Island hop trip #2 was planned and I was ready to go! For this trip I would be hopping over to the Big Island (officially the Island of Hawai'i), prior to heading back to the "frigid" state of Florida for Christmas. I was quite excited to see this new island. Not only did it offer a different natural landscape than Oahu, but it is also the only actively growing Hawaiian Island. My journey would start on the east side of the island in Volcanoes National Park (VNP).
I landed at the Hilo Airport at 6am and immediately made my way towards VNP. I wanted to experience as much of the park as I could since I only planned on spending one day there. It was about a 45 minute drive to the park (with a necessary coffee and breakfast stop at Just Cruisin Coffee on the way).
My day started on the Kilauea Iki Trail, a 4 mile loop trail with an elevation change of about 400 feet. The trail goes through that forest to the right coming back through the base of the crater. This was my first experience with the topography of an active volcano, so I was in awe. The many cracks and different colors were amazing. You could even see the lava smoke from the Halema‘uma‘u Crater in the distance. Just an incredibly unique place.
**Note many of the park conditions covered in this post have changed since 2016. For up to date information on park conditions, check out the NPS website.**
I made my way around the forest and started my journey through the crater. The warm steam vents I saw throughout this hike really brought to light the fact that I was walking on an active volcano. It was a cool (not literally) feeling.
My next stop in the park was right by the Kilauea Iki trail, the Thurston Lava Tube. The path to get there is very short and is essentially a loop hike that comes out the other end of the tube. There are some lava tubes throughout Oahu, but I haven't ventured into them yet, so this was my first. I wasn't expecting how damp it would be inside. The lights that were hanging to help guide you also gave it an eerie feeling. I kind of felt like I was walking through a set of a movie where the roof was going to cave in and I was going to be trapped. Don't worry, nothing like that happened.
After the Lava Tube, I made my way to the nearby Devastation Trail, a short 1 mile flat trail. This trail was created by the eruption of 1959. It was incredible to see the barrenness of the recovering landscape. It really put into perspective how devastating (get it) these eruptions could be.
After the Devastation Trail, I made my way back towards the park entrance where I planned to check out the Visitor Center and get some lunch. My main goal for the day was to make the 10 mile round trip hike at the end of Chain of Craters road to a place where I could see lava flow into the ocean. I've heard access to the ocean flow can change based on which way toxic fumes are blowing, so I figured I'd check with a park ranger (You can also check lava conditions here). Luckily for me, everything was good to go!
I made one more quick stop to snag another picture of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater. I know the best view is up at the Jaggar Museum at night, but something about the smoke created by lava in the background with the green forest in the foreground intrigued me. Volcanoes really are interesting beasts of mother nature.
Near the visitor center I saw a sign for the Sulfur Banks Trail. I was getting hungry, but I couldn't resist the detour. It was pretty much what you would expect when you think of sulfur, yellowish green rocks with a um unique odor. There was a lot of good information to read about the role sulfur plays in volcanoes if you're into that sort of thing.
After wandering around the sulfur trail, I needed a bite to eat to give me the energy for my long hike. I stopped at the Hawaii Volcano House. This place is awesome because it has large window that looks out into the Halema‘uma‘u Crater. The prices were definitely inflated, but how often do you get a view of an active volcano with your meal?
After lunch, I began the drive along Chain of Craters Road. The hike to the ocean lava flow starts at the very end of it, but I didn't rush to get there. Instead, I made stops at some of the various eruption site along the road. This site displayed some of that flat lava rock with the beginnings of some tree growth.
And here is a fissure created from one eruption. This is an example of the shear power that comes with volcanoes. I probably could have spent the rest of the day stopping at each of these sites and taking in all the different nuances of each eruption. But continue I must. I wanted to observe the grandeur of a volcano in the present.
However, I did make a little time to do the 1.5 mile hike to the petroglyphs near the end of Chain of Craters road. I've always found petroglyphs fascinating, because it shows how people documented their culture when there was no written language. These figures are still far superior to my artistic ability.
Finally, I reached the end of Chain of Craters road where I would start my hike. You can actually reach the lava from the opposite direction as well. From that direction, you actually begin outside the boundary of VNP. Most people coming from that direction rent bikes to get to the lava and it is actually a shorter journey (about 8 miles round trip). However, the location of the lava will always be changing so those distances won't always be the same.
The start of my hike was along a road surrounded by solidified lava. It was an incredible feeling knowing what had created this and knowing that I would get to see that very thing in a few short hours.
But there were a few obstacles to deal with first. This is the part of the hike where you are trekking over recently solidified lava. The active lava is flowing somewhere beneath you. All those white clouds are actually smoke coming from cracks throughout. Really insane stuff. Luckily, the park does a good job of roping off areas that are deemed dangerous so you shouldn't have to worry about breaking through. There are a lot of sharp rocks everywhere, however, so good shoes are a must!
Finally, as the sun began to set, I got my first glimpses of the lava. Breathtaking, unreal, incredible, (insert favorite superlative here). I was witnessing land actively being created. Land that in the future someone or something would (hopefully) be living on. It makes you feel really small in the grand scheme of things. I also realized how fortunate I was to be able to see such a thing most will never witness. Needless to say, I was humbled.
The lava itself was magnificent. It had a bright orange glow and occasionally, as the smoke cleared, you could lay your eyes on what looked like an orange waterfall. There were even mini explosions that would occur periodically with volcanic rock flying. It was like a natural firework show. I easily could have stayed there the entire night, but I did have to make it to my Airbnb that night and had another big day planned tomorrow. It was time to walk the 5 miles back to my car the way I came... this time in the dark.
The walk back over the solidified lava with smoke clouds surrounding me was creepy. I did sort of think I was going to be abducted by aliens or taken by the Demogorgon at times. However, that never happened (I think???). I continued on. If you do decide to do this, headlamps are vital. I turned my headlamp off for fun once I was back on solid road and could not see a thing. There are no lights on this part of the island.
I finally got back to my car and decided my day wasn't quite over. I decided to make the long drive to the complete opposite end of the park, to Jaggar Museum, with its view of the "Lava Lake". I just hoped there wasn't fog blocking my view.
There wasn't. It was perfect. I thought the lava flow to the ocean was impressive, but this was just as cool. With binoculars you can actually see the lava splashing against the walls of the crater (hence Lava Lake). My weak camera cannot capture the splendor of this. It is something you simply have to see in person.
My day at VNP was both humbling and inspiring. The way the park is designed and all the different things to see make it one of the best National Parks I've been to. It is a day and an experience that I will always remember.
Have you ever seen an active volcano? Leave a comment below!
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