Hawaii’s Big Island: Volcano National Park

IMG_8133_LUCiDWe spent our first day on Hawaii’s Big Island acclimating, exploring the Kona Coast, touring a coffee plantation, and seeing one of the few green sand beaches in the world.

I wasn’t sure how anything else could top it, but I quickly learned that the Big Island had a lot more to discover!

Our second day on Hawaii’s Big Island was one of my favorites. We were spending two nights at Volcano Village Lodge and dedicating an entire day to exploring Volcano National Park.

Despite living in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by volcanoes in various states of activity, I was beyond excited to experience Hawaii’s volcanoes, including the world’s most active volcano, Kīlauea.

We had arrived at the lodge after dark, navigating through the Ola’a Forest and along the wooden board walks until we found the reception/front desk bungalow. Outside was an envelope with our room key and instructions for getting to our private bungalow.

We couldn’t really get a feel for the setup or our space until the morning, but it was worth the wait! While there were a number of lodging options near the national park, I had picked this place because the rooms are surrounded by floor to ceiling glass, which makes you feel like you’re secluded in the middle of the jungle somewhere.

We awoke to birds and animals outside and a beautiful breakfast in our room. It was the perfect way to start the day, and I soaked it all in as we walked the board walks back to our car and set out for the day.

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Our first stop of the day was the Volcano Village Farmers Market where we mingled with the locals and admired some of the local handiwork. I was almost sorry we’d had such a big breakfast in our room because there were tons of food vendors with incredible smelling fare for sale. If you have time it’s worth visiting, but go early– parking is limited!

After walking around a while we headed to the  Volcano National Park Visitor Center so we could get some information about things to do in the park and better understand the current lava flow and where to see the active lava.

The park staff were on hand and very helpful. We walked away with materials to help us navigate Crater Rim Drive and the Chain of Craters Road, which were both on my list, and one guide helped us make our plans for seeing the lava.

He recommended we wait until late in the day, drive around the southeast side of the park, rent bicycles, and ride out to a viewing area where you could watch the lava pouring into the ocean at sunset. That plan sounded amazing to us, so we set out to spend our day in the park and evening watching the lava flow.

The good news about all the activity was that we were going to see lava. The bad news was that the activity was producing copious amounts of sulfur dioxide gas, which had shut down about half of Crater Rim Drive and several of the hikes I had considered.

We changed our plans and just took a moment to stop at the Kilauea Overlook and Jaggar Museum and Overlook to see the smoking crater (they assured us the lava sea was embedding and flowing inside) before heading south along the Chain of Craters Road.

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We decided to drive the entire road to the ocean and then slowly make our way back via the different sites we wanted to explore. It was still early so there wasn’t much traffic, and it was a beautiful ride winding among the lava beds from the top of the volcano down to sea level.

The drive is about 38 miles roundtrip with a 3,700 foot drop in elevation. The guide said it took about an hour and a half to two hours to complete the trip, depending on how many stops you take. It didn’t take us long to reach the end, park, and set off on our brief hike to the Holei Sea Arch.

There was a small ranger station and restrooms near the parking area, and while the emergency access road was closed to vehicles, there were signs stating you could hike the road out to the lava flow. As we looked down the road, and took pictures along the coast, we could see the smoke plume billowing up, giving us an idea of where the lava was hitting the ocean.

The waves were crashing up around the arch, and we couldn’t get over the dark black lava fields we had to navigate as we wandered around the coast. This section of the park has had ongoing lava flow since 1986, primarily from the Pu’u ‘O’o crater, and it was interesting to walk amid the mountains of  cooled rock, which I’m sure they continuously clear from the road.

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We drove uphill a little ways before finding the pull off for the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail. There still weren’t many people out and about so we had the hike nearly to ourselves. At the trail head, we stopped to read an information station that described the petrogyphs and the possible reasons early Hawaiians would have made them– recorded history, boundary marking, or simply to note that they had traveled through the area.

The majority of the hike is through ancient lava beds where some semblance of plant life has resumed. The trail was not obvious, and we had to keep our eye out for the occasional piles of stones on our left and right to ensure we were staying somewhere in between and heading in the right direction.

Eventually we made it to an area with a loop of boardwalk. As we approached, we began to see the carvings in the hardened lava. According to the National Parks website:

The archaeological site of Pu`u Loa contains over 23,000 petroglyph images; motifs containing cupules or holes (84% of the total) , motifs of circles, other geometric as well as cryptic designs, human representations known as anthropomorphs, canoe sails, and even feathered cape motifs.

We spent some time walking around the boardwalk, spotting different designs and pointing them out to one another. They were in various states of erosion, and we read that the park has been really thoughtful about preservation vs. allowing people to come out and experience them. The boardwalk concept was an early idea that continues to strike that balance. We could see quite a bit from the trail, although I understand there are thousands more in the surrounding area, which are still being studied.

As we finished and started heading back, more people were passing us on their way out. I was glad we went early and had some time to ourselves!

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After our hike we continued our drive back toward the Visitor Center, pulling over at a few of the overlooks to explore. They offered good views out over the lava beds and down toward the ocean, but to be perfectly honest, the views didn’t really vary from one to the next. I would recommend stopping at one, but we didn’t think it was necessary to do all of them.

The same could be said for the pits and craters along the drive. Worth doing, but we didn’t think there was great variety between them and would recommend seeing one, but not all, especially if you’re trying to squeeze a lot of sightseeing into only one or two days.

Out final stop along the drive was one I had researched ahead of time and was excited to experience– the Thurston Lava Tube. Discovered in 1913 by a local newspaper publisher named Lorrin Thurston, the tube is a remnant from early activity and would have served as a channel for hot flowing lava.

I had recently read Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne in which the characters use expired volcano tubes to travel underground and toward the earth’s core, and I had that in the back of my mind as we hiked through some fairly lush woods to the lava tube entrance.

There were quite a few people at this stop and we all made our way down some steps and through the tube. It was interesting, but not as long or as far underground as I had envisioned. There wasn’t much to stop and see so everyone simply walked, talked and eventually came out the other end.

Although not quite as deep and mysterious as I had for some reason imagined, it was still and interesting stop and didn’t take that long to explore.

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We wanted to have time to grab a bite to eat and prepare for our evening bike ride to the lava flow, so we decided to wrap up our time in the park with a final early afternoon hike up by the Kilauea Caldera around the Steaming Bluff Overlook.

There were a few parking spots available near the steam vents, so we began on the crater side of the road walking along the vents and over to the bluff. There was a fair amount of steam coming out, which is a result of moisture seeping down and contacting the hot lava rocks underground. The resulting steam escapes through fissures at various places around the crater.

We also crossed the street to complete a short hike out to the Sulpher Banks. There were a number of signs warning people with respiratory issues to remain behind, as well as cautions to stay on the trail and away from any vents for fear of burns. In this area, volcanic gas, made up of carbon dioxide, sulfer dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, is emitted along with the steam.

As we approached the Sulphur Banks, the smells became more intense– and reminiscent of rotten eggs. However, the banks were beautiful and worth tolerating the smell for a little while. We read that colors are a result of the gases– some sulfur gases deposit crystals while others produce acids that break down the lava into clay, which is stained with iron oxide. We took a few pictures and then hiked back out, welcoming the fresh air back by our car!

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It was an amazing morning in the park, but our evening experiencing the lava was the highlight of our day.

We stopped back at our room to relax, eat a quick snack, and repack our backpack for the evening adventure and then set out as the park ranger had suggested, driving south to the coast and then west until we reached the end of the public access to the coastal road.

Although we had no idea where to go, there were tons of people and it was easy to follow the crowd. There were multiple places renting bicycles, as well as vendors selling food and other items. We found a guy renting bikes and headlamps out of his van so we grabbed two and then set off on the gravel emergency access road through the lava fields and toward the giant plume of smoke rising up from the coast.

I am not a great cyclist, but it was a total thrill making our way out to the viewing area. We stopped to take some pictures along the way, navigating the multiple people bicycling and walking the 4.5 miles out to the site. The guide had said it would take almost two hours each way to walk, given the gravel road conditions, and while that would have been fine going out in the daylight where you could enjoy the amazing views along the way, we decided to cut that travel time in half by renting the bikes.

To our left was the ocean, and to the right were the lava beds. Up ahead we could see the steam rising in a trail from the crater down to the viewing area, indicating the path of the active lava flow.

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We bicycled as far as possible but eventually hit the stopping point where park rangers were set up and directing people down to the viewing area. We found a place to bungee our bikes, hoping we would remember where to find them, and then began our hike down toward the water.

We followed a rope line toward the coast, stopping to admire the cooled lava. It’s incredible how it cools in various shapes and patterns, and I loved the areas that looked like coiled rope!

Eventually we made it as far as we could go and found a place to stand near the rope and behind the first row of people who had already staked out their viewing area. The place is completely remote– no amenities whatsoever, only whatever you packed out with you. There were tons of people already there, and I would venture to say there were thousands by the time the evening was over.

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The people around us were very nice, and we all entertained ourselves in between trying to catch glimpses of the red lava amid the billowing smoke plume. The lava was rushing into the water creating a massive amount of steam, but occasionally you would see a flash of red and everyone would ohh and ahh!

More and more people continued to show up on land, and we also noticed a boat out in the water getting close to where the lava was flowing. There were also a couple of helicopters that circled overhead. While I’m sure both of the guided experiences have their advantages– offering different perspectives and in the case of the boat, a much closer view, they were really only out during daylight, and for us, the most fascinating time was after sunset.

As the sun set, the sky and smoke plume became even more beautiful and the lava glowed more and more. Once it was dark it was amazing to see the bright red lava bursting from the coastal wall and out into the water. The whole entry area glowed red, and we couldn’t stop staring!

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Once it was completely dark we finally decided we should head back. We turned on our headlamps and were very grateful we had snagged a flashlight from our room. It was a bit treacherous navigating the lava beds back toward the gravel road in the pitch black night!

Eventually we found our bikes and then began our 4.5-mile uphill trek back to the car. As we pedaled, trying to make out people who were walking and biking in both directions, it started to rain! Not pouring, but definitely more than a fine mist. Pretty soon we were soaked clear through.

My legs and lungs were burning, every bit of me was wet, my senses were on high alert as we struggled to keep pedaling forward in the dark by headlamp light– and I felt so alive! We were completely exhausted as we turned in the bikes and collapsed into the rental car, but we also couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces or help but laugh. It was an absolutely incredible adventure.

To celebrate our accomplishment, we headed to Pahoa, a small town on the way back toward the national park, and a Mexican restaurant I had noted on my list called Luquins. After finally discovering their parking lot, we made our way inside to a booth near the live music, ordered margaritas and tacos (both delicious), and relived our adventure by flipping through one another’s camera pictures. The food, atmosphere and drinks were amazing–I definitely recommend it!

We were exhausted after such a full day, but it was our last night in the park so we opted for one final adventure– returning to the Jaggar Museum and Overlook to see the crater at night. We had checked out Uncle George’s Lounge, which was a recommended viewing point for the crater (with the added bonus of cocktails and apps), but neither the view or the food were anything special. The Jaggar Museum, however, is well worth the trip.

We managed to find parking at the museum and walked out to the overlook. While during the day we could only see the smoke, the view at night was an entirely different story. The lava sea was on fire and the entire crater was aglow.

It was also pitch black– no lights at the museum, overlook, parking lot or road, so the stars were out in full view. It was incredible. There was a decent breeze and I actually started to get cold, but I tried to stick it out as long as possible so Brian could set up his tripod and capture a few long exposure shots of the crater and stars. The resulting photos were absolutely worth it.

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