Before I first visited the Big Island of Hawaii, volcanoes weren't really the first thing that came to mind when I thought of the Hawaiian Islands. My mind was filled with more of the traditional images of white sandy beaches and drinks with little umbrellas. But after getting the chance to explore the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while on the Big Island, volcanoes have come to mind ever since.
Don't get me wrong, the beaches are great, but if you're the adventurous type and looking for an experience unique to the Big Island, you'll want to be sure to check out the island's volcano sights.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two of the world's most active volcanoes—Mauna Loa and Kilauea. A trip to the park is the best way to experience their incredible power and natural beauty. The park offers something for everyone—from short easy hikes not far from the visitor's center to long treks across lava fields and ocean cliffs.
The Kilauea caldera is the first site to see as you enter the park. The giant crater sits at an elevation of 4,000 feet and excellent views are plentiful from all sides. While Kilauea is always churning below the surface, it's not uncommon for lava flows to break through to the surface where they can often be safely viewed by visitors willing to hike to the surface flow area. The rangers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park do an outstanding job of helping visitors access lava flow areas safely.
"brilliant show of light and steam"
One of my most memorable visits to the park was during a period of volcanic activity where surface flows were visible and molten lava was entering the ocean in a brilliant show of light and steam.
On this particular visit, we called ahead to check on the current status of the flow and, when we heard that the surface lava was safely accessible, we made plans to arrive at the end of the Chain of Craters Road late in the afternoon to hike out over the lava fields in the direction of the surface flows. Hiking across the lava fields is a challenging endeavor but well worth the effort, not just for the reward of seeing flowing lava up close but also for the spectacular view of the ocean below and the mountainside above where lava has been consistently flowing down into the ocean for more than twenty years.
The hike to reach the surface lava on this day was only a couple of miles and we reached the viewing area around dusk, which gave us views of the flowing lava by day and night. As the sun set, the cracks in the earth began to glow brighter and brighter. Even with several other hikers in the area, the only sound was the sound of rocks cracking and sizzling as new cracks opened and lava oozed around us, flowing slowly like huge streams of glowing molasses. The beautiful picture before our eyes was constantly changing and each new crack opening produced an incredible image to behold.
As the last of the day's light disappeared and the darkness settled, we sat at spot overlooking the cliffs and watched in awe as bright red lava flowed into the ocean. In the dark and the quiet we sat there inspired. With the site of new earth forming before our eyes unfolding before us, no one said a word—we just knew that nothing could be said to add to or explain this moment.
Volcano visitors should be sure to plan ahead and always consult park rangers about how to experience the park safely.