebastian--walking to the viewing point:
We wondered how vulnerable the home owners were feeling now, with the current lava flow so near. Did they have their suitcases and treasured items packed? Were they ready to flee at a moment’s notice? Surely the surrounding ocean of black was a daily reminder of their fragility . . . or perhaps their strength and perseverance.
One sign announced that the lava beds were all private property; we needed to remain on the road:
Another sign warned that volcano fumes were hazardous to our health:
We thought that we would be walking at least a mile or two, but we quickly reached the cut-off point, which was where the lava had crossed the road yesterday.
The lava was no longer red, but the remaining heat was evidenced by the smoke that rose from some areas:
Looking across the lava, we could see small dots of red in the distance, showing us where molten rock was alive:
One person pointed to distant wisps of smoke and said that the lava was falling into the sea at that point. In the photo below, the smoke is the dark smudge against the white sky, above the sign, near the center:
That smoke would turn a reddish color once darkness descended, flaring up occasionally to cause "ooh's" and "ahhh's" in the crowd.
We were amazed that this curved house to our right was still standing, given the close proximity to the lava flow last night:
Looking beyond the house, we could see several dots of lava fire, as well as smoke, on the mountain:
Sadly, the house succumbed to the lava eleven days after our visit. The burning was captured by photographer Leigh Hilbert:
(Photo credit here.)
The curved frame of the house was left standing:
(Photo credit here.)
(Photo credit here.)
Near the lava viewing area was a canopy-covered table. Here is Genevieve standing in front:
One hand-painted sign next to the canopy advertised resident-guided lava hikes:
Another said, “Fire will never say that it has enough”, in English and Hawaiian. Beside it was one that made me laugh: “Not For Sale. But if you are a great, single, fit middle-aged man, buy one of the places across the road. Mahalo!”
A tall sign attempted to answer the question, “What kind of person would want to live out here?” A “Lavatic Fringer”, of course!
Ten days later, photographer Leigh Hilbert captured the sign as it was engulfed in flames:
(Photo credits here and here.)
The lava in the second photo is really creepy (pardon the pun), especially when we think that we had been standing right there.
On the evening that we visited this area, however, all was quiet, and the red-hot lava seemed very far away.
I think that we were all a bit disappointed, especially after hearing the “road was on fire” description earlier. However, we were grateful for what we could see (and for the fact that we had a home that wasn’t covered by molten rock).
We waited about an hour for night to fall, when the red color of the lava would be more noticeable. Sebastian ran around with his binoculars, checking out everything, including the ground.
Ben played with his camera, trying unsuccessfully to get the shutter speed to work correctly in the fading light:
When we were finally surrounded by darkness, we could see a distinct river of red dots that stretched from far up the mountain on our right, to a point where the land dropped into the sea on our left. Here are some of those dots.
This lava flow was the Pulama Pali, which was carrying the lava down the hill within newly formed lava tubes, and then dumping it into the ocean. The line of red spots that we saw were places where the lava had broken out onto the surface above the tubes.
After getting our fill of red dots, we enjoyed a Thai dinner in the nearby town of Pahoa. Here is Genevieve at the restaurant:
On the 3 ½ hour drive back to our hotel, late into the night, the kids fell asleep almost immediately. I pondered those red dots, the vast expanse of black lava, the on-going eruption of Kilauea, and the people who make their homes so close to its fiery reach. One of the wonderful things about our travels is being able to see how other people live and the choices that they make. I will be the first to say that I am not a “Lavatic Fringer”. However, the “n” in Fringer did stand for “Non-conformist”. And I can definitely respect, as well as relate to, that.
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