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Touring Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

From your cottage in the village, drive out Old Volcano Road to Highway 11 in the Kona direction. You’ll enter the Park shortly after turning onto Highway 11, which cuts above and around Kilauea (“KEE-lau-ay-ah”) Volcano on its way around the southern part of the island. The Park is named Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, because it includes two active volcanoes. Most visitors don’t have the time to see Maunaloa That’s the older-style spelling of the island’s bigger volcanoes, now spelled Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. (“mow-nah-loh-ah” means ‘long mountain’), the largest active volcano in the world, which is above Highway 11. Drive a mile or so up the highway from the village and turn left, as instructed by the signs.

After you drive through the entrance station (they charge $10 per car, unless you have a National Park pass, and your receipt is then good for 7 days; also, you’ll be given an excellent map of the Park), the first stop on Crater Rim Drive, which circles eleven miles around Kilauea Caldera, would be the Visitors’ Center, which shows a twenty-five-minute update film, hourly from 9 AM, about the current eruption; Park personnel can answer questions about the Park. They also lead guided hikes, daily, in different part of the Park. On Wednesdays only, twelve people have the opportunity to go on a hike/tour of a pristine lava tube, Pua Po‘o (“poo-ah poh-oh”), the location of which is not known to most residents. Reservations for the tour are taken the Wednesday before. Call 1-808-985-6017 to make a reservation.

From the Visitors’ Center parking lot, you can walk to the Volcano Art Center, the only private art gallery in a national park. Please note that the Volcano House, an historic hotel right on the edge of the crater is closed for renovation. Return to your vehicle and continue on around Crater Rim Drive, counterclockwise. The next stop would be the Steam Vents. From there, you can walk to the Sulfur Banks, but only if you have strong stomachs, lungs and hearts.

The next stop is at Jaggar Museum. On the way, you’ll pass the Kilauea picnic grounds, which has picnic areas near the edge of the crater, a good spot for stargazing as it is not lit up at night. You can pass that, as from the next stop, the grounds in front of Jaggar Museum, you'll get the best view of Halema‘uma‘u Crater (‘House of the Ama‘uma‘u Fern’, “hah-lay mah-oo-mah-oo”), considered by many Hawaiians "Hawaiians" are people of Hawaiian ancestry; "Hawai‘i residents" are people of any race who reside in the State of Hawai‘i. to be the home of Madame Pele, the goddess of the Volcano and counted as an ancestor by some Hawaiian families. Pele is a real presence for many in Hawai‘i. Even the vulcanologists and other Park scientists pay her homage. At Jaggar, you can view the volcano’s current summit eruption, which began in March 2008. You can see it on the Web cam, in the meantime, as well as here, which is a high-heat-resistant camera, positioned to look right down into the vent at the lava pond; the image looks like infrared. After dark, HST, you can often see what looks like a red flower on a black background, on the KI cam, and the bright white (hot) cracks in the “skin” of the lava pond inside the vent on the floor of Halema‘uma‘u, on the HM cam.

Since Crater Rim Drive is closed, just past Jaggar’s parking lot, you’ll want to turn around and drive back the way you came, clockwise around the caldera. At the entrance station, turn right to drive to Kilauea Iki (pronounced “KEE-lau-ay-ah ee-kee”, ‘little Kilauea’) Overlook, from which you gaze westward across the crater to the Pu‘u Pua‘i overlook. Kilauea Iki offers one the best hikes in the summit area, about four miles/6.5-km around and two hours in duration. From the Kilauea Iki Overlook parking lot, take the Crater Rim Trail counterclockwise around the crater,. After going down a flight of stairs, you walk around the north rim of Kilauea Iki, which is a gentle downhill slope. In November of 1959, Kilauea Iki had a most spectacular eruption, with lava fountaining to 1,900 feet/580 meters. It’s still steaming. This trail branches off to Waldron Ledge and Byron’s Ledge, either of which you could add to the hike; following the Kilauea Iki signs to the switchback trail, which will take you to the floor of the crater, you would then walk across it and up the other side. Going counterclockwise, you’d be hiking down the shorter, steeper, steplike switchback. Keep your eyes on the ahu (“ah-hoo”), cairns of rocks which mark all the trails in the Park; the western end of this crater has jumbled, clinkery lava, so it’s best to stay on the trail Crossing the crater floor is quite an experience. At the far end, you climb easier, longer runs of ramplike switchbacks. At the crest of the trail, you’ll be in the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot, and you can take a section of the Crater Rim Trail back to Kilauea Iki Overlook parking lot, an easy, half-mile/0.8-km walk on which to catch your breath and return to your vehicle. First, you could walk through Thurston Lava Tube. If you take the flashlights from the cottage with you into the Tube, which is lit by spot lights in the main part of the tube, you can go into the dark end of the tube, another 1,000 feet/300 meters or so, into the subterranean darkness, pretty much by yourselves, unless some other visitors tag along with you or have flashlights of their own. It’s a bit unnerving in that part of the tube, as there are big chunks of the ceiling lying on the floor, and the floor level drops several times, necessitating a few scrambling moves. When you get to the end. Return to your car, in the Kilauea Iki Overlook parking lot, via Crater Rim Trail. Just follow the sidewalk to the upper end of Thurston parking lot, go up the stairs, and you’ll be on the trail, which offers views of Kilauea Iki crater below your feet.

Please note that the counterclockwise way around this trail is, aerobically speaking, much less effortful. However, if you have problematic knees, it might be better to go clockwise, so that you’ll be climbing the stairlike switchbacks.

Back at your car, you can then drive through Thurston’s parking lot, continuing on through the ‘ohi‘a lehua (“OH-hee-ah lay-hoo-ah”) trees and hapu‘u Hapu‘u ferns grow about 1.7”/4.3-cm a year, so if you see one that is 10 feet/almost three meters high, it could be about 70 years old. ("HAH-poo-oo") tree ferns to the next turnoff, which is into the parking area for Pu‘u Pua‘i ("poo-oo poo-ah-ee" literally, ‘gushing hill’); Kilauea Iki’s spectacular fountaining emanated from the base of this pu‘u, in 1959. This viewing area, at about “shoulder” height on the side of Pu‘u Pua‘i, gives you a fine view of Kilauea Iki from nearly the opposite side of that crater. Often, you can see hikers exploring its floor; they will appear to be about 1/4”/0.9-cm high!

From that lookout, you can walk on Devastation Trail, which is a paved half-mile/0.8-km trail that takes you, at least initially, through an area still fairly devastated from Kilauea Iki’s 1959 eruption. The far end of the trail, at the Devastation Trail parking lot, has grown back with native forest plants, like ohelo berry bushes, those berries being a favorite food of the Nene (“NAY-NAY”, the endemic Hawaiian goose); some invasive plant species are also in the understory of the forest. Signs will state that you are not to leave the trail, as the Park is attempting to study the area nearest the Pu‘u Pua‘i vent, to see how long it takes native plants to repopulate a devastated area. You can walk the entire trail or just as far as you find it interesting; after returning to your car, you can drive toward Devastation Trail’s parking lot. Opposite the turnoff to that parking area, and just before the barracades which keep you from going further on Crater Rim Drive, is Chain of Craters Road, which takes you nineteen miles/almost twelve km down to the ocean. Part way down, at the parking area near Mauna Ulu, which erupted in Kilauea’s East Rift Zone (ERZ) from 1969 to 1974, you can walk one mile/1.6-km on the trail, which goes clear out to Napau Crater, and climb the switchbacks to the top of Pu‘u Huluhulu (“poo-oo hoo-loo-hoo-loo”, ‘shaggy hill’) to catch a view of Pu‘u ‘O‘o (“poo-oo OH-OH”), out of which the lava has been flowing through the ERZ, fairly continuously, since January 3, 1983. Back on Chain of Craters Road, you can stop at Kealakomo, at the 2000-foot/817-meter elevation, to get a sweeping view of the coastline and ocean. Down near the bottom of the road, you can take the walk out to the Petroglyphs on the Mauka (“mow-kah” ‘toward the hill’) side of the highway and, down at sea level, near the end of the road, on the Makai (“mah-k[eye]”, ‘ocean-ward’) side, check out the Holei (“ho-lay-ee”) Sea Arch. Currently, the lava flows, even when on the surface, are really too far to be visible from there.

If you have time, you could add a couple of forest walks. One, in the village of Volcano, is at Niaulani, at the corner of Old Volcano Road (OVR) and Kalanikoa Road, almost at the top of OVR. It’s managed by the Volcano Art Center; their administration building is on that property, which is an eight-acre parcel of old growth upland rain forest. It’s not a long walk but quite nice. On Mondays at 9:30 AM, a guided walk is offered, but you can go anytime; just drop a dollar donation in the little box at the beginning of this loop trail. A better-known trail is in Bird Park or Kipuka Puaulu ("KEE-poo-kah poo-ow-loo"), a 1.2-mile/1.9-km loop trail through an old growth forest Mesic forest; while it’s only about a ten-minute drive from Niaulani old growth forest, Kipuka Puaulu is in a different climate zone, which gets about half the amount of rain. A kipuka is an oasis of undisturbed land, which lava flows have not overrun for centuries, and the soil can be quite deep and the trees, old and large. The native honeycreepers are small birds way up at the tops of the tall trees, so you may not see many of them, though the introduced kalij pheasants frequent the forest floor, but the walk is pretty. To find Bird Park, drive past the Park entrance road on Highway 11, toward Kona, and take the second right exit off the highway, onto Maunaloa Road. Follow the signs.

If you’re up early, say around dawn, Maunaloa road is a lovely drive up to the 6,662-foot/2031-km elevation on the slope of Maunaloa. After passing Bird Park parking area, the road goes through two gates. The gates are generally open, except in times of extreme fire danger. The road is two-lanes for at least the first two miles/3.2-kilometers and paved all the way but very curvey, which is a good reason to go early, so as to be the only car on the road.

Also, the light is beautiful at that time of day, painting the mountain purple and touching the tops of the trees with brightness. At the end of the road, there’s a stone building which used to offer views down the mountain. Vegetation has grown up to block much of the vista. However, if you have the time, do walk a little ways on the trail that goes to the top of the mountain (usually a three-day hike, up and back down), just to experience the amazing peace and quiet up on the shoulder of that giant, which last erupted in March and April 1984. It’s overdue to erupt again.

Lava viewing conditions change so frequently that it’s best to refer to the daily HVO Web site updates and/or call the HVO daily phone messages. The County Government site, at the end of Highway 130, in lower Puna, is now open from 2 PM to 10 PM, with the last cars allowed in at 8 PM. A new trail allows visitors to hike out to view the glow and movement, conditions permitting, of the slow-moving surface flows or bright spots from skylights (openings in the roofs of lava tubes) on the pali. Once you’re here, you can check with the HVNP Visitors’ Center, to decide where to go, for optimal viewing opportunities.

To do all this sightseeing and hiking would take a full day, preferably two. If you stay three nights in Volcano, allowing two full days to explore, you’d be able to do all the suggested activities above and also additional hikes or a visit to Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach or Hilo town or lower Puna. Another very interesting trail begins at the Ka‘u Desert Trailhead, but that is now closed, during Kilauea’s gas summit eruption. Do refer to the HVO site for updates.

* Kilauea’s East Rift Zone (ERZ) eruption of Pu‘u ‘O‘o began January 3, 1983 and has continued its activity with style changes (from episodic fountaining for the first three-and-a-half years to continuous flowing from then on) and several significant pauses, deflections, and deflations. Since March 14, 2008, Halema‘uma‘u, on the floor of Kilauea’s summit, has been emitting a large plume of SO2 gas, among other gasses and water vapor and some ash. As the geological activity in the Park is so changeable, it’s best to go to the internet for information, either HVO status page, the NPS HVO page, or you could call the Park at 1-808-967-8862 for a recorded update about the lava flow and/or the County’s recorded update at 1-808-961-8093.

UPDATED 12/11/13

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