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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

I left Hawaii Volcanoes National Park by taking a left out of the entrance, heading southwest on the highway. I felt disappointment. No, it wasn’t because the lava wasn’t flowing during my time in the park – instead, cooled into a black blob of swirls. I was saddened by how little time I had available to explore such a fantastic destination. I had anticipated that the better part of two days would be enough, but I was sorely mistaken. And I came to that hard realization as I began the long drive toward Kona.

With brochures in hand for day and backcountry hikes, I wasted no time jumping in to explore the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I knew each minute of my stay would be precious and I wanted to make the most of it. The young ranger at the visitor center was excited by my interest and enthusiasm to explore the lesser-known areas of the park, such as those in the backcountry, but that only served to pain me later as it became glaringly obvious that I would have no time to explore the far reaches of the park; I would have to stay on the main road during my stay.
I pulled off the road at the first opportunity, stopping at the Kilauea Iki Trailhead. It was a small parking lot overlooking the pit crater of Kilauea Iki, a smaller crater to the side of the main Kilauea Caldera. That location is closed, though, as is the road around it, for various safety precautions.

The crater was unlike anything I had ever seen; I could only compare it to the photographs I have seen of the moon. It was an otherworldly landscape that aroused a sense of excitement in my feet to run off and explore the unknown territory. And so, with no more than a fleeting glimpse over the rim, I set off on the trail – only four miles of the nearly 150 miles of trails in the whole of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The down part through the rain forest was easy. But, unlike so many other hikes, I did not fret the return climb. In my mind, the trail could not be long enough; each moment I was discovering and exploring something I had never seen before. A sense of curiosity and adventure had arisen in my soul that had been dormant for far too long.
I hit the vast crater floor – nearly 2.5 miles across – and stopped to pick up my jaw. It had fallen to my knees. The view was incredible – a mixture of burnt earth, cooled and settled into place as the lava stopped flowing, new life springing forth from it’s crust, and the lush rain forest encircling the upper perimeter. It was a spectacular site that I shared with no one else, as only a few visitors took the time and effort to explore beyond the rim.

I bounded across the slightly worn trail. I had seen smoke issuing from a rocky pimple in the crater’s floor and was all too excited to explore, maybe too excited considering I was standing in the bottom of a volcano that poured lava as recently as 1959. My foolishness didn’t register, though, until I was perched upon the edge of a crevasse looking down into the bowels of the earth.
The thought of falling into the opening and ultimately disintegrating in a pool of lava somewhere near the earth’s core made me take a step back. I knew lava was hot – upwards of 2,200 degrees Farenheit to be exact – and that I would most likely not tumble more than a few feet, but I had no interest in testing my luck; the heat off the sulfurous emissions wafting into the air was more than enough to make me uncomfortable.

After finding a trail back down the small hill, I continued on my way across the crater’s floor. I frequently stopped to marvel at the rifts and cracks in the earth; the energy it took to make such mad designs was simply amazing in only the way Mother Nature can be. And while I was impressed beyond words, there was so much more to explore in the 505 square mile national park.

Just a short walk from the Kilauea Iki Trailhead was the equally as impressive Thurston Lava Tube, which extends 1,100 feet into the hillside. I stood inside the tube – even walking as far as I dared in the blackness with only a small flashlight to dimly guide my way – marveling at the thought of lava violently rushing through like water in a giant sewer line approximately twelve feet in diameter.
The lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was named for Lorrin Thurston – the grandson of missionary Asa Thurston, a man believed to be one of the first westerners to land in the area in 1823 – who was a driving force behind the development of the park. And for that deed, Thurston is often compared to the founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, who was the driving force behind the protection of what is now known as Yosemite National Park.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is part of the southernmost island that makes up Hawaii, which is also the southernmost state in the United States. All of the islands, which stretch for 3,600 miles, were created by violent volcanic eruptions from the ocean floor over a span of approximately 70 million years as the Pacific plate has continued to move. It now lies directly under the island of Hawaii, the Big Island, and is creating new earth almost daily.
It was an impressive and memorable moment in my life to witness the creation of new land. I didn’t watch it form by running down the mountainside into the ocean, but instead out of an active vent at the Halema’uma’u Crater. It was here that, long after the sun has begun to rise on the other side of the globe, I was able to watch lava bubble and pop out of the large crater, glowing deep shades of red and orange by the furious will of the Goddess Pele.
The lava cooled on the road and took the shape of a mass of burnt and blackened dough. It rippled in layers extending from the oceanside back up the side of the volcano to 4,000 feet in elevation. The most recent flow in the park made it impossible to drive any farther down the road toward the small town of Pahoa.
I stopped the next morning to explore the lava flow. There were no other cars around when I pulled into the small parking lot. Content in my solitude I took a moment to admire the Holei Sea Arch, marveling at the thought of how the ocean was slowly reclaiming what the earth had just created. With my eyes closed, I listened to the waves crash in upon the arch and the rest of the coast; taking a deep breath I tasted the smell of the salt water in the back of my mouth.
Another car pulled into the lot and I took my mark to leave and offer the same moment of serenity to the next visitor. I stopped briefly to view the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, somehow amazingly preserved amongst such amazing devastation, in a short hike through a devastated field. How, amongst that field of lava Pele spared the petroglyphs, is beyond my understanding, but just another of so many impressive sites in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

My window was rolled down as I continued the long and disappointing drive back up the Chain of Craters Road. The cool, toxic air stormed into the car. Its effects weren’t immediately apparent, but enough exposure is supposedly hazardous. I didn’t bother with the thought, though, instead thinking of how much was left to explore. I had only seen a small portion of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on my sponsored trip by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. The taste was bittersweet, as I wanted to live up to the request I made of the ranger for additional information; but, what I did see in my all-too-brief visit of one of my now-favorite national parks certainly left a lasting impression and a yearning to return to see and experience more of the spectacular Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – and justify my request for information on day and backcountry hikes.

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5 Comments on “Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park”

  1. megan locke March 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    I am looking into doing my own excursion. How is parking during the day? Are you able to park and go off and explore the craters?

    • Jason's Travels March 25, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

      Yes. Parking was easy for me and the park generally uncrowded.

  2. Julia Collins October 3, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    Going there next month!!! Thanks for your story.


  1. Hawaii’s Glowing Volcano | Jason's Travels - August 9, 2013

    […] glowing red and orange of Halema’uma’u Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at […]

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    […] Jason’s Travels: Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park […]

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