Chain of Craters Road, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Big Island, HI)

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.

kilauea iki

Kilauea Iki (click to enlarge). Pu‘u Pua‘i stands over the crater’s edge, Kilauea smokes in the distance, Mauna Loa sits on the horizon.

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.

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube

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.

lava out to sea

Lava spilled over Holei Pali out to sea (click to enlarge)

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.

lava on beach

(Click to enlarge)

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.


Holei Sea Arch

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.

"End of the road" (click to enlarge)

“End of the road”. Note the sign. (Click to enlarge)


Lava Central: El Malpais National Monument (NM)

Lava, lava, everywhere. New Mexico might as well be called the Volcano State for all the young, exposed and hardened lava flows that are virtually everywhere. I had always thought that Oregon and Washington laid claim to the largest lava flows ever to have happened on the continent, but New Mexico is not lacking in that regard. One of the best ways to get a close look is the Acoma-Zuni Trail, part of El Malpais National Monument.

Hiking on the lava flows of Acoma-Zuni Trail is a formidable challenge. First of all, it’s a treacherous and strenuous walk over jagged lava rock. More importantly, over its 7.5-mile distance, you could easily get lost if not for the many cairns that have been erected over the landscape. It’s a wonder how ancient Puebloans navigated between Zuni and Acoma for over a thousand years. Aside from memorizing the landscape or using cairns, how did they do it without modern-day footwear? Our ambition today was to do a little exploring of the landscape, venturing only about a half mile in before returning to the parking spot. The trail is part of a vast volcanic field in New Mexico, formed over a period of 100,000 years. The trailheads are located along Highways 53 and 117 at either end. The latest eruption occurred only 3,000 years ago during what is called the McCartys lava flow, the youngest in the state. Much of the national monument and the conservation area around it showcase the volcanic field, including El Calderon, the monument’s most prominent cinder cone; rugged lava flows and tubes; and many other spatter and cinder cones, all surrounded by massive sandstone pillars and mesas.

From the eastern trailhead (Highway 117), the first half mile was quite easy—a sandy footpath past piñon pines. Eventually, we reached the rugged lava field, relatively young geologically speaking at 3,000 years old. Without our durable hiking boots, any other kind of footwear would have gotten shredded in no time. The terrain is very uneven, requiring much climbing up and down. Following park brochure advice, once we reached one cairn, we looked for the next before continuing on. The lava flows were very impressive, especially the pahoehoe kind with its ripply patterns.

Pahoehoe lava flow

After a certain point, we decided to go back and “retrace” our steps. This was harder than it sounds because nothing looked familiar. We just pointed ourselves in the opposite direction and eventually found the original dirt trail that led back to the car.

Not far from the Zuni-Acoma Trail stands the largest natural arch in New Mexico, La Ventana. A short trail leads up to this natural feature, but you can only look at it from a distance at trail’s end. In contrast to the young lava flows, the towering sandstone cliffs, of which La Ventana is a part, are 200 millions years old.


Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument (AZ)

If a volcano were erupting in my backyard, spewing lava and ash, I might be tempted to move away. This is precisely what the ancient Puebloan peoples did when Sunset Volcano erupted in the 11th century. It has done so several times since then in a span of 50 years. The monument is a grim reminder that an eruption is likely again.

Sunset is no longer active. What remains is an almost perfect cinder cone, a thousand feet high, surrounded by enormous lava fields, which comprise the national monument. Sunset is only one of many volcanoes in proximity north of Flagstaff that is known as the San Francisco volcanic field. There is no longer a trail to the volcano rim, but one does wind through the lava field (called the Lava Flow Trail). Vegetation struggles to grow back, including stands of Ponderosa pines, a few of which have grotesquely twisted trunks from severe lack of water and high winds. Walking through any lava field is like a stroll through an alien landscape. Fortunately, the trail is developed and well-maintained.

Lava Flow Trail is an easy loop

Contorted Ponderosa pine

Apache Plume