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My husband and I wanted to visit someplace warm in January, and we ended up in a very warm place indeed: the Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island in Hawaii. Standing on the edge of its crater, we had spectacular views of bubbling and steaming lava, a peek into the primordial forces of the earth.
Volcanoes National Park is the best place in the United States to learn about the volcanic forces that have shaped much of life on this planet. The park includes Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Unlike explosive volcanoes that blow their tops with devastating consequences, these two are more like simmering pots that overflow frequently with thin layers of lava — though that lava can still be destructive. In 2018, for example, more than 700 houses were destroyed in a Kilauea eruption.
A stop at the visitor center provided us with a helpful overview of the park, which is both an International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exhibits describe its dramatic range of landscapes, from the blasted, lava-scarred craters at its highest elevations to the lush rainforest that flourishes below the peaks.
At the visitor center we learned that all of the Hawaiian Islands have been created by volcanic activity. The Big Island has five volcanoes, two of which are dormant. Kilauea is the more active of the two volcanoes in the national park, with nearly continuous eruptions since 1983. Neighboring Mauna Loa is the Earth’s largest mountain by volume. Measured from the bottom of the sea floor, its peak stands at 43,681 feet, more than 15,000 feet taller than Mount Everest.
In addition to teaching visitors about the volcanoes, the park nurtures the native ecosystem of Hawaii, which is threatened by invasive animal species that include feral pigs and mongoose as well as non-native plants such as coconut palms and Himalayan ginger. By protecting Indigenous species and removing unwanted ones, the park is trying to restore the land to how it was before the modern era.
After leaving the visitor center we hiked the 3.3-mile Kilauea Iki Trail, which showcases the range of ecosystems at the park’s higher elevations. After walking through rainforest, we descended into a bowl-shaped crater left behind by a 1959 eruption. The once-molten lava lake is now a desolate expanse of broken and uneven black rock with a few small plants growing in the cracks, a process that after a thousand years or so will culminate in rainforest once again. At the other end of the crater, the trail led us upward into greenery, where we explored a lava tube, a hollowed-out cave formed from molten rock five centuries ago. An added treat was seeing several nene, an endangered species of goose found only in Hawaii.
After returning to our car, we set out on the park’s Chain of Craters Road for a 38-mile round-trip that descended 3,700 feet to the coast. Along the way we saw the effects of prior eruptions, including a 2003 lava flow that extends far into the ocean. It was clear that the Big Island still is expanding thanks to its volcanoes, though it will be a long time before its new land is hospitable to much life. Near the coast we took a walk on the Petroglyphs Trail, which features more than 20,000 images carved in stone by the Native Hawaiian people over the past five centuries.
Back at the summit, we toured the Volcano Art Center Gallery, which includes works of art inspired by the park. Many feature images of the volcano goddess Pele, whose full name is Pelehonuamea, “she who shapes the sacred land.” Before the coming of Christianity, Pele was one of the most revered — and feared — of all the gods. While she brought destruction, the volcanic soil created by lava provides the fertility that makes Hawaii the tropical paradise it is today.
Pele, who is said to live in the crater of the Kilauea volcano, continues to be honored by many contemporary Hawaiians. Several people told me that I should bring a gift when I visited her, with flowers and food the most common offerings. They also warned my husband and me not to bring any lava rock home with us when we left the island, because Pele is a protective goddess who will send bad luck to anyone who takes anything of hers. This belief is so common that the post offices in Hawaii routinely get packages from tourists who have taken rocks from the islands and later regretted it.
The highlight of our time in the park came on our last morning when we got up very early to see Kilauea’s lava lake in the dark. After driving from our lodging in nearby Kurtistown, we parked our car at a lot several miles into the park and headed out into the darkness with flashlights. As we walked the milelong route to the crater, we could see its red glow reflected in the clouds above the volcano. At last we came to a viewing point where about 20 people already stood. Below us the lake of lava roiled and splashed, a mesmerizing, otherworldly scene. Our fellow volcano tourists were quiet, all of us awed by one of nature’s most spectacular sights.
Before we left, I added an offering of flowers to those that had already been placed at the edge of the crater. It might just be superstition, but if there’s any goddess you don’t want to anger, it’s Pele.
Volcanoes National Park is located on the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii. The nearest airport is Hilo, which is an hour away by car. The high-altitude regions of the park can be chilly and rainy, so be prepared for variable weather. High amounts of sulfur dioxide gas may be present in some areas, so check with the national park office (nps.gov/havo) to determine current conditions. Eruption updates also can be found at the U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov).
In the park, Volcano House offers lodging and dining. Other options can be found in nearby Hilo and Kurtistown.
For more information, contact the Hawaiian Tourism Authority at gohawaii.com.