Exploring the Top Attractions of Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park
Note: Volcanoes National Park is currently closed due to ongoing volcanic eruptions.
Among the many places of interest in the Hawaiian Islands, and in particular the Big Island, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is undoubtedly the most important. Here in the Halemaumau crater on the southern side of Kilauea is the home of the fire goddess Pele. According to Hawaiian legend, a volcano will erupt if she gets in a bad temper.
Volcanoes National Park lies to the southeast of the Island of Hawaii and was founded in 1916. It includes a large part of Mauna Loa, all of Kilauea, including its eastern and southern sides, as well as the Puna Coast. In all it covers an area of 21sq.miles. Beginning in July 1986 a series of eruptions spewed enormous quantities of lava up onto the surface. The island as a result has grown and continues to grow in size.
Kilauea is one of the most impressive volcanoes in the world and its activities can be observed everywhere in the national park. Witnessing a fire-spitting eruption would prove highly unlikely as these occur, on average, only once every eleven months. The most accessible part of the national park is the Kilauea Caldera region which is signposted off road 11 when traveling from either Kona or Hilo.
The last violent eruptions of the Kilauea crater occurred in 1790 and 1924. Since then it has not appeared active. However, the neighboring Halemaumau crater in the middle of Kilauea Caldera, is more active. Eruptions on the slopes and in the thick forests are described only as flank eruptions, which are not as spectacular as summit eruptions as they usually bring only lava and are not accompanied by rivers of fire.
Lava flows have caused permanent changes to the landscape around Kilauea. Red-glowing magma, reaching temperatures of some 2200°F/1200°C, forces its way almost constantly through lateral channels to the outside, streams out of holes down the sides of the volcano and leaks out of weak spots known as fissures. One of these stretches out from the crater in a southerly direction as far as Ka'u, another east-north-east via Puna to the sea.
Lava sometimes flows through small valleys, which become filled in, and can destroy entire forests. But at the same time a new floor forms on which vegetation can grow, as demonstrated by the Destruction Trail in the National Park.
Lava masses bring great destruction. Time and again houses are buried and roads made impassable. In April 1990 all the houses in the coastal village of Kalapana and the greater part of the world-famous Kaimu Black Sand Beach were destroyed. Since then road 130 between Kupaahu and Kalapana has also been partly destroyed. Only one of the village's two churches, the Star of the Sea Painted Church, could be successfully dismantled before the lava reached it; it was later rebuilt on stilts near the end of the road.
Despite all this the recent eruptions are considered mild compared with earlier ones. It was reported in 1790 that Keoua, a Hawaiian island chief and opponent of Kamehameha I, was resting with his troops near Kilauea when they were surprised by an eruption. The majority of the army died, leaving Kamehameha's troops little difficulty in defeating the remainder.
Current methods of assessing natural phenomena such as volcanoes and earthquakes have prevented loss of life through volcanic eruptions on Hawaii in recent times.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Highlights
Crater Rim Road around Kilauea Caldera
The 11 mile long Crater Rim Road, which circles Kilauea Caldera, takes visitors past several of the top attractions in the park including Halema'uma'u Crater, Devastation Trail, Jagger Museum, Thurston Lava Tube, and the Kilauea Visitor Center. Along the way are several view points over the volcanic landscape.
The very active Halema'uma'u crater, an enormous steaming sulfur scented hole spanning 2625 ft, is according to legend, inhabited by Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. It was filled until 1924 with a bubbling sea of lava but this eventually sank with a mighty roar beneath the floor of the volcano and the lava flowed away. The hole filled up again in the 1960s but soon sank again. Halemaumau is monitored regularly but it remains difficult to forecast any future activities.
Along the southeast stretch of Crater Rim Road, a 1 mile long road leads to a 10ft thick recent lava layer known as Devastation Trail. On either side of the trail a weird lunar landscape reveals itself. Devastation Trail was formed in 1959 as a result of an eruption from the small Iki crater. At the time only bare ohia trees remained but it was not long before fresh flowers and saplings began to grow. There is a fine view of the Iki crater at the end of Devastation Trail.
Information about recent volcanic activity is available in the Jagger Museum next to the Volcano Observatory, situated along Crater Rim Road. As well as offering a basic introduction to volcanoes, the scientists here put much emphasis on showing a connection between the Hawaiian legends and natural phenomena. The films and slide shows about various eruptions give the visitor a clear impression of the incredibly powerful forces of nature at work in this area.
Thurston Lava Tube
From the eastern section of Crater Rim Road a trail branches off to Thurston Lava Tube. A short trail leads through a forest with enormous ferns and trees, reaching a lava tunnel measuring 492 ft long and 20 ft high. This tube was formed by lava cooling at different rates as an eruption took place. The exterior of the lava cooled rapidly while the magma inside continued to pour through it, thus forming a hollow tunnel. The path through the tunnel is illuminated.
Kilauea Visitor Center
The Kilauea Visitor Center lies on the edge of Kilauea Caldera, 550 yds to the left of the entry kiosk to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In addition to general information packs and maps, suggested routes for walks are available here. There is also a film about the history and development of the volcano and its most recent eruptions. The center will also inform visitors of any temporary closures in the park.
Volcano Art Center
A visit to the Volcano Art Center, situated near the entrance to the national park, is also recommended. It occupies the old Volcano Hotel, built in 1877 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kipuka Puaula Bird Park
Comprising about 99 acres, this park is a green oasis surrounded on all sides by lava flows. It is an ideal location for different species of endemic plants and trees, including koa, kolea and mamani trees. Rare Hawaiian birds can also be spotted here. A little more than half mile path leads through meadows and forests and offers ample opportunity to experience Hawaii's unique plant world. A brochure detailing everything of interest in the Bird Park can be obtained at the entrance.
Mauna Loa Road continues for 10 miles to a 6564 ft high viewing platform complete with car park. If the weather is good there are fine panoramic views. A path leads on further to Mokuaweoweo crater at the summit of Mauna Loa which reaches 13,676 ft. This 19 miles walk, climbing to a height of 6564 ft, requires two days to complete.
Chain of Craters Road
This 20 mile scenic drive descends from the Crater Rim Drive and ends at the sea where flowing lava has covered the road. Here visitors can park and walk across the lava to get a closer look at the steam where the lava plunges into the sea.
There are a number of crater overlooks, interesting lava formations and the Holei Sea Arch to add interest along the way. While most people take the drive during the day, some return at night to better see the glowing lava.