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Exploring Hawaii’s Amazing Volcanoes National Park


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I’ve come to tour one of the great wonders of the world — an active, lava-spewing volcano — and to see proof of Pele’s wrath.

In This Hawaii Article You Will Discover:

  • Volcanoes National Park Hot Spots
  • Kilauea History
  • Tips For Exploring the Park

There is no force on Earth like a volcano. Destruction and creation in one, they are our planet’s true Unstoppable Forces. Nothing is an immovable object in the path of Pele.

Kilauea is the world’s most active volcano. Tucked against the southeast coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, it has been erupting non-stop since 1983; but has famously spewed lava all over the Island’s south coast throughout the past 200 years (and on-and-off for a few thousand before that). In fact, its very name means “spewing.”

Kilauea has been making particularly good on its name for the past 30 years, having puked up enough molten rock to increase Hawaii’s landmass by almost 50 sq-km; this makes Hawaii the only place in the world that is actually “getting bigger.”


Kilauea Iki Crater – one of the park’s signature hikes.

After a two-hour drive southeast from the Kona Coast, Erin and I begin to smell the sulphur dioxide. We’re here, in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, to see the wrath of Pele — the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, Lightning, Wind and Volcanoes — for ourselves.

It doesn’t take long to see Her signature. Almost right away, following a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center for a map, we are treated to a view of the main crater, as it smokes and bubbles. At night, the lava within glows vibrant red against the darkened sky. We walk along Sulfur Banks, an area at the crater’s edge where the volcanic bluffs smoke in the wind, transfixed on the massive caldera.


The smoking, bubbling Kilauea Caldera.

Further on, we reach Jagger Museum, home to the best view of Kilaueu’s crater. Today, increased volcanic activity has shut down more than one-third of the park. Sulphur dioxide gasses are at dangerous levels; we have to turn around and drive back the other way to reach more sightseeing destinations within the park.

I can smell the gasses’ pungency. It actually causes me to tighten up in the chest. Erin notices some lightheadedness. This is for real.


Lava flows, running into the ocean, circa 1974.

The volcano is no joke. In the past 40 years, lava flows have destroyed 214 structures, including more than 100 homes, and overtaken 14 km of road — burying some of the asphalt in more than 35 metres of lava.

We’re on our way to see some of this devastation for ourselves. But first, another jaunt through a section of the Crater Rim Hike leads us past panoramic views of the Kilauea Iki Crater, which once featured 600-metre fountains of lava, and to the Nahuku-Thurston Lava Tube. Discovered in 1913, this subterranean lava-passageway is hidden amongst lush rainforest a short half-kilometre walk from the road. Dark and low-ceilinged, the tube was once full of scorching lava as it erupted from the Earth’s core. Today, it’s the coolest, wettest spot in the park; a short underground walk through a dank, dark cave.


This lava tube was discovered 100 years ago.

A 30-km drive down the Chain of Craters drive takes us to my most-anticipated stop — the proverbial “End of the Road.” In the 1970s, lava poured over the roadway and into the ocean, overtaking the pavement. A 1.5-km hike from the road’s end leads us to more proof of the lava’s power — we even find the famous “Road Closed” sign (as if it would have been needed). To the south, a dark finger of lava stabs into the sea, and further east, steam rises from the ocean where lava continues to pour in to this day.

A seven-mile hike over jagged lava, in 30-degree Celsius weather, will lead intrepid travellers to this lava flow. You can literally stand next to actual lava as it oozes to the sea. I’ve seen photos of people poking at it with sticks.


Inside the Lava Tube…

But we are ill-equipped for such a serious hike. Thick pants (a fall on lava rock is like a fall on broken glass), supportive hiking boots, three litres of water, extra food and a bit more energy than we have today are the minimum requirements. Next time, for sure…


Hiking to the proverbial “End of the Road.”

It is symptomatic of the fact that I’ve underestimated the time need to explore the park. Five hours go by in a blink, and we haven’t even hiked inside the Kilauea Iki Crater yet. And we won’t — the sun sets in less than two hours, and it’s a three-hour hike. Again — next time.

But even with for a short visit, Volcanoes National Park is impressive. Live lava flows, a smoking caldera and proof all around of the power of Pele.

It’s little wonder this geologic force was so revered and worshipped. Bringer of death, bringer of life. Bringer of tourists.

We make one last stop at the Devastation Trail — missable, in my opinion — before turning our car north. Nearby Volcano Village is home to a hostel and a couple of other accommodations and eateries, and is the usual staging point for multi-day lava enthusiasts, but we’ve pre-paid at the Sheraton Kona, so for us it’s only a stop for fuel and ice cream before heading back to Keauhou Bay.

And this is why we splurged on the convertible — while exploring the Big Island, you’ll spend a lot of time behind the wheel. So you’d better get a nice ride.


Must-do photo op on the Chain of Craters Drive.

I would have liked to see Kilauea glow at night. I would have liked to hike to the lava flows. But of course, if I got everything done this trip — I wouldn’t have an excuse to return.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

4 comments… add one
  • Leonardo Caetano May 10, 2018 Link

    Wow! Does this place really have volcanoes? I’m afraid just to see the KKK photos I think I’ve seen more movies on the subject and I’m very afraid to visit places that have these natural events from Earth.

  • David Webb Sep 19, 2013 Link

    It’s probably not terribly safe, but it seems to be allowed. Just go prepared!

  • Knuckles Aug 6, 2013 Link

    You can’t really get to the lava, can you? Is that safe? Allowed???

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