Big Times on the Big Island, Part 2

Before arriving at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, I thought the park’s name was misspelled. Surely they meant volcano, singular? But as we learned in Part 1, the island of Hawaii is made up of five volcanoes—one is extinct, one is dormant, and three are active. “Active” apparently means it’s erupted in the last 200 years, which seems like a long time to sit around doing nothing while still getting credit for being active, but who I am I to quibble logic with a force of nature.

There are so many photos like this from our childhood. This one’s for you, Dad!

One of the volcanoes is serious about its active status, though. Kilauea has erupted in the last 20 years (taking out most of the town of Kalapana), and now a part of it is constantly erupting, spewing smoke into the air in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. You can take a helicopter ride to see lava flowing, or you can do a night walk to try and spot lava as it enters the ocean. These were both expensive options, and heavily dependent on the mood of the weather, so Heather and I skipped them. Instead, we paid our $10 national park entrance fee and got more than our money’s worth with a full day of natural wonders.


We had good luck from the start—a ranger-led tour started just 15 minutes after we arrived at the visitor center. So we joined up and learned about various plants on the walk out to Waldron Ledge. We were struck by the alarming statistic that 90% of the island’s flora and fauna is not indigenous, and we learned about the efforts to contain the spread of some of the more pernicious plants. Our guide pointed out two plants that look very similar; one is an invasive, and one is a rare native. This is why visitors are not encouraged to weed out any invasives on their own time. More likely than not, they’d pick out the wrong plant. The park does sponsor days where volunteers weed out invasives under the watchful eye of a park ranger, though, so you can contribute to the effort. (This is what my friend Matthew does in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula—invasives are found all over the world.)

A koa tree – not an invasive

Lehua blossom on the ohia tree; this has a tragic love story myth behind it

The path out to Waldron Ledge is actually the old road that used to circumnavigate the volcano. The park realized that the road was in a dangerous spot, and they built the current road, which takes a wider path. Sure enough, in 1983, the old road buckled in an eruption and much of it crumbled away into the giant mouth of the volcano. Now it’s overgrown with plants and part of it intersects with the path out to the lookout.

We didn’t quite get up to 25 MPH on our walking tour

Once we were there, we saw just how vast the volcano is. It goes on for miles, and at the other end is the a vent, huffing and puffing into the air while the crater around it sits silent and nearly barren. I say nearly because plants are unstoppable; they will grow anywhere. There are plants dotting the floor of the crater, pushing their way up through the volcanic rubble and stubbornly holding on in that alien landscape. Those plants impressed me almost as much as the crater they’re growing in, actually.

Vast, I tell you

Stubborn little plants

We drove over to the vent and gazed at it while munching on lunch. The Jaggar Museum there has a few good displays on the volcanoes, and also a seimograph that draws a shaky zig zag if you jump up and down near it. After lunch, we went for facials at the steam vents. These aren’t sulfuric vents, so there was no smell of rotten eggs, just warm water soaking our faces and fogging up our glasses.

Hot ‘n’ steamy

Next we went to the lava tube. It sounds like an amusement park ride, doesn’t it? “Shoot down the lava tube from 50 feet off the ground! You’ll be positively glowing from all the excitement!” It wasn’t quite like that, but it was pretty cool. A lava tube is formed by lava running down a hill, and part of it cooling into rock before the rest of it does, so that lava flows through the hardened lava rock. What’s left behind is a cave made up of lava, tunneling through the tropical plants.

A cave that isn’t a cave

After walking through the lava tube, we got back in the car and went off to see more evidence of what these volcanoes can do. We drove along the Chain of Craters Road, a phrase both literally descriptive and wonderfully poetic. I’m not sure exactly how many craters are found along this road, but we saw many. Most of them look like rock quarries that have been used up and abandoned—uniformly gray rock, a steep wall down to the bottom of a pit, empty of life and machinery. Soon enough, we were in sight of the ocean, and the views got more dramatic from there. We took hairpin turns down the side of the mountain, losing elevation rapidly, and ended up on an eerie plain of misshapen volcanic rock stretching out to sea.

These names!

There were several signs warning to slow down for nene, a rare native bird that inhabits the park.

The road was pretty scary to drive on.

At the end of the road, you hop out and you can walk farther down the road to see what Kalapana might have looked like, or go across the road and scramble down a few rocks to the cliff’s edge. Here, you can see where the rocks cut off abruptly into space, dropping down in a cliff to the ocean. Holei Sea Arch connects a little bridge to nowhere, and the surf crashes underneath it.

Toilet at the end of the world

Holei Sea Arch

After wending our way back up that mountain and through the chain of craters, we went to Volcano Village for a little rest. We treated ourselves to a milkshake and fries at the Lava Rock Café (haha, yes), and Heather caught glimpses of football games on the TV while I retraced our route on the national park map.

It was raining when we arrived back at the Jaggar Museum but we were prepared. I zipped up my raincoat and Heather donned her yellow poncho, and we waited for the sun to set. Lots of other people were there for the same thing, so we chatted with a couple from California and watched the smoke rising from the vent grow brighter as the sky grew darker.

At first, Heather wanted to know how much longer we needed to stay, and to be fair, it was cold and rainy. But after a while, she wasn’t asking that anymore, because she, like the rest of us, was mesmerized by the glow. This was one of my favorite parts of our time in Hawaii, watching the glow of an active volcano as it breathed smoke and fire into the night air.

Life goal!

Finally, we left the park about 10 hours after we’d first arrived, and headed back to our rental house, which was an hour and a half away. It was a scary drive, in the near total dark and at times torrential rain, but we made it back safely, and that night I slept with visions of secret caves and lava glowing in my head.


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