Our Visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is unlike any other national park. It is the only park to view an active volcano, and see land created in real time. A visit today is a different experience than a visit 10 or 20 years ago because the landscape changes as lava ebbs and flows. The power of nature is on full display.
Kilauea Caldera has been continuously erupting since 1983, putting out enough lava to resurface 20 miles of road each day. The eruption has destroyed towns and structures, including the Wahaula visitor center. It created 500 acres of land since 1983.
Kilauea does not spew red lava into the air, like the stereotypical images associated with an erupting volcano because the lava here is very thick. It oozes out and flows downhill with strength and determination, like a slow motion black goo that destroys everything in its path. People can only watch helplessly in awe of mother nature.
The easiest way, and the only way, for most people to see evidence of an actively erupting Kilauea is night time at the Jagger Museum. The museum has good exhibits that explains the volcano and overlooks the Halemaumau Crater. Lava heats water from a lake bed and turns it into steam, and pours out continuously.
We arrived at the Jagger Museum shortly before dusk on a rainy, cold day. The parking lot was packed as rangers directed traffic. Fog blanketed the crater, mixing with the steam in the distance. The fog lifted occasionally to reveal a clear view, as if Pele, the fire goddess, was toying with us. As the sky darkened, the red glow in the distance that looked like super hot charcoal mesmerized us. We stood in light drizzle, unable to take our eyes off of the glow that is the fire and fury of mother nature.
This is the essence of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – The origin of destruction or creation, depending on the point of view. The view of the crater during the day is surreal, somewhat like Haleakala, but night time glow of the volcano conveys the true power.
Sulphur and Steam
We stopped at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where we did our park business (stamp, movie, talk to ranger). The movie was nice but old. The rain came and went all through the day but we decided to take a chance and ventured onto the Sulphur Banks Trail and the Steam Vents, a walk that was a little more than a mile one way.
The colors of the Sulphur Banks were hues of yellow, white, and red, with steam rising from the foreground. There were holes in the ground where steam bellows up through the cold air. If the path was close enough, I would have put my hands over the steam to warm it up. The scene is nice, but does not compare to the variety and colors of Yellowstone’s thermal features.
The drizzle became steady rain and I had to put my camera inside my jacket to protect it as the rain dripped from the rim of my hat. Better head back in a hurry!
Lava Tube Tunnel
A 20 minute, 1/3 mile walk awaited us at Thurston Lava Tube, a natural tunnel formed by lava flow several hundred years ago. The surrounding area was lush with ferns and birds, an incredible oasis in the midst of a devastated landscape.
The tunnel itself is actually not very interesting, especially if you’ve been to national parks with caves. The stalactites are long gone, scrapped up by early souvenir hunters.
Road To The Sea
The Chain of Craters Road descends nearly 4000 feet from the rim to the sea. The awesome destructive and creative forces of the volcano became clear. There were scenes of the lava flow from different years, like 1969, 1971, 1972. The random path lava carved as it flowed from crater to the sea was evident. Vast fields of black lava are punctuated with groves of trees, spared from the lava flow. These trees were the lucky ones Pele spared.
The magnitude of the destruction and the birth of new land can only be appreciated with an actual visit. The road gave an excellent way to see the power of nature. The vast expense of lava flow field, from the top of the crater all the way to the sea, gave us a real appreciation of scale, and made us feel real small in comparison.
The drive ends at Holei Arch, an arch formation created by lava flow and erosion. It is a beautiful seaside view. I noticed, as I was walking on the crusted lava towards the ocean, how life started to take hold amid the destruction and new land creation. A plant was thriving through the cracks of the crusted lava. Nature is remarkable.
The Ever Changing Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has one other distinction besides being an active volcano. It is always changing. As Kilauea continues its eruption and lava flow, the land is always changing and growing. Trails and roads open and close. The only way by land to see live lava flow today (late 2017) is to hike nearly 10 miles from the end of Chain of Craters Road, on uneven crusted lava – a tough hike. If the lava reaches the ocean, it can be viewed from a boat, but that doesn’t always happen. In late 2017, lava was not reaching the ocean.
While we did not see live lava flow this time, we were lucky enough to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1989, when fresh lava flowed across the Chain of Craters Road into the sea. We literally walked up the road and came right up to the lava. We could have stepped right on the lava (and lose my foot) if we wanted to! The heat was intense. My face felt like it was in front of an oven just as the oven door opened. As the surface of the lava flow cooled and the crust formed, there was a crackling noise. We saw the inside of the lava inch slowly across the road even as the outside crust formed. The combination of the red lava, the black crust, the heat, and the noise was intense and super fun to see.
In 1989, we also saw the lava flow into the ocean, literally expanded the size of the island. As the lava hit the ocean, tremendous steam rose from the ocean, with a mix of sizzling noise and the sound of lapping ocean waves. That was almost a spiritual scene.
The experience this time was very different than 28 years ago. In 1989 and 2005, we were able to drive all the way around the Crater Rim Road, and hike into the crater. However, in 2017, most of Crater Rim Road was closed due to lava flow, as was Crater Rim Trail. We got great views of the Halemaumau Crater up close in 2005, but not this time.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park will continue to change. The park service is in a constant race with the volcano. What will the park service fix after the destruction from the volcano? Recently, the Chain of Craters Road, which used to loop to Kalapana but was cut off by lava flow, was restored as an emergency access road with crushed lava roadbed. The constant question for the park service is what to restore and what to leave to nature.
What will Hawaii Volcanoes National Park look like 28 years from now? I hope I am physically well enough to visit!
Thought for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
Respect Mother Nature. While we often think mankind is in control, we are not. People are powerless to control or change the path of lava flow, or a volcanic eruption.
Impressions of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
The awesome power of nature is on full display at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, in real time. While we can see evidence of the power of nature over time, like the Grand Canyon, nothing is like a live, erupting volcano and the path of destruction and creation. This park is relatively easy to tour, with good roads that access the key attractions.
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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
Top Attractions at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
- Jagger Museum and Halemaumau Crater Overlook
- Chain of Craters Road
- Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents
- Thurston Lava Tube
- Devastation Trail
One Day Visit Plan:
- Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center to get oriented and check the latest conditions of lava flow
- Take the Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents trail that is about 2 miles round trip. With greater stamina, hike all the way to Jagger Museum along Crater Rim trail, about 5 miles round trip
- Drive (or walk) to Jagger Museum, see the exhibits and take in the view of Halemaumau crater
- Hike the Kilauea Iki trail, a 4 mile loop that descends 400 feet into Kilauea crater
- Visit Thurston Lava Tube
- Drive Chain of Craters Road to the end.
- Return to Jagger Museum after sunset to view the red glow from the Halemaumau crater
Practical Info for Visiting Haleakala National Park
- One day is enough to see the park, unless you do a lot of hiking. However, it can be a very long day depending on where your lodging is. Two days affords a more relaxing pace.
- If you are staying on the Kona side of the island where most of the resorts are, be sure to take into account the drive time of 2 hours one way. The big island is pretty big.
- The town of Volcano, just outside of the park, has some services (restaurant / gas)
- Be prepared for cooler temperatures at the park, compared to the coast.
- Be aware of VOG (Volcanic Smog) and its effects on health. Check here for current conditions
- Be prepared for uneven surface during hikes, especially if you venture onto crusted lava flow. Wear sturdy, supportive foot ware. This is NOT the time for flip flops.
- Because there is no shade when you hike on top of previous lava flows, and the black surface, it can get very hot on a sunny day. Be prepared with lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat.
- The drive along the west shore on highway 11 from Kona to the park is beautiful, but slow going. Highway 200 (Saddle Road) is relatively new and a faster drive from Kona to Hilo, and the fastest way to go from Kona to the park.
- There isn’t a lot of seasonality for crowds, so visit at any time. Summer is dryer than winter.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Facts:
- Size: 323,431 acres, ranked 24th
- Visitors: 1,887,580 in 2016, ranked 14th. Record was 2,247,974 visitors in 1983
- Peak Month in 2016: 182,278 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2016: 126,474 visitors in September
- Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle.
Date Visited: December 19 – 20, 2017