Anyone who wants to explore the world’s most active volcano needs to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Located on the east side of Hawaii, Kilauea is one of the five volcanoes that comprise the “Big Island,” and it’s been actively erupting since 1983.
Visitors to the park should first swing by the Kilauea Caldera which currently boasts the active Halemau’mau Crater. This crater spews so much noxious sulfuric gas that the nearby Crater Rim Road is partially closed along with portions of the Crater Rim Trail. Volcanic activity is easily seen from the safe distance of the Jaggar Museum overlook and other portions of the Crater Rim Trail. The best viewing time is at dusk and after dark because glow from lava can easily be seen. Observant visitors will notice occasional flicks of lava lifting up over the edge of the crater, as well.
Definitely take the must-see hike at the Kilauea Iki Crater. In 1959, this crater erupted with a lava fountain 1800 feet high. Thousands of tons of lava were sprayed on the north side of the crater with a lava lake forming that eventually measured 400 feet in depth. Today hikers can trek across the mile-wide crater and imagine the scene that took place. Beware, there’s still a magma chamber under that crater. Even sturdy hiking-booted feet will be hot by the time you reach the other side! In all, it’s a 4.5- mile hike that provides wonderful views of the park. A small strip of land separates this crater from the main Kilauea Crater.
The 400-foot-long Thurston Lava Tube is another highlight of the park. This large tube was once an underground pathway for a river of lava. Today it’s a refreshingly cool walk through the rain forest and along the cave-like tube.
The 24-mile drive from Kilauea Crater down the Chain of Craters Road deposits visitors at the coast, a drop of almost 4,000 feet in elevation. Here the Holei Sea Arch, created from lava and the mighty Pacific Ocean, is on spectacular display. This is also the starting point for a 5 to 6 mile hike out to the current lava flow viewing area. The ranger station at this site is portable so it can be moved in case lava flows too close.
Currently, the bulk of the lava is flowing from the Pu’u O’o vent on the east side of Kilauea. The only way to see this vent is by helicopter. Not only do choppers fly directly over flowing lava, a trip around the mouth of the vent is included in most rides. Even at 500 feet from the ground, riders will feel the intense heat coming up from the lava field. Many of the lava fields are solid on top, but have rivers of lava running directly underneath. Small openings called skylights allow a peek into these rivers of bright red lava. For a truly adventurous ride, choose a helicopter with the doors off.
To get up-close and personal with liquid lava, be prepared for a strenuous hike. As mentioned, it’s a 5- to 6-mile one-way walk over rough lava fields from the end of Chain of Craters Road. From outside the national park, it’s a 3- to 4-mile one-way hike. Hikers who attempt this journey should stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center and discuss the trip with a park ranger who will provide advice on safety and water requirements. Make no mistake, these hikes are challenging and can be dangerous.
Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can fly into either of the Big Island’s airports, Kona or Hilo, with Hilo being the most convenient. Accommodations can be found at the Volcano House inside the park or at nearby Volcano Village – a loose collection of cottages, bed & breakfasts, and restaurants. Visitors to the park should be ready for any type of weather, including rain. Bug spray, sunscreen, water bottles, hats, and sturdy shoes are all necessary for a successful visit. Vog, volcanic smog, is often present, and those with breathing concerns should take precautions. However, it’s worth all of the time and trouble for the chance to hike, eat, and sleep on the flank of the world’s most active volcano, the mighty Kilauea.
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Holly McElwee is a Piqua teacher by day, writer by night and traveler at heart. Contact her at [email protected]