As part of our trip driving around the Big Island of Hawaii, we spent two days in Hawaii Volcano National Park. The park, aptly named, is home to the world’s most active and largest volcanoes. Since there are active flows in the park, we only did a cursory read-up on the various trails available to us and headed straight for the Visitor’s Centre to get the low-down on the places to hike from one of the rangers.
This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
After speaking with Mike-the-Ranger, a young eager geologist with what could be the best job on earth (at least he thinks it is!), and giving him our level of hiking expertise and time constraints, we walked away with two full days of hiking on our dance cards.
The first day involved a mish-mash of different trails to get some of the best of every environment in the park: rainforest, desert, lava tube caves, and smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-a-volcano-crater.
I must say that walking through the middle of an immense crater, seeing (and smelling) steaming sulfur vents around you, watching the cliff walls of the crater loom at the edges, and feeling your shoes get hot (either from the sun-heated lava but more adventurously perhaps because of the molten lava river 230ft below), is unsettling to say the least! Although we trusted that the park wouldn’t let gads of tourists walk through an area that is overly dangerous, we were also very aware of the unpredictable forces of nature and effects thereof all around us.
Thurston Lava Tube was an interesting diversion from the crater walk. A lava tube is basically the shell which encased an underground river of lava at one time. You can see evidence of the river in the walls of the tube, if you pay close attention to the various patterns and lava-rock formations. And of course as cavers, we were quite excited to be in a totally different type of cave!
Past the “touristy” well-lit version of the tube, a further section was made available to us by the ranger since we volunteered that we had some caving equipment (which was really just headlamps, experience, and a willingness to get dirty)! It was about 200 meters long, and eventually pinched off uneventfully. But we’ll admit, it was nice to be in a cave again.
So on day one after about 12kms, we had enough of the up, down, up, down, around, and across calderas and turned in. We were exhausted, but in that wonderful I-just-did-an-amazing-thing sort of way.
The second day saw us on a 22km back-country hike which required special permit applications. We were joined by another woman staying in our hostel from Germany who had actually gotten a permit for the same hike! (This is odd, since it wasn’t a particularly popular trail, and we were likely to be the only people on it – hence the need for a permit). After being taken to task by only 12kms the day prior, I wasn’t all too sure of what 22kms would do to me, but took comfort in the knowledge that we could turn around whenever we wished. (Luckily the trail was fairly flat, and the company was great, so we were able to complete the hike with just enough energy left in reserve to drive to the end of Chain of Craters road to where it meets the ocean).
The appeal of this particular trail was that it got us as close to the active lava flows that we could get in the park (in fact we only hiked to a back-country campsite about halfway down the entire trail as the remainder was closed due to all the volcanic activity in the area). There was no promise of being able to see lava flowing, but the nearby crater was still spewing lots of steam dramatically against the dark skies. The steam was carried for miles and created its own weather system which swirled around us all day.
Hiking so far into the back-country in an active volcanic area was another awe-inspiring and humbling experience. We felt at the mercy of Pele (the Goddess of Fire in Hawaiian mythology), who at any time could have swallowed us up in the vast fields of lava we were walking through with no hope of immediate rescue since the park and trail systems therein are so vast. Once we were able to see past our fears, the environment we were in was like nothing else. The lava took different forms along the way, from “crinkly” jagged rocks, to smooth overlapping rolls, to relatively flat surfaces dotted with small crevasses through which small plants and flowers sometimes eked out a harsh existence. And like my earlier observations, the colours of the lava ranged from brown to blue to red to green to iridescent pearl shades.
And after two days and 34kms of hiking, we realized we only scraped the surface of Pele’s masterpiece: the Big Island of Hawaii (and the youngest of all the Hawaiian islands). We still have desires to reach the top of Mauna Kea (which can be a 4×4 drive all the way up or a drive halfway and a 10hour summit hike), as well as to hike up Mauna Loa (the world’s largest mountain in sheer size, and a four day trek).
For now though, we enjoy spotting the peaks of both these monster volcanoes, covered or dusted in snow at the top, on a clear day from our new home in Kona.
Please enjoy this video, a compilation of our two days in stunning Volcano National Park.