HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii – Dusk is approaching as we reach the entrance to this park where two volcanoes lurk, one of which has been erupting almost constantly for two decades.
As we drive into the forest, though, we see no mountains blowing their tops, no clouds of ash or rivers of lava. The power here, it soon becomes clear, takes more mysterious forms.
On the park’s radio station, an eerie nose flute solo precedes a voice welcoming visitors and explaining that it’s common to feel strange in the park, because the plants, animals and landscape are different.
Some might feel a spiritual presence, the voice says. This is, after all, the home of Pele (Pay-lay), the Hawaiian goddess of fire.
A sulfuric odor rises. The forest thins. The sky turns darker shades of blue.
In a clearing, columns of steam hiss from cracks in the earth. Somewhere below, groundwater is hitting hot rocks and boiling.
This was our introduction to the volcano park on the island of Hawaii – known as the Big Island, because it’s the largest of the Hawaiian Islands.
While it may defy reason to spend part of a honeymoon in a place where an attraction is named Devastation Trail and where a visitors’ center once was destroyed by lava, my wife, Jennifer, and I were enthralled.
The mountain that steadily oozes liquid fire is Kilauea, deemed the most dangerous volcano in the nation by the U.S. Geological Survey. (Mount St. Helens is number two.)
It’s the smaller of the two live mountains in the park. The other is the massive Mauna Loa, which last erupted in the 1980s.
With its steady slope rising 4,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean, Kilauea’s summit doesn’t look like a volcano, and eruptions don’t come from a big hole at the top. Instead, lava bursts through vents all over the hillside, often in remote locations such as Pu’u’O’o, where there’s an ongoing eruption.
To the west and out of view of Pu’u’O’o, the circular Crater Rim Drive provides a sample of what the 377-square-mile park offers those visitors who lack the heat-resistant suits and special breathing apparatus worn by those who work near the active vent.
The drive leads from the visitors’ center, past the steaming cracks, past where the forest thins to nothing and into a blackened, alien landscape where eruptions from decades past left behind bulbous, cracked formations of hardened black lava.
The centerpiece of the drive is a crater that erupted several times and held a churning lake of fire for a hundred years, until a drain-off in 1924. Steam wafts ominously from cracks along the short trail leading to the rim.
Called Halema’uma’u, the crater is said to be the home of Pele.
Hawaiians leave offerings such as the purple and white lei we saw resting near the rim. Legend says that taking a rock from Pele’s realm brings bad luck. The park reportedly receives regular shipments of rocks accompanied by notes telling tales of woe and imploring rangers to return the stolen chunks to Pele.
“Native Hawaiians practice their ancient traditions at Halema’uma’u Crater,” reads a sign. “Please respect this sacred Hawaiian site.”
We no longer were in the beaches-and-palm-trees, luaus-and-ukuleles, island paradise of Hawaii featured in travel posters.
But this was fascinating. We left the car at trailheads and set out on foot to get more acquainted with the strange landscape.
Devastation Trail, a mile-long paved path, begins in a young forest. Plant life is returning to what has been a wasteland since a 1959 eruption.
Beyond the new vegetation, a hilly landscape of brownish pebbles comes into view, evoking an image a robot rover might beam from the surface of Mars – except for scattered, sun-whitened tree carcasses, a few pioneering plants and the occasional line of bicyclists passing through on a tour.
One of the most popular stops along Crater Rim Drive is Thurston Lava Tube, a tunnel formed when the outer edges of a lava river hardened and the fluid rock in the middle drained away.
An artificially lighted section shows the cavelike appearance of the tube. In an unlighted section, natural light gradually faded as we walked away from the nearest opening.
Our favorite hike, a four-mile loop on a trail called Kilauea Iki, leads to the floor of another crater. Switchbacks descend 400 feet through lush rain forest to the bottom, where the greenery ends in a stretch of lava rock.
Across the crater floor, we followed piles of rocks that looked as if they were remnants of an ancient ritual, but really were left by rangers to serve as trail markers.
The ghostly path was visible only as a faint line of gray-tinged lava pebbles that crunched under our feet. It led through the charred middle of a former lava lake, the caldron of the 1959 eruption. Steam vents stained with yellow sulfur deposits dotted the dark ground, which shifted between shades of black, gray and brown as clouds moved overhead.
At one point, the lava apparently cooled in the midst of violent upheaval, leaving slabs that jut at topsy-turvy angles. Hikers have to step over deep rifts.
Crater Rim Drive also has some outposts of civilization. Volcano House, the hotel just inside the park’s gates, has a gift shop selling volcano-themed key chains, paperweights, coin purses, hot pads, ashtrays, even velvet paintings. The restaurant has a view of Halema’uma’u.
Across the road, at the visitors center, a film about the area’s geology, wildlife and culture shows repeatedly. A small store sells books about the park. Rangers answer questions about recommended trails and the ongoing eruption.
As our second sunset at the park approached, we headed down Chain of Craters Road, which descends the mountain several miles to the southern coast. The road passes a series of scars from old eruptions. On the approach to the ocean, there’s a one-mile trail to the Pu’u Loa petroglyphs, said to be Hawaii’s biggest collection of rock carvings created by early inhabitants.
The road was closed to cars at a ranger station, where safety guidelines and eruption updates were posted. Molten lava crossed the road near here in 2003, covering it with piles of rounded rock that look as if they were dumped by a giant asphalt truck.
A few orange spots appeared in the distance, near a hilltop. They could have been faraway campfires, but rangers said they were fresh lava. More lava, we were told, was flowing in another direction, out of sight, where there’s no trail or road.
Some onlookers said the scene was far more impressive on previous visits, when incandescent fluid streamed down the visible side of the hill. They said they saw towers of steam rising from the ocean when the molten rock hit, building the newest land on Earth – more than 560 acres since this eruption began in 1983.
But the volcano is unpredictable.
Even without gushing lava and monolithic steam clouds, there’s a sense of danger at the end of Chain of Craters Road. Here, as much as anywhere, the park’s accessibility and menace are intertwined. Visitors can climb onto the solid lava covering the pavement and strike out in the direction of the active flows, but the rangers and signs warn of potential perils and recommend careful preparation.
Long pants, thick gloves and sturdy boots are needed because the newly hardened lava has razor-sharp edges. Sunscreen and hats are essential, as are water and first aid supplies. Flashlights are crucial, even for daytime visits, because the rugged terrain and striking scenery can prolong a hike into nighttime.
The new land can be deceiving, breaking off into the ocean with little warning. A few people who ventured too far have disappeared in such collapses.
Near the cliffs where the lava slides into the water, scalding waves can crash ashore. Explosions of water and lava can hurl debris. Volcanic fumes can be overwhelming. Earthquakes can unleash tsunamis.
Then, of course, there’s the lava itself. While Kilauea is known for slow, approachable flows, viewers must be sure they have an escape route. Creeping lava has destroyed villages, beaches and even that earlier park visitors’ center.
“Seeing lava for the first time is captivating and often lures the viewer closer, but it is also beguiling and dangerous,” warns a U.S. Geological Survey Web site.
We didn’t have time to attempt the hike toward the flowing lava. But despite the warnings and the fear of getting too close to a 2,000-degree fluid body creating its own path, we decided if we ever return, we would get closer.
It was night when we returned to our rental car, put the top down and drove back up the mountain. We marveled at the thick soup of stars visible over the Pacific Ocean, where volcanoes created the entire Hawaiian island chain and the Big Island continues to get bigger.
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