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"Shortly, the crater came into view. I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child's volcano, a soup-kettle, compared to this. Mount Vesuvius is a shapely cone 3,600 feet high; it's crater an incerted cone only 300 feet deep, and not more than 1,000 feet in diameter, if as much as that; its fires meager, modest, docile. But here was a vast perpendicular, walled cellar, 900 feet deep in some places, 1,300 in others, level-floored, and 10 miles in circumference! Here was a young pit upon whose floor the armies of Russia could camp, and have room to spare."~ Mark Twain on Kilauea Crater
Viewing an active volcano is one of the most profound experiences this planet has to offer. Volcanoes shock all the senses. Roars and hisses tantalize the ear, lava rocks have a unique feel, the strong smell of sulfur can literally be tasted, and the awesome beauty of flowing magma is a treasure to any eyeball. Visitors fortunate enough to experience an eruption will certainly remember it for a lifetime. Even those who visit Kilauea Crater on an off-day will not walk away disappointed. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an outdoor museum in volcanology, geology, ecology, meteorology, surreal scenery and desolate solitude.
The ancient Hawaiian fire-goddess Pele, whose name means "volcano," is believed to reside in the Craters Region. Pele has visited all of the islands in turn, beginning at the northwest end of the chain and staying awhile on each, before choosing Mauna Loa and Kilauea as her home. Pele really gets around. She spends much of her time visiting other islands in the Pacific, but whenever there is an eruption on the BigIsland, you can be sure she is close at hand. According to legend, it is Pele who tends the fiery furnaces and hurls the flaming red lava out of the boiling depths.
Radical adventurers will not be disappointed with all there is to do in the Craters Region. First, take a ride over the Saddle Road extending between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. From here, there are access roads to both of the nearly 14,000-foot summits, as well as several hiking trails into the upcountry. Mauna Kea receives a substantial amount of snow every winter, enticing skiers and snowboarders to get up there and carve some turns. When the wind is right, hang gliders can make one of the longest descents on the planet from the top of Mauna Kea to the sea. Kilauea Crater is a sight to behold, and hiking trails weave in and around the smoldering lava pit. Several other trails lead to interesting cinder cones and lava formations within Volcanoes National Park, as well as up to Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano.
The first way to orients yourself with the Craters Region is to drive the Saddle Road. While the Big Island boasts 1,360 miles of highways (and not one freeway), the 55-mile Saddle Road is easily one of the most interesting sections. Rising 6,500 feet between two massive volcano cones and traversing an amazing spectrum of climatic zones, the Saddle Road is one of the most spectacular drives in all of Hawaii.
BIKING YOUR WAY ACROSS SADDLE ROAD
RISK: 5 ADRENALINE : 7
Most coast roads are ideal for cycling, especially those around Waimea, but the most extreme bike excursion on the Big Island is crossing the Saddle Road. Leaving from Hilo, Saddle Road first passes through thick rainforest, then a fern forest until (around the 3,000-foot level) the landscape changes drastically to barren lava flows. In the middle of the "saddle" are turnoffs for both the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa summits. If you have survived the bumps thus far, rejoice. Despite the fact that it took six hours riding time to reach the midpoint, it will take less than three hours to glide almost all the way down to the town of Waimea.
For a fun outfitter trip, sign up for a downhill ride with Hawaiian Eyes on their Mauna Kea Iki excursion. Participants get picked up early and descend 4,000 feet on the Observatory Road of Mauna Kea. No tough uphills and your lunch is included. What a deal!
TREKS STARTING FROM SADDLE ROAD
RISK: 2 ADRENALINE : 4
Five miles west of the Mauna Kea turnoff road is the lovely Mauna Kea State Park . It sits at 6,500 feet in the midst of rolling grasslands. This is base camp for multi-day hikes. You can pitch a tent or rent one of the seven cabins, which include hot showers and cooking utensils! Call for reservations as soon as possible. 808-961-7200.
From the park, it is possible to hike many miles of upcountry trails where you will probably not see another person. A two-mile hike from Mile Marker 35 brings you to a lookout offering a perfect view of the island's three largest volcanoes.
No trip to the Big Island is complete without a visit to the top of towering Mauna Kea. Soaring to near stratospheric levels, Mauna Kea is a downright psychedelic place-so many observation domes on such a bleak landscape. The height and isolation make this summit one of the very best sites on earth for astronomical observations. Indeed, Mauna Kea is home to the world's foremost collection of optical and infrared telescopes.
The road is paved all the way to the top, but winter conditions and the steep downhill requires a 4WD vehicle. Apart from wandering around the dozen or so golf-ball-shaped observatories (no tours), don't miss Lake Waiau, just below the summit. Here is the highest lake in America on top of the highest mountain in the entire Pacific! On the way down from this frigid lunar landscape, stop at the 12,400-foot level. There is a marker for a short trail leading to Keanakakoi, "Cave of the Adzes," where ancient Hawaiians mined basalt for axe-like tools.
SNOWBOARDING MAUNA KEA
RISK: 3 ADRENALINE : 5
The ancient Hawaiians named Mauna Kea "white mountain" because of its snowy cap, which remains in place nearly half the year. Scars on the mountain show that Mauna Kea was covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age-the only mountain in the central Pacific tall enough to have them. A winter wonderland!
The air is pretty thin up here, so if you're coming to ski, take your time getting acclimated. A 4WD vehicle will be necessary to haul you and your equipment up every run--sorry, no chairlifts. Powder conditions occur during the winter months after heavy rains in Hilo, but the base does not always receive that thick coating. Be prepared to thrash your boards. By doing so, you gain the bragging rights of having skied the world's highest tropical volcano!
HANG GLIDING MAUNA KEA
RISK: 7 ADRENALINE : 8
Like its neighbor Mauna Loa 25 miles to the southwest, Mauna Kea is a shield volcano. That means most of its slope is very gentile, formed by many layers of lava resembling a warriors "shield." These gradual inclines, as well as a constant wind, are perfect for paragliding and hang gliding. While lower elevations (around the 6,000-foot level) offer more ideal takeoff conditions, some hot-doggers have launched from the 13,796-foot summit and glided all the way down to sea-level. This is America's highest takeoff-to-landing drop in elevation!
Kilauea Volcano has been in a sustained eruption since 1983, when it woke up and started going ballistic. Lava continues to pour into the sea from fissures near Kilauea Caldera, most notably on the southeastern shore of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park . This ongoing eruption produces 14 million cubic feet of lava on a daily basis. As the lava flows downslope from the crater to the sea, it continues to build up and extend the shores of the Big Island. Since Kilauea's re-activation in 1983, the resulting lava flows have added 220 acres of new real estate to Hawaii. But before you go and buy your piece of paradise at "fire sale" prices, remember this land is extremely unstable. New ledges of lava extending out from the coastline continually break off when undercut by the sea. These sheered chunks tumble thousands of feet to the bottom of the ocean. Visitors to the national park must be aware of this hazard, and refrain from freestyle trail blazing. Stay only on marked trails and within the park's safety areas.
HIKES AROUND HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
RISK: 3 ADRENALINE : 5
The first thing here is to do the 11-mile trip around Crater Rim Drive so you can take in the massive proportions of Kilauea. The next thing to do is park near the visitor's center and head for the Halemaumau Trail, which cuts straight through Kilauea Crater . Continue until you reach the crater overlook of the same name. Backtrack a half-mile to the Byron Ledge Trail for another walk along the crater floor. From here you can head back to the visitor's center, or take a mini-loop through another caldera- Kilauea Iki Crater.
Great barrenness is what you will find in the Kau Desert, even though it receives substantial rainfall. The reason it's so bleak is because natural gasses from Kilauea blend with the rain and produce a mixture too toxic for plants to grow. It is surreal to walk around the Kau Desert in the rain, which never really soaks into clothing because the heat from nearby lava flows make the rain evaporate almost upon impact. Trails for the Kau Desert start near Kilauea Crater, or on a trailhead beginning on Highway 11 about four miles south of the Mauna Loa Road. Near here is the Footprints Trail . Ancient footprints seen in the solidified ash were left by a band of warriors engulfed in a sudden eruption.
Another extreme hike in the park-the Puna Coast Trail--is in the southern section. Travel along desolate lava flows with the crashing ocean below your feet. Earthquakes off the coast sporadically produce tidal waves, which have wiped out large sections of this terrain. Collected rainwater is available at the three campground shelters, but be sure to bring plenty to spare. It gets hot out here. This is a multi-day excursion requiring you to register for a backcountry permit at the visitor's center.
LAVA TUBE SPELUNKING
RISK: 1 ADRENALINE : 2
Thurston Lava Tube is considered the most accessible lava tunnel because it's located just off Crater Rim Drive. Follow the throng of bus tourists to the fern jungle entrance. The tube is 450 feet long and 10 feet high, and pops out into another fern jungle on the other side. The most remarkable aspect of this tube is the smoothness of the walls. Roots dangle down from the ferns above. No need for a flashlight; it's well lit, albeit artificially. Parking here offers good access to Kilauea Iki Crater and its famous trail. You might also snake around via the Crater Rim Trail and visit the fascinating Devastation Trail.
ACTIVE VOLCANO TREKKING
RISK: 6 ADRENALINE : 9
Hiking over lava flows on unmarked trails is seriously frowned upon by Park Rangers. They will tell you the only way you can see active lava is if it happens to be flowing right by the road.
Should you wish to break the rules and go trekking at your own risk, we recommend the Chain of Craters Road. It is officially closed after a certain point, and the Rangers will tell you to turn back, but if you happen to arrive on a lucky lava day (the lava is not always flowing), you'll be missing out if you don't keep on going. Leave your car at the road's end and continue on foot.
Up on higher ground a fissure is spewing large quantities of lava. As you wander onto uncharted territory, look for the plumes of smoke near the ocean. This is where the lava makes contact with the sea.
Be very careful when approaching the lava for obvious reasons. Pay special attention in areas where lava flows into the water. The resulting mixture is extremely toxic. At night the orange glow of the flow becomes more apparent, and, despite countless warnings, people stick around past sunset to witness this amazing spectacle.
MAUNA LOA VOLCANO
Although presently quiet, Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, could erupt again at any time. According to scientists, another eruption on Mauna Loa is long overdue, but could still be several years away. Accurately predicting eruptions is not easy. Earthquakes and seismic activity are the major tip-offs, as are swelling and inflation of the land, which suggest magma rising from within. Fotrunately, none of this is happening around Mauna Loa now.
Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times in the last 150 years, yet only the 1975 and 1984 eruptions have been studied carefully by scientists. During the harrowing 1984 event, lava flows stopped a mere eight miles short of downtown Hilo.