December 21, 2008
The island of Hawaii (Big Island) is made up of five distinct volcanoes: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. Among them, Kīlauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa is the world’s most massive in terms of volume and area covered.
We drove for almost an hour to reach the entrance of Volcanoes National Park from Hilo. The attractions of the park are the constantly erupting Kilauea and the red lava that flow into the ocean through an extensive tube networks.
After passing through the entrance, we reached Crater Rim Drive. This drive is one of two major roads within the park, and as the name indicates, revolved around Kilauea Caldera, the summit of Kilauea Volcano. Since 2008, the Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Caldera has ceaselessly ejected ash and sulfur dioxide into the air. The resulting volcanic smog has led to the closure of a section of the drive.
Kilauea Iki Overlook
We made our first stop in the park at Kilauea Iki Overlook. The absolute contrast within the park was already apparent from this location. In the background is the gas pumping Kilauea Caldera and the grey-brownish lava landscape that surrounded it. Even from a distance, it was obvious that the lava had not solidified entirely, and many patches of red burning magma could be spotted. Further away from the lava was the lush greenery that managed to thrive in the nutrient rich soil.
It is not easy to photograph a wasteland like landscape. This volcano-dominated ecosystem, while not aesthetically pleasing at first glance, is as unique as anywhere else in the natural world.
Thurston Lava Tube
As we drove to our second stop, the Thurston Lava Tube, the forest on both sides of the road became increasingly lush. After we parked our car, the sign pointed us towards a tree fern forest. As I found out again, it was very difficult to set up the white balance of my camera properly inside a forest under a cloudy sky. All my photos taken in the forest turned out more yellow than I preferred.
We reached the entrance of the lava tube after a short 20 minutes walk. Looking inside of the spearhead-shaped tube, we saw that while the interior was completely dark, there was a well-maintained wooden trail with rails at both sides. We got into the lava tube and were immediately engulfed by the darkness. In the dark we figured out the tube had an uneven ceiling, so we bent our knees a little while continued to go forward. After we made a minor turn to our left, the end of the tunnel was in sight. Walking through the same enclosed space as a river of red lava of several hundred years ago was much more exotic in thought than in reality.
Chain of Craters Road
We made a detour from Crater Rim Drive and headed south on Chain of Craters Road, the second main road inside the national park. The lush greenery along Crater Rim Drive was replaced by a black, barren landscape stretched out to infinity. Unlike the brownish lava around Kilauea Caldera, the lava along the Chain of Craters Road was dark black and hard as rock.
Once I stepped foot on the lava, however, I noticed there were different colours and textures among the hardened surface. Some patches of the lava retained a red-brownish colour, and the texture was dense and hard. On the other hand, the dark black lava was fragile. Some vegetation was regrowing among the cracks of the lava surface.
Further down towards the coast, the lava surface was even darker in black, and much softer in texture than the lava we drove past earlier. I felt a little bit like standing on a piece of dough.
At the end of the Chains of Crater Road was the Pacific Ocean. In a distance was a pillar of smoke where fresh lava flowed in the ocean. With our own eyes, we were witnessing the continued growth and expansion of the Big Island. We thought about walking to where the smoke pillar was, but soon gave up and returned to our car after a park ranger told us the walk would take at least two hours.
We returned to Crater Rim Drive stopped at the Steam Vents. Ground water seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks in this area and returns to the surface as steam. The steam was so thick we almost couldn’t breathe when the wind started blowing the moisture into our faces. Aside from the steam vents, there was a beautiful grassy meadow that provided a good setting for photos.
One kilometre from the Steam Vents was the Kilauea Overlook. We walked to the observatory deck and here it was, the Kilauea Caldera we saw in the distance back at Kilauea Iki Overlook. The volcano was emitting a constant stream of smoke into the air. It was quite an experience to be so close to an active volcano.
Lava Flows Viewing Area (Hwy 130)
The last objective of our visit was to have a closer look at a fresh lava flow. To reach that, we drove out of the national park and onto Highway 130, then all the way to the end of the road where the National Park Service had set up a viewing area.
We arrived at six. We had to walk through the hardened lava in the darkening sky. It was not an easy walk, but we were treated with a spectacular sunset along the way.
The view from the viewing area changes from day-to-day, according to the weather, the wind pattern, and the direction of the lava flow. Tonight, the lava flow was mostly covered up by the smoke created from the lava’s contact with the ocean. Only occasionally did a sparkle of fire fickle among the smoke. After half an hour, we carefully made our way back to our car on the uneven surface under a pitch dark sky.