Volcano Exploration on the Big Island of Hawai’i

When we first talked about spending a few months in Hawai’i, the place I really wanted to visit was the Big Island of Hawai’i, because I had never been here. As with Maui, we got loads of suggestions for things to do in Hawai’i, but the most unique and biggest excursion was to Volcanoes National Park. My biggest takeaway was that this was a really big island, with lots (5) volcanoes. Every day we decided to venture out turned into a very long day. There was so much to do that we were out and about most days.

Driving to Volcanoes National Park

The drive from Kona to the national park was supposed to take about two hours if you go straight there, but of course, there are lots of things to see on the way. One of the highlights is the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park.

Besides the beautiful vista points, we passed the southernmost in the all of the US. You might remember that we visited the southernmost point in the continental US in Key West, Florida in December. All of the major Hawaiian islands are farther south than Key West, so we had to stop.

Malasadas are Portuguese donuts that are a feature of Hawaii. It turns out that in addition to immigrants from Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, there were lots of Portuguese brought to work in the sugar cane fields. One of the places recommended for malasadas, and a highlight for me is the southernmost bakery in the US, in Punalu’u. Having no experience with malasadas didn’t stop me from buying and eating several different types of these delicious donuts. Traditional malasadas are just round and raised, with no filling. They also come with a delicious custard or jelly filling. Yum.

Volcanoes by Day

Using our GyPSy Guide, we arrived in the park in the middle of the afternoon where it was raining and windy. At the first stop in the park, I went to get out my jacket and hiking boots and found that they weren’t in the car. We had left the bag sitting on the sidewalk outside of our condo. Panic ensued as we noodled on how to rebound from this setback in the near and long terms. Happily, condo security had collected our bag and we recovered it the next day.

After driving so far, I was pretty much too cold and wet to do anything sans jacket other than run out and look at Kilauea crater. We were told that right now there was lava flowing from the side of the crater into a lava lake at the crater bottom but some of the visitor sites were closed for safety reasons since the last eruption 3 years ago. The only thing to see is the red glow at night. There was no way that we could stay that night without our jackets. So we resigned ourselves to return at night before we left the island.

Since we were there and it was such a long trip, we decided to make the best of it and drove down Chain Of Craters road from the top of Kilauea to the sea. It was a beautiful drive, dropping 4000 feet of elevation. Different types of lava were clearly visible. At the end of the road, we were able to walk to a vista point where you can see a sea arch.

All About Lava

We first learned about different kinds of lava and volcanoes while driving around Maui. The type of volcanos in Hawaii are called shield volcanoes and are formed from fairly thick lava that oozes out of vents in the volcano over a long period of time. There are also two different types of lava: a’a and pahoehoe (pronounced pahoyhoy). A’a is easy to remember because it is the rough and sharp chunks of lava that would make you say “Ah! Ah!” when you walk on them. Pahoehoe is smoother lava that looks pillowy before it breaks down. There were some places where a’a lava flowed on top of an earlier pahoehoe flow. It was really interesting geologically.

Volcanoes by Night

We decided to make the most of our long nighttime trip to the national park by heading from Kona over the saddle road that runs between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (each around 13000 feet tall). Arriving in the afternoon in Hilo, we visited some waterfalls, again in the rain, had dinner, and then set off toward Volcanoes.

Our goal was to arrive just after dark. Because of the bad weather, we were worried that we wouldn’t see anything the second time, but we had to try. When we got to the road leading to the Kilauea Crater viewing point, we found a long back up but there were several nice rangers managing the traffic into the area. Our wait was only about 20 minutes since most people didn’t view the red glow for very long. As people came out of the parking area, they let more people in, very organized.

Mauna Kea

The rain had stopped and the clouds were moving around in the crater by the time we got to the viewpoint. We were able to clearly see the red glow from the lava pool at the bottom of the crater, but in the dark, you could see little else.

After viewing the glow, we headed back to Kona in the direction we had come the first time. The ride was nearly two hours. Because the clouds had cleared, we were able to have a great view of the stars, so we stopped in a dark spot along the road and watched the sky for a while. After leaving the condo around 1 pm we returned a little after 10 pm. A long but fulfilling day.

Volcanos Wrap Up

In general, I am so glad that we went to the Big Island. Seeing the volcanoes, was definitely a highlight. Doing it from Kona sure made for a few very long days. Staying a few days in Hilo might have been a better choice, but I wasn’t up for moving that much.

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1 comment

  1. Too bad about the jacket and hiking boots staying behind, but glad you were able to make the best of it that day! Chain of Craters is really interesting! Yesterday we did the Kīlauea Iki trail across the caldera. Fortunately a mostly sunny day with some rain squalls, but really interesting. From one side of the trail one could see where the plates had shifted in the recent event. Later this week we’ll check out Papakōlea Beach (Green Sand Beach), Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park and also stop to try the malasadas!

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