Kilauea Volcano

Park reopened after four months of closure

Volcanoes National Park closed on Friday, May 11, 2018 for safety reasons. The ensuing months were hard on the park and many areas were damaged.

But we are delighted to report that the park partially reopened September 22nd. It’s going to be a long haul before everything gets fixed, but we have to applaud park management for wanting to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Don’t expect much to be accessible at first. But hey, it’s a great start. Once it returns to their former glory, you can expect to experience something like this.

If you had to name the one thing the Big Island is most famous for, it would undoubtedly be Kilauea Volcano. In all the world there isn’t a more active volcano, and none is as user-friendly as Kilauea. People often refer to it as the drive-in volcano.

Kilauea is an enigma—you can’t really see the mountain from anywhere on the island, or even recognize it when you are standing on it. It seems more like a wound on the flanks of Mauna Loa. In the past, everyone thought that it was part of Mauna Loa, but today we know that it is separate and distinct, with its own separate (though possibly interrelated) magma chamber. One part of Kilauea, the actual Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent itself, is teasingly inaccessible.

We feel strongly that most people allow far too little time for visiting Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Many simply blow through on an around-the-island driving frenzy, barely stopping long enough to snap a photo of Kilauea Caldera. There is much more here than meets the eye, and this might be the highlight of your Hawaiian trip. Whether Kilauea is erupting or not, this park may be the most fascinating place you ever visit, and you surely don’t have anything like this back home. The finest hiking on the island is here. The lushest rainforest you’ve ever seen is here to stroll through. Vents spewing steam, brand new land, birds-a-plenty, giant chasms, ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, lava craters, walk-through lava tubes, unrivaled vistas—it’s all here. Once you know what to look for, you will want to spend at least a whole day, preferably two. Since driving to the volcano can take 4 hours round trip from Kona or Kohala, consider reserving a place to stay in the town of Volcano. This allows you to experience it at a more leisurely pace and is a nice way to go, if you can swing it. After a long, fulfilling day at the park, the drive back to Kona or Kohala is a drag. If you are staying in Hilo, it’s an easy drive back.

Will I Get To See Lava Flowing?

Seeing lava flow at night is an unforgettable experience

Until 2018 I would have said probably yes. Now, probably not. But the truth is, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else. You need to know the history of what happened to get the whole picture.

Historically (meaning since 1778), most Hawaiian eruptions have lasted days or weeks, rarely months. Until 1983, only once—from 1969–1974 at Mauna Ulu—has an eruption outside the crater lasted more than a year. All that changed Jan. 3, 1983, when a fissure opened up in a place later called Pu‘u ‘O‘o, shifted to a vent called Kupaianaha from 1986 to 1992, then shifted back toward Pu‘u ‘O‘o until 2018. There was also a lava lake at the summit in Halema‘uma‘u Crater for the last decade of the eruption.

On April 30, 2018, however, the crater floor collapsed. The lava lake drained all at once, and the crater got deeper and deeper until the magma fell below the water table. The summit is around 4,000 feet in elevation, and the volcano had spent 35 years storing lava for distribution at this higher elevation. Something dramatic was happening.

Like a gopher tunneling underground, the magma worked its way rapidly to the east, outside the park and down the flanks of the mountain. When it got to a quiet residential development called Leilani Estates (elevation 700 feet), scientists sounded the alarm bells. Evacuations were ordered, and on May 3, 2018, fissure after fissure opened up among the houses. 

Twenty-two fissures eventually opened until Madame Pele settled in at Fissure 8. And from there came one of the most voluminous lava rivers in modern times. Imagine 40,000 dump trucks of lava—per hour—raging down a hellish river in your neighborhood. It was as if you had a full water tank located at a high elevation, then ran a hose from it down to a lower elevation. The fluid pressure was enormous, and lava was hotter than any that had previously been measured from Kilauea. The volcano had entered a new phase, and nobody had any idea what would happen or how long it would last.

The lava went due north until it crossed the main street, Leilani Avenue, then pushed its way northeast. It paralleled the ridge down the flank, and some of the lava spilled down the southern flank and made its way to the ocean, but Fissure 8 pushed on. Homes were destroyed. Businesses were destroyed. At one point the lava broke onto the land where a geothermal power plant existed. This was where the island got 25 percent of its power, by tapping the heat from a long ago eruption. But this was a geothermal meltdown, forcing the power plant to abandon the wells and flee.

When the massive river made it to a tall cinder cone from a 500-year-old eruption, it slithered around the north end and proceeded to take out some of the most beloved spots in Lower Puna, starting with the one-of-a-kind town and tide-pools of Kapoho.

After fountaining and cascading for a little more than three months, lava from the fissure slowed until it seemed that Fissure 8 was spent. The lava river crusted over. More than 13 square miles of existing land had been covered with lava and 875 acres of new land created at the shoreline. Madame Pele, who had been on a massive spending spree in Lower Puna, appeared to have exhausted her savings, and it is currently unknown how long it will take to replenish the reserves. 

So, as you can see, we are in uncharted territory. The lava may return to the park in time for your visit. Or it may be another generation before we see the kinds of scenes we were accustomed to. And only time will reveal what Madame Pele might do. 

The Scene

Kilauea’s lava scene

If and when lava does return to the park, this is what it’s like. We’ve been to the volcano countless times, with and without surface lava. It’s always a fantastic experience, though not what people expect.

During a relatively calm flow, pahoehoe lava is silvery coated, red or yellow as it oozes its way toward the sea. It is a humbling experience to stand there and observe earthly creation, like seeing the planet during its fiery adolescence. In most parts of the world, people dread active volcanoes, fearing death and destruction. A huge explosion will send clouds of ash and pumice into air, killing everything in its path. (Or screwing up travel to Europe.) In Hawai‘i, people drop whatever they are doing and drive out to see it. Rather than apocalyptic explosions, Kilauea mostly drools and dribbles. (In historic times, it has exploded only a few times, and one had astonishing consequences.) Though the total volume of lava erupting ranges from 300,000 to more than a million cubic yards per day, it is so spread out that it rarely rushes down the mountain in a hellish river of liquid stone. (Well, except for 2018 in Lower Puna, of course.) Usually, it’s small rivulets of molten lava separated by large distances from other rivulets. When it hardens (which occurs very quickly), it crunches beneath your feet like shards of glass.

There are not many places on this planet where you can walk on ground younger than you are, where you can be assured that there is absolutely nothing alive beneath your feet except for the earth itself. We’ve been there when people from all over the world stand in awe, tears streaming down their cheeks as they tell their children, “You may never see anything like this again in your lifetime.”

As freshly hardened pahoehoe lava cools, it stresses the silica coating on the outside. This natural glass then crackles and pops off the rock, creating subtle sounds that bewitch viewers. Heat from the flows can be intense. Many times we’ve been less than a yard from the molten lava and felt like we would suddenly burst into flames. Other times, the wind has blown from the other direction so we could enjoy the liquid earth in comfort. Sometimes there is unpleasant black smoke and fumes (especially when the volcano is gobbling up more road or forest). Other times it seems to have absolutely no fumes or smoke and no offensive smell. (What smell it does have is hard to describe but never forgotten.)

At night, the lava may glow in numerous spots like a prehistoric scene from yesteryear. Sometimes, as the lava flows into the ocean, brilliant red and orange steam clouds light up the immediate area, creating dazzling light shows as the flow drips or gushes into the ocean. Sometimes, when it burns scrub vegetation at night, the methane emits a blue flame. A night scene might go like this: A crowd of about 50 people on a bluff overlooks a field of fresh pahoehoe. It pops, crackles and glows as the night consumes all. What amazes us is how reverent everybody is. Couples hold each other tight. People speak in soft whispers. They try not to move much for fear of disturbing others as they watch Earth’s most primordial show. Nobody wants to leave. Watching the lava enter the sea at night never fails to impress, and we’ve been told by visitors more times than we can count that it is an unsurpassed highlight.

The Explosion that Changed History

Mild-mannered Kilauea has exploded on a large scale only twice in recorded history, once in 1790 and once in 1924. (There is evidence that it may have exploded more often in the distant past.) These eruptions are phreatomagmatic, meaning steam-induced (but you knew that).

In 1790, Kamehameha ruled much of the island. While he was distracted with plans to invade Maui, a rival chief named Keoua seized control of this part of the island. Kamehameha sent troops to do battle. Eventually both armies pulled back to their strongholds. As Keoua’s troops and their families camped at Kilauea that night, fire and rock spewed from Kilauea Caldera. Keoua thought he had offended Pele, the volcano goddess, by rolling stones into the crater the day before and spent two days trying to appease her. It didn’t work. On the third day they tried to leave, organized in three divisions. Right after the first division left, the mountain exploded. Darkness enveloped the area, punctured by volcano-induced thunder and lightning, and streams of red and blue light from the crater. Huge amounts of hot ash rained down, then a suffocating gas belched up from the volcano.

The first division to depart escaped mostly intact. The second division disappeared. When the third division came to the scene, they found their comrades of the second division huddled in circles, some hugging each other with their noses pressed together. Relieved, the third division rushed forward to greet them, only to discover that every last member of the second division—around 400 men and their wives and children—were dead. (Not 85 as the park sign says.) Most had been asphyxiated by the noxious gas. The only survivor was a solitary hog. If you take the Ka‘u Desert Trail, you can see the faint outline of steps preserved in the ash—steps created by other soldiers at the time of the disaster.

As for Keoua, everyone now knew that Pele was against him and his army. He kept fighting more battles but never turned the tide. Not yet defeated, he was invited by Kamehameha to peacefully dedicate the new Pu‘ukohola Heiau in Kawaihae. When Keoua’s boat approached the shore of Kawaihae, he was immediately murdered by one of Kamehameha’s officers and had the dubious honor of being the temple’s first official human sacrifice. Thus was Kamehameha’s rule over the island forever solidified.

A Few Basics

Kilauea Iki

The park was closed and heavily damaged by relentless earthquakes in the summer of 2018. We were mighty impressed when they reopened their doors a month after the flows were over, but you need to consider this chapter a moving target. Many of the places and sights that follow might not be available to visit. They will open things as quickly as is reasonably possibly, but they will need to do so in a safe manner.

The park is open 24 hours, every day of the year. Despite the fact that it is operated by the federal government, the park seems very well run. Much of the staff are friendly and professional. (We’ve seen other parks where the staff can be real curmudgeons.) The rangers are pretty good at letting you see the action close up. We’ve been there when they lead people across smoldering lava, the heat coming up through their shoes. They will only keep you away if they truly perceive danger, unlike some other parks where they sometimes keep you away from imaginary dangers on orders from the lawyers. Because of this, you should heed their cautions seriously. If they say you can’t go to a certain area because they expect a lava bench might collapse, don’t go there. At least one person has died because he didn’t heed this warning. (The ocean drops quickly off the coast of the park, and new lava land is usually destined to break off when it reaches a critical mass.) If rangers say an area is off limits because of the dangers of methane explosions, believe it. Methane from plant matter in older flows can heat up when a new flow covers it. This usually escapes by hissing or by small pops, but sometimes it can be more dramatic. We were there once with many other visitors when a large methane explosion occurred 25 feet from us. It was powerful enough to rip through 12-inch thick lava, pieces of which jumped into the air. Under certain circumstances, these explosions occur 100 yards in advance of a lava flow.

And remember, if there are no accessible surface flows, don’t despair. The volcano area is eminently fascinating and exciting, with or without surface flows, and is always worth at least a day of exploration. Below are some of the other delights waiting for you at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. 

Hiking in the Park

Fern forests contribute to the otherworldly feel of the area

Much of the best hiking on the island is in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. The Hiking section lists scads of great hikes in the park. There are also a couple spookier hikes in the Adventures section. Note that strolls of less than 30 minutes are described in the tour of the volcano.

Around Kilauea Crater

Kilauea Crater

Kilauea Crater

Remember that Kilauea Crater is located at an altitude of 4,000 feet, so make sure you bring your warmies for those days when it’s misty and chilly at the summit.

After paying your $20–$25 vehicle entrance fee (it’s good for a week) at the gate, stop by the Visitor Center on your right. They have up-to-date information, a nice display of books, videos, artifacts, a movie showing and—most important if you’ve driven a long way—restrooms. Check out the 3-D miniature of the island near the restrooms to get a perspective of the island. Some guided hike notices are sometimes posted at the Visitor Center (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) if you’re interested. From there, you might want to walk across the street to Volcano House for your first peek of Kilauea Caldera from their enviable view.

Steam Vents

You’ll want to do a counter-clockwise tour of the caldera to start. Take a right from the Visitor Center, and the first thing you come to are the Steam Vents on your left. Here, rain that has seeped into the ground is heated by Kilauea and issues forth as steam. The amount varies daily depending on the level of rain in the past few days, and it is rarely smelly like Sulphur Banks. In fact, there is usually no smell at all. Make sure you take the trail for 2 to 3 minutes toward the crater rim for a smashing view of the crater, and where additional, more powerful and unobstructed steam vents are present.

Sulphur Banks

From the steam vent parking lot you can follow along the Sulphur Banks Trail. The paved path starts across the street and 800 feet before the lot. It leads 5 to 10 minutes through a pretty forest to a boardwalk at the Sulphur Banks. This colorful but stinky phenomenon is where hydrogen sulphide gas and steam form deposits of sulphur, gypsum and hematite on the ground. This should be avoided by those with a heart condition, respiratory problems, children or anyone eating lunch.

Kilauea Military Camp
Kilauea Military Camp

Continuing on Crater Rim Drive you’ll see Kilauea Military Camp. Though you gotta be active or retired military to stay here, multiple visits by us as well as phone calls confirm that visitors are welcome to buy from their relatively cheap credit card-only gas station as well as their general store, restaurant, lounge and bowling alley (though they reserve the right to bump you from the latter if a guest wants to bowl). Small handmade signs asking for military ID seem at odds with their warm welcome.

Kilauea Overlook

Kilauea Overlook

Rounding the crater, you come to Kilauea Overlook. This is a different perspective on Kilauea Crater and its progeny, Halema‘uma‘u Crater, and is definitely worth a stop. Look for white-tailed tropic birds soaring on the thermals down in the crater.

Jaggar Museum

Jaggar Museum (Not like Mick. There’s no Rolling Stones exhibits. We checked)

Just past the overlook is former Jaggar Museum and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. These structures were built so scientists could observe the erupting volcano up close and personal. They got more than their wish when Halema‘uma‘u Crater collapsed in 2018 and the series of earthquakes that followed did so much damage that there are no plans to reopen them.

When Halema‘uma‘u started spewing nasty gases in 2008, park officials closed the road from here, and it will likely be closed during your visit. This is as close as you’ll be able to get to Halema‘uma‘u Crater. This crater-within-a-crater is said to be the home to Madame Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. For most of the 19th century this was a boiling lava lake. Mark Twain and other celebrities of his time visited here and described it as viewing the fiery pits of hell. When Isabella Bird saw it in 1873, she wrote:

Suddenly, just above, and in front of us, gory drops were tossed in air, and springing forwards we stood on the brink of Halemaumau, which was about 35 feet below us. I think we all screamed, I know we all wept, but we were speechless, for a new glory and terror had been added to the Earth. It is the most unutterable of wonderful things. The words of common speech are quite useless. It is unimaginable, indescribable, a sight to remember forever, a sight which at once took possession of every faculty of sense and soul, removing one altogether out of the range of ordinary life. Here was the real “bottomless pit”—the “fire which is not quenched”—“the place of hell”—“the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone”—the “everlasting burnings”—the fiery sea whose waves are never weary. There were groanings, rumblings, and detonations, rushings, hissings, and splashings, and the crashing sound of breakers on the coast, but it was the surging of fiery waves upon a fiery shore.

Halema‘uma‘u is quieter now. The whole crater has risen and fallen over time—going from 1,335 feet deep to overflowing its top. It was about 3,000 feet across for many decades until the lava retreated in 2018, and once the liquid rock got below the water table, explosions of steam rattled the crater—and the whole region. Strong earthquakes happened daily for months. Today the crater is more than four times its previous size and more than 1,000 feet deep. It expanded so much it swallowed part of the previous viewing area parking lot.

Until the road closure, Hawaiians still made offerings here to Pele. It is said that Pele will appear as a beautiful young woman in the mountains and as a very old and ugly woman at the shoreline. (Hence the Hawaiian saying, “Always be nice to an old woman; it might be Pele.”) Though Halema‘uma‘u is said to be her home, the house is pretty quiet these days after the raucous summer in 2018.

Down Chain of Craters Road

Hilina Pali

Views from Hilina Pali Lookout

At the road closure you’re at Chain of Craters Road, which leads 19 miles down to the shore and ends abruptly where the current lava flow cut it off. The road was so named because it passed numerous craters along the rift zone before veering off to the shore. It was rerouted after Madame Pele repaved 12 miles of the road with lava during the 1969–74 Mauna Ulu flow and now visits fewer craters than it used to. Mile markers are on alternating sides of the road, and we will refer to some of them. There are still some craters along the way you might want to check out, such as Puhimau (but don’t bother with Ko‘oko‘olau). Remember to check your gas gauge; we’ve seen people run out of gas coming back up.

A little more than 2 miles into Chain of Craters Road is Hilina Pali Road, 8.3 miles long. It may be closed during nene nesting or if there is a perceived fire danger. The drive isn’t impressive, but at the end is Hilina Pali Lookout. Walk down the path for 100 feet or so, and you are treated to an amazingly expansive view. You’re perched above the vast shoreline below, and on a clear day you can see the entire shoreline for over 30 miles south. It’s very quiet, desolate and peaceful, with the sound of the distant ocean sometimes present. If you take it, please drive very slowly as the endangered nene are usually in the road and aren’t afraid of cars. The Kulanaokuaiki backcountry campgrounds are also on Hilina Pali Road.

Just outside the park entrance there are a few sights that are worth checking out, either before or after your park visit.

Bird Park

Just outside the park entrance there are a few sights that are worth checking out, either before or after your park visit.

If you were heading back toward Kona, Mauna Loa Scenic Road leads past the Tree Molds. These holes are created when a lava flow encounters a sopping wet tree trunk, which resists bursting into flames just long enough to harden the lava around it. They look a little like water wells with the texture of the tree bark that go pretty far down into the ground, giving a good sense of how deep the lava flow that created them must have been. No walking required, the tree molds are right at the parking area.

A tree growing in a tree mold

Farther up the road is Kipuka Pua‘ulu (Bird Park). A trail goes through a kipuka, an old growth of forest surrounded by newer lava flows. This kipuka features many native trees and plants, but is less visually dazzling than other hikes nearer the crater. Birds abound in this park—hence its nickname, Bird Park. The entire 1-mile stroll takes only 20–30 minutes plus stopping time. There is a bench partway along the trail, which ascends gently for the first half. If you are feeling adventurous, there is a little-explored cave near to marker No. 6 that you can worm your way into. (It opens up substantially once you get inside.)

Bird Park
The trail through Bird Park

Heading farther up Mauna Loa Scenic Road, it’s tempting to speed, but the road drops to one lane with several blind turns as it passes through a pretty forest that is different from other forests in the area. No big payoff here, (so don’t expect an expansive view of the summit), just a lonely road that often ascends into the clouds, usually with lots of pheasants around. At the end of the 13-mile road (at 6,650 feet) is the trailhead to Mauna Loa Trail. This is where you start your multi-day trek through the cold and altitude to ascend the summit of Mauna Loa. (Maybe another day.) There are picnic tables and a nice view of the park at the road’s end. Though pleasant, this road is dispensable if you are budgeting your time.

Mauna Loa Trailhead

Off the main highway south of the park entrance near mile marker 38 is the Ka‘u Desert Trail, which leads less than a mile to Footprints. Most of these were created during the explosion of 1790 (plus a few from an earlier explosion in the 1500s). You may read or be told that the footprints are worn away because they were vandalized. The truth is apparently a little more embarrassing. Park sources have told us that park personnel tried to protect the footprints many years ago by placing a glass case over them. Their intentions were good, but when it rained, water condensed on the underside of the cracked glass and dripped onto the prints, wearing them away. That’s why the display case is gone, but the vandalism rumor persists. Most personnel believe the vandalism explanation to be true to this day. Regardless, if you look around, you can still find better footprints elsewhere when shifting ash dunes permit.

Wine and volcanoes

Wine and volcanoes, what’s not to like?

Just outside the park a mile down Piimauna Road, you’ll find Volcano Winery (808-967-7772). This is a good place to stop for a sip of some locally made wines. They have several unusual wines, including a local favorite, Mac Nut Honey Wine. They also have wines made from fruits—even grapes. Hardcore oenophiles might turn up their noses, but less finicky palates might enjoy a snort or two of the exotic. A sign there says “No Large Tour Buses.” Wow, that’s a switch. We also like their sign that says “Reserved for Winos.”

Why you Shouldn’t Pick a Lehua Blossom off an ‘Ohi‘a Tree

According to legend, ‘Ohi‘a was a young, handsome Big Island chief. The volcano goddess Pele knew that ‘Ohi‘a was courting a beautiful young girl named Lehua. Pele became enamored with ‘Ohi‘a and desired him for a husband. One day as ‘Ohi‘a went up into the mountains to cut kukui bark to stain his surfboard, Pele appeared to him. She was dressed in her finest clothes and was quite striking. After a time, she announced to ‘Ohi‘a who she was and asked him to be her husband. Nervously but very diplomatically, he turned her down, professing his eternal love for Lehua. In her anger, Pele told him he was as gutless as a piece of wood, and changed him into a gnarled tree with grey-green leaves. When the other gods saw what Pele had done, they felt bad and tried to reverse it, but failed. The best they could do to reunite the broken-hearted Lehua with her beloved ‘Ohi‘a was to turn Lehua into a beautiful blossom on the same tree. To this day, it is said that picking a lehua blossom off an ‘ohi‘a tree will produce rain. These are the tears from heaven for separated lovers everywhere.

Currently, ‘ohi‘a trees are under assault from an alien fungus that causes a condition called Rapid ‘Ohi‘a Death, and it’s raising statewide concern.

The Town of Volcano

When you first see the town of Volcano on a map, you figure they must spend all their time biting their nails over the active volcano crater less than 2 miles away. In fact, since they’re upslope of the crater, they’re safer from lava flows than Hilo or even the Kohala Resort area 50 miles away, as far as the geologists are concerned. Though extensive lava flows did cover this area about 500 years ago, the summit has since been reshaped so that today nearly all the lava flows happen on Kilauea’s southern flank (away from the village). Their main threat is from falling tephra or ash from the occasional crater explosion like the one in 1790—annoying, but not as bad as a lava flow. And as for volcano smoke, normal trade winds send the smoke around the bottom of the island and up the coast where it harasses Kailua-Kona. It’s ironic that this dreamy little community, set in a misty, lush fern-filled forest, can be so snug living on an active volcano.

Volcano is also a convenient place to pick up some supplies and gas (which is breathtakingly expensive here). If you enter the loop road from near mile marker 27, you pass by the Volcano Store and Kilauea General Store and Gas Station farther down. If you’re driving back to the west side of the island, you can grab some gas or a snack before the long drive back. It’s also amazingly over-represented when it comes to upscale restaurants, so consider dining here.

In addition to the hotels and inns, there are cabins and tent camping at Namakanipaio Campground (866-536-7972). Current and retired military can rent cabins at Kilauea Military Camp (808-967-8333) right in the park. Higher rank, higher rent.

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