Its history convulsed by vulcanism, the Big Island is basically a giant lava rock. It reveals its ancient past and continuing growth everywhere you look. At one-third of a million acres, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to two volcanoes which can both claim Guinness Book statistics. Mauna Loa is Earth’s most massive; Kilauea is the youngest (and one of Earth’s most active). While Mauna Kea at the Big Island’s north end is dormant, these two are still active, sometimes threatening human property (and lives) with lava flows.
I was attracted to Hawai’i as much as any visitor trying to get a glimpse of Earth’s restless energy. These days it isn’t possible to see active lava other than by air, a fact that helicopter and small plane tour companies have capitalized on by charging high prices. Still, I seriously considered taking a copter ride, but the timing never worked out during our brief stay in Hilo. For now, there is no lava pouring into a boiling sea, sending up stupendous plumes of superheated water into the air .
At the park, my wife and I had time only to take the Chain of Craters Road. Though it’s only 20 miles long, it takes 45 minutes of straight driving from the visitor center to the lot near the literal end of the road on the Puna coast. But, there is much to see along the way, including several craters that you can drive up to. There are reminders, like vast fields of hardened lava, that what used to be verdant forest can disappear under lava’s relentless, incendiary march.
The most extraordinary crater vista is the one above Kilauea Iki. The view from the main overlook is not the best. There is a much better (and smaller) one, unobstructed by trees, a short distance up the trail that leads to Thurston Lava Tube. In 1959, there were multiple eruptions in Kilauea Iki that filled the deeper, older crater with a lake of hot lava, several hundred feet deep, that eventually drained partially through vents back into the magma chamber to form the solidified floor that you see today. From the overlook, we could make out tiny figures of hikers making their way over the trail that goes through the middle of the crater. The area from where the eruptions spewed is now an enormous cinder and spatter cone (called Pu‘u Pua‘i). Other viewable craters include Mauna Ulu and Kealakomo.
A short distance from the Kilauea Iki overlook is Thurston Lava Tube, one of countless many tubes that riddle the land. Walking through it is disquieting when you realize that only 500 years ago, there was a river of hot lava rushing over the very ground you’re standing on. The attraction is well-lighted and the ground above is surrounded by rain forest.
Along stretches of the road are vast fields of previous lava flows, as late as 1974. It’s a strange juxtaposition of untamed nature and modern civilization when you see jumbles of basalt next to paved highway. You can get out of your car and within feet, clamber over craggy pahoepahoe and a’a. These fields would be dead ringers for surfaces on a lifeless planet if it weren’t for little pockets of vegetation that have sprung up.
Before reaching the Puna coast, the road passes the Holei Pali (cliffs). An overlook faces the ocean and the broad beach below that reveals wide swaths of hardened lava flows. You can make them out as patterns darkening the lowlands. It must’ve been quite a spectacle to see hot lava spilling over these escarpments into the sea.
From this overlook, the road switches back and descends toward the beach. As you get closer to the lava fields, they appear to be oil-slicked.
Chain of Craters Road ends at a parking lot. Nearby is the much-photographed Holei Sea Arch, a testament to the power of water to erode lava rock. Cars can go no further beyond this point.
The road continues though it can only be traversed by foot. About a mile and a half beyond the restrooms and concession stand, you reach the “end of the road.” In 2003, a lava flow covered a ten-mile section. A “road closed” sign is left to stand where it was inundated as a reminder that nature observes no human barriers.