Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is home to two active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. At 323,431 acres it’s large park. Only a very small part of is accessible by car, but as you can see in this post, the places you can drive to are pretty fantastic.
The question of the day was whether we would see any volcanic activity. Read on to find out.
The day started out drizzly and misty at the Kīlauea Visitor Center located at 3,500 ft. High winds were driving the rain into our faces, and photography was almost impossible. Still, I took a few photos of the lush, rainforest-like vegetation in this area.
Hãpu'u, the Hawaiian tree fern (Cibotium glaucum)
Half of Crater Rim Drive was closed because of elevated levels of sulfur dioxide gas (sounds pretty nasty) so we couldn’t drive all the way around the summit caldera of Kīlauea. Knowing our day would end at the Jaggar Museum, currently the westernmost point you can go on Crater Rim Drive, we headed south on the Chain of Craters Road. This 19-mile road descends from Crater Rim Drive to the ocean. The road used to continue to the village of Kalapana (where Uncle Robert’s is located) but it was buried under lava flows and now ends abruptly just beyond the Hōlei Sea Arch (see below).
There are many stops and pullouts along Chain of Craters Road, allowing you to get up close and personal with the lava that has covered enormous expanses of land. We stopped often, and sometimes we were the only people around. The scenery is breathtakingly desolate, yet immensely fascinating at the same time. I spent a good amount of time just studying the textures of the lava as well as the subtle differences in color. Later on we would see even more variation.
As the road started to plunge down towards the sea, wide vistas of the ocean opened up in front of us. The south coast of Hawaii is a lonely, wind-swept place. The air was warm and humid, and while the wind made it more bearable, it also ended up chafing my face, making me look like I had a sunburn.
At the end of Chain of Craters Road is Hōlei Sea Arch. There are restrooms and a few small shelters that serve as picnic facilities. Apparently the National Park Service thought that having picnic tables out in the open would be too uncomfortable for visitors because of the never-ending wind.
What cracked me up was the presence of a small kiosk selling snacks and souvenirs. Really??? Yes, apparently people need to be able to buy crap even in the most isolated places.
Past the Hōlei Sea Arch I continued on the paved road (closed to cars but in perfectly good condition) until I reached the 2003 lava flow. This has got to be one of the most unique sights on Hawaii. Where else can you see an oozing black mass that even now seems alive slither across a road?
Since this flow is so recent, the lava here hasn’t weathered like it has in many other places in the park. There were many subtle hues of red and brown, especially where the lava had cracked open.
Doesn’t the chunk in the next photo look like a piece of layer cake?
Can you see the eye in the next two photos?
On our way back towards Crater Rim Drive, we stopped at Kīlauea Iki Overlook where we noticed white plumes in the distance. They were coming from Kīlauea’s summit caldera. We would see much more of them at dusk.
Our next stop was at Thurston Lava Tube. The walk to the entrance took us through a lush forest dominated by Hawaiian tree ferns or hãpu'u (Cibotium glaucum).
As striking as these Hawaiian tree ferns are, I find them to be a bit messy-looking and not as elegant as the Tasmanian or Australian tree ferns.
Their fronds, however, are beautiful, especially viewed against the sky.
The entrance to Thurston Lava Cave was a forbidding dark hole…
…but once inside, I thought the place was magical.
Unfortunately, the lava tube is not very long, and our caving adventure was over much too soon.
In case you didn’t know, a lava tube is formed when the surface of a lava flow has hardened but lava still flows beneath it. Eventually the flow stops and a cave-like tunnel is left behind.
A short walk through more tree fern forest…
…took us back to the car, and we headed to our final destination of the day: the Kīlauea Summit Caldera Overlook at the Jaggar Museum, located along the Crater Rim Drive. Barring an active lava flow that is accessible to the public, this is the best place to see volcanic activity in the park.
I’m not going to go into the history of the current outbreak of Kīlauea, which began in 1983 and is continuing still. There are many sources where you can read up on it. This Wikipedia article has good information and some great photos—better than I was able to take.
When we arrived at 6:15pm, about 45 minutes before sunset, the caldera looked like this:
For a few minutes we saw a rainbow—not very colorful but still a good omen, I thought.
As it was getting darker, a glow started to emanate from the caldera. It was faint at first…
…but eventually got stronger.
I overheard one man saying that he had to think of Mount Doom, the mountain in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where Frodo destroys the Ring. I chuckled because I had thought the same thing.
In the end we didn’t see the red-hot lava flows I had been hoping for, but our day still ended on a high note.