Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park


The latter part of December is a perfect time to leave the cold of winter and go to Hawaiʻi. A visit to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park was part of our plan even though we had visited this park several years ago. Therefore, it didn’t count to reduce the number on our bucket list of parks visited – still standing at 49 of the 59 National Parks at this point.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park contains two active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Both these volcanoes are shield volcanoes so they are not the steep-sided cones which one usually visualizes when thinking volcano. They are rounded mounds with relatively broad flat summits. Both mountains are more massive than they appear as the base of each rests on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. From sea floor to summit, Mauna Loa is more than 30,000 feet high (taller than Mt. Everest) with 13,678 feet rising above sea level. Kīlauea rises 4,000 feet above the ocean.

Mauna Loa’s most recent eruption occurred from March 24 to April 15, 1984. No recent eruptions of the volcano have caused fatalities, but eruptions in 1926 and 1950 destroyed villages, and the city of Hilo is partly built on lava flows from the late 19th century. By the end of the 1984 flow, a river of lava was within four miles of Hilo but fortunately stagnated at that point. Since the higher elevations of Mauna Loa are much less user-friendly than Kīlauea, we took photos from afar of Mauna Loa and spent our time exploring Kīlauea.

Kīlauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and continues to erupt at its summit and from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent on its East Rift Zone. At the time of our visit, there was no current threat to nearby communities and lava was not entering the ocean.

During our visit to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, we stayed on the edge of the park in Volcano Village at Volcano Rainforest Retreat. It was a delight. Our hosts were welcoming and friendly and helpful in suggesting places to eat and hikes to take. Of the accommodations there, we chose to stay in Hale Hoʻano – the Sanctuary. This small hexagon structure was secluded in the rainforest and adjacent to the private bathhouse which featured an outdoor shower and Japanese ofuro (soaking tub). The ofuro was a great way to end our days of exploration and hiking.

The caldera on the summit of Kīlauea is about two miles wide and 400 feet deep. A caldera is a depression with steep walls formed by collapse as opposed to a crater which is smaller and can form either by collapse or by explosion. Within the Kīlauea caldera is a crater called Halemaʻumaʻu. This crater is nearly 300 feet deep and 3,000 feet in diameter. Sulfur dioxide and other volcanic gases constantly emit from this crater and vents and lava tubes. IMG_6686

An ongoing struggle between destructive and creative forces constantly plays out on a volcanic island. It could be considered a battle with the forces of Pele and the forces of science. One of many demigods held sacred by early Hawaiians, Pele is honored as the goddess of the volcano and Halemaʻumaʻu Crater is her home. As lava flows destroy land, they also create new land.

We hiked the Kīlauea Iki trail – a 4-mile hike beginning in a rain forest on the crater rim and descending 400 feet to the crater floor. Once on the crater floor, we walked across the site of the last major eruption of Kīlauea Iki (1959). Remnants of this eruption were evident. Lava spewed from a vent in the crater wall for five weeks, with one geyser of lava reaching 1,900 feet in the air – the highest lava fountain ever measured in Hawaiʻi and possibly the highest on Earth. Puʻu Puaʻi is a 400-foot-high cinder and spatter cone created by those lava fountains in 1959. IMG_6715

The crater floor is a somewhat eerie landscape with boulders in places, upheavals which looked like buckled macadam, and very little vegetation. The lehua is the delicate, scarlet-red blossom of the ʻōhiʻa tree and provided bright spots of color in an otherwise barren outlook. It was hot in the crater in late December so we were glad we had sufficient water with us. This is probably not somewhere one would like to hike in July.

There are two distinct types of lava. Pāhoehoe has a smooth billowy surface while ʻaʻā is rough and jagged and looks a lot like clinkers. A pāhoehoe flow can fold and twist to form ropy patterns and turns black as it cools and hardens. In contrast, as ʻaʻā lava moves downslope, it is more explosive and is torn into loose, jagged pieces.

We had dinner one evening at the Volcano House restaurant overlooking the Kīlauea caldera. After dark we went on to the Jaggar Museum overlook which is much closer to the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. It was absolutely one of the most amazing sights! The lava lake inside the crater gives off an extraordinary amount of light which creates a reddish glow through the emitted gases and reflects in the clouds. One of those things that must live on in our minds’ eye as photos at night with many others doing the same thing just did not turn out. However, this night-time display was definitely a highlight of our visit to this park.

Nāhuku (also known as Thurston Lava Tube) provided a nice easy hike. When the top of a flow crusts over and encloses a molten stream of lava in a tunnel of hardened rock, a lava tube is formed. The hardened crust acts as an insulator so the internal lava remains fluid. At the end of an eruption, the fluid may drain out leaving a tube. The Thurston Lava Tube trail is an easy short loop starting in a lush tropical rainforest, descending through the lava tube and circling back to the parking lot.

Throughout the park there are diverse biological resources, many of which are rare or endangered. Human and non-native plant and animal presence have had a great impact on native plants and animals. When Polynesians first arrived, nine or more species of geese lived on the islands. At least seven of these were flightless. All but one species are now extinct. The surviving goose, the nēnē, is Hawaiʻi’s state bird and is a federally listed endangered species.

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