Wandering the West
November 24, 2009
Did you notice all the earth shaking last month? There were earthquakes from Peru to Indonesia, and tsunamis that killed hundreds in Tonga and other Pacific Islands. It also altered the lava flows on the big island of Hawaii, where Hawaii’s number one destination has had to temporarily close and re-route some roads and trails.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park contains Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984, and Kilauea, which had been venting and looking ominous, but hadn’t actually erupted since 1982, until last year. On March 24, 2008, Kilauea formed a new crater and started spewing steam and gases.
My family dropped by in quieter times a few years ago. We planned a short trip to the park so we’d have beach time, but wound up spending the whole day, with only time for a short stop at a nearby black-sand beach famous for its green sea turtles.
Approaching from Kona, the actual mileage wasn’t all that much, but winding around and up the side of the volcanoes and then going on narrow roads through small villages and coffee plantations was slow.
Hawaii Volcanoes is the single most convenient place to see an active volcano in the world. You can literally drive to its rim, park, and walk to the edge and look down at a live volcano in action. It is an officially declared World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
This is how the Hawaiian Islands formed, and the Big Island continues to get bigger because of what’s happening here. So far, last year’s eruption has added over 500 acres of new Hawaiian beachfront.
Recommended Stories For You
At the rim it feels like you’ve entered an apocalypse movie. Below lies a stinking, steaming sea of gray moonscape. Crater Rim Drive hugs the edge of the caldera, with several stops and short hikes. Since last year’s new eruption here, the road and hiking trails close from time to time because of dangerous venting of sulfur dioxide gas.
On walks to the viewpoints into the caldera, you’ll see plates loaded with fresh fruit offerings to Pele, the fire goddess. You can see steam venting from cracks in the lava and smell the sulfur as you would in Yellowstone.
Near the visitor center, the short hike to Thurston lava tube takes you through a fern-tree forest filled with birds. The tube itself is like walking inside a petrified lava flow because that’s exactly what you’re doing. If there aren’t too many tourists around, stop and listen to the birds. It sounds just like a jungle movie. A second tube hike, Pua Po’o, is a little more difficult and requires a ranger guide. You can sign up for those hikes on Tuesdays only.
Leave at least three hours on your daytrip to head down Chain of Craters Road, which descends 3,700 feet to the ocean. The 20-mile drive ends where lava flows rolled over the road. In some places beyond the road’s end, the old road is now buried 115 feet deep. There used to be a small settlement down here, but lava flows took care of it as residents ran for their lives. Hike from road’s end to water’s edge and, depending on where the lava is, you can see the red-hot magma as it hits Pacific waters and builds a little more Hawaii.
A trip to Hawaii Volcanoes beats another day at the beach anytime. In southern Utah our volcanoes died millions of years ago, leaving huge lava flows of cold, black, jagged stone in places like Washington County. In Wyoming, Yellowstone’s caldera simmers with boiling mud and water and the occasional geyser. But only in Hawaii can you see the primordial stew still rising from the interior of the earth, red hot and ready to roll where it wants to go.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: Stay at the end of the road past sunset to see the red lava light up the night.