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Turn Up the Heat at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Photograph by Frans Lanting
A spatter cone on Kilauea's Pu'u 'O'o crater spits fountains of fire at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
By Lynh Bui
Some people think of Hawai'i as a land of white, sandy beaches and lush forest, but each year more than one million people trade in their swimsuits for hiking boots to hotfoot around Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
Located on the Big Island of Hawai'i, the 323,000-acre (134,760-hectare) park houses Earth's most active volcano, Kilauea. Steaming lava has been flowing from Kilauea's belly ever since its most recent eruption began more than 20 years ago, and most natives credit Pele, the island's famed volcano goddess, for its blazing eruptions. Also known as Ka wahine 'ai honua, or "the woman who devours the land," Pele's believers say she lives in the crater of Halema'uma'u at the summit of Kilauea. Visitors will see sacrifices of food, money, leis, and liquor strewn around the crateritems left behind by those who hope to quell her fiery temper.
Leave a sacrifice for Pele by making a stop at the park, where visitors experience nature in one of its most raw and powerful forms.
Two international airports serve the Big Island of Hawai'i: Kona International Airport and Hilo International Airport. Some airlines have direct flights to Kona from the continental U.S., but if you are island hopping, use the inter-island carriers, Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines.
Certain parts of the park are accessible only with a car, such as self-guided driving tours or "drive through museums." You cannot rent a car once you get into the park, so it is best reserve one before you arrive in Hawai'i. To get to the park from Kona International Airport, drive southeast on Highway 11 for about 2-1/2 hours. From Hilo International Airport, drive southwest on Highway 11 for about 30 minutes.
Mass transit on the Big Island is unreliable, but if you are watching your pennies, the Hele On Bus Company offers the only public transportation to the park. The company provides service once a day and only on weekdays. The bus departs the Hilo downtown terminal at 2:40 p.m., arriving at park headquarters at 3:45 p.m. The bus departs park headquarters at 8:10 p.m., returning to the Hilo downtown terminal at 9:20 p.m. Rides cost $2.25 each way. Call Hele On at +1 808 961 8744.
TopWhat to See and Do
To witness the world's longest volcanic eruption, drive along Chain of Craters Road to the East Rift Zone, where volcanic activity is most concentrated. Drive out even farther near the end of the road to watch lava steam as it meets the ocean. Observation decks along the road give good views, but hiking out offers more eye-popping scenes of lava flows. Be sure to hike only as far as signs and roped-off areas permit, since some parts of the land are unstable and likely to collapse (see Tips and Safety). Rangers recommend reaching the end of the road no later than 5:30 p.m. so you can hike to and return from flows before dark. If you do end up out there after dark, be sure to have a flashlight. There are no gas stations, rest stops, or stores along this road, so stock up on water, food, and other supplies before venturing out. Before you finish your drive along Chain of Craters, stop at the Thurston Lava Tube. Formed after an underground river of lava drained away, the cave-like tube offers a 20-minute walk though a tree fern forest and a prime location for bird-watching.
To leave your own gift for Pele, hike the Halema'uma'u-Byron Ledge Trail. The trek will take about 3-1/2 hours and passes craters, cinder cones, lava fields, and native forests. Pick up a trail map from the visitors center or visit www.onedayhikes.com for a detailed description of the trail.
Sightsee in Style
Don't have the stamina to romp around rugged volcanic rocks? Try a bus tour from PHT Honolulu at +1 808 524 2868. The company offers narrated all-day tours that hit the highlights inside the park, including a stop at a rare black sand beach. The company does not provide lunch, so plan accordingly.
TopWhere to Stay
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park has two free campgrounds (Kulanaokuaiki and Namakanipaio) available on a first-come, first-served basis. For directions and regulations about Kulanokuaiki and Namakanipaio, visit www.nps.gov/havo/visitor/camping.htm.
Bed and Breakfast
The town of Volcano is just a mile away from the park. Picturesque with plenty of bed and breakfasts to stay in, the town is a great alternative to the tourist-filled cities. Visit the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau's website for help with finding accommodations (www.gohawaii.com).
TopTips and Safety
Hours and Fees
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park stays open 24 hours a day, year-round. It costs $10 for a seven-day car pass. Pedestrians and cyclists pay $5. The Kilauea Visitors Center is free and open daily from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Stop at the center for updates on eruptions and tips on where to get the best lava views for the day.
Varying altitudes at the park mean it can be cool and fair on the coast and downright cold and miserable on the volcano tops. Make sure to bring a raincoat or a light jacket and an umbrella. Also, getting to the best views of lava flows requires hiking through rugged, jagged lava. Wear sturdy hiking boots or reliable walking shoes and long pants to avoid scrapes.
Viewing Lava Safely
Follow these safety tips from park rangers to make your visit as smooth as possible:
1) Do not stand or walk under volcanic fumes. While the views of eruptions are amazing, keep in mind that volcanoes and craters spew glass particles and hazardous chemicals such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acid.
2) Stay at least 1/4 mile (400 meters) inland. As 2100°F (1100°C) lava drops into the ocean, water sizzles and steams from the heat. This phenomenon causes molten lava rocks to shoot out hundreds of yards from the water.
3) Stay out of bench areas. Lava hitting the ocean creates new land, called a bench. These benches are unstable and can collapse into the water at anytime.
4) Do not approach lava flowing toward plants. Lava enveloping plants traps methane gas and causes underground explosions, throwing rocks and debris into the air.
Show off your island savvy by tossing out some essential Hawaiian words.
Pahoehoe (pah-hoy-hoy): the smooth, fluid variety of lava
A'a (ah-aah): rough and chunky lava
Kokua (koh-koo-ah): help
Lua (looah): bathroom; toilet
Mahalo (muh-ha-low): thank you
Hawaiians use the geography of the islands and trade wind activity to give directions. Take and give directions like a native by understanding these terms:
Kona (koh-nah): leeward side, or west
Ko'olau (koh-oh-lowh): windward side, or east
Makai (muh-kaee): toward the sea
Mauka (mau-kah): toward the mountains or inland
National Parks Service
Links to information on campgrounds, special events, road closures, and recent eruptions
The park can also be reached at +1 808 985 6000.
Offers sightseeing tours to various destinations on the Big Island
Description of the hike to visit Halema'uma'u Crater on Kilaeua