I’m tired of the pussification of our National Parks. Nothing irks me more to go to some dangerous spot and find child-proof fences denying nature the chance to weed out the stupid kids. Thankfully, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has no such safety nets. In fact, they have a sign gloating about the last kid who got par-boiled after walking off the path and falling in a sulfurous crevasse.
The park encompasses the lava fields and caldera of 4,500-ft Mount Kīlauea, an offshoot of the much larger Mauna Loa volcano. The entire island consists of 5 connected volcanoes, of which Kīlauea is the most active. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and it’s currently dumping lava into the sea near Kimau. We drove down to see it at night, and amazingly people still live on the lava field relatively close to the flow, as far as I’m concerned.
The park showcases many natural spectacles you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Here are the ones we visited:
Lava tubes are channel-like caves where lava once flowed rapidly underneath the surface. The most accessible tube at the park is the Thurston Lava Tube, which is smooth and has track lighting for tourists. There is an extended section left undisturbed, but we forgot to take our flashlights when we hiked to it. It’s still smoother than fresh ones.
Smoke and steam plumes rise from the caldera, the site where a volcano erupted and collapsed. It means bowl, or cauldron, because it looks like one. We hiked past the Kīlauea caldera on the way to the lava tube, and while young plants and weeds are growing down there, the smoke and steam show that it is still quite active.
In New York it’s not uncommon to see steam and vapor rising from the manhole covers and subway grates, with that delicate eau du urine scent wafting up from the tunnels. Here it comes right up from the ground, with a grainy taste from the deadly chemicals you’ve just breathed in. They call it “vog,” for volcanic fog, and signs warn you to stay in the car with the windows up when it is thick. The wind us often so fierce that you can barely see the vog, as it blows across the a’a fields.
What’s an a’a field? There are two types of lava, a’a and pahoehoe. The first one is fresh sharp lava, and you can guess how it got its name, from the first poor bastard who walked barefoot on it. In the old days they’d punish people by having them spend the night out there where you can’t sit or lie down without being lacerated. Pahoehoe is smooth older lava that looks like grey candle wax. There are huge expanses of these old hardened flows in the park, and if you drive all the way down Chain of Craters Road, you can see where the lava flows covered the road for a length of 12 miles. The steam plume beyond is the active flow pouring into the sea, slowly enlarging the island.
If you walk out on the lava fields, there are carvings in the lava. Various figures and symbols in the black crust. These here are at least 400 years old, and the tiny dots were part of a birth rite- the severed umbilical cord of a new child was put in it. What’s fascinating is that the spot is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far from the coast and the sheltering wall of the mountain. I guess one spot’s as good as any, but it’s a heck of a walk. The ritual linked the child’s soul to the island, and there are 16,000 such holes known in the area.
If steam’s not enough for you, there’s also stinky sulfur fumes rising to the surface, giving the rocks an eerie fluorescent yellow color. This is the spot where the kid fell in. If you don’t look at all the warning signs, the area is quite serene- beautiful flowers growing along secluded paths, with the occasional fissure splitting the earth open. The ground is unstable off the paths, and the kid fell in a crevice up to his shoulders, and suffered steam burns over 10% of his body. Thankfully he didn’t ruin it for everybody, and you can still view the rocks coated with their crystalline layer of sulfur.
This is the money shot and is actually outside the park grounds now; the flow has been active since 1983, but has moved. It’s at the other end of Chain of Craters Road, which requires you to double back on an hour detour. You just keep driving down 130, and eventually you see highway signs for “Lava Viewing Open- Last Car Admitted 8pm.” The back road is pretty rutted and bumpy, but we had a Jeep Wrangler so had no problems. You also need flashlights, sturdy shoes, and water. It’s a 3/4 mile walk on the lava fields in the dark, but the path is marked to the safe viewing area. On some days you just see the glow of the lava as it pours into the ocean, but we got a beautiful fireworks display of molten rock splashing around. Sometimes you can see the steam plume’s shadow in front of glow, and the rock formations left around it.
The park is a World Heritage Site, and rightly so. If you visit Hawaii, you owe yourself a trip to the rustic and quiet Big Island, and a visit to the park. There’s a $10 fee for a week pass per car, and you can stay in nearby Volcano village. We stayed at Aloha Junction B&B, and ate at Dan De Luz’s Koa Shop Kaffee, where you can get a great hearty breakfast and some beautiful hard-carved koa as well. I wish we’d gotten there in time for dinner after the lava viewing!