A Volcano Bike tour allows clients to get a view of the Kilauea Caldera. // © 2010 Janice Mucalov
Perhaps there is no better way to experience Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii’s Big Island than spending the day biking around its key geological formations and
eruption sites. Volcano Bike Tours makes it easy to do. It offers small-group guided tours using “comfort” hybrid bikes (upright position), supported by a large air-conditioned van that follows the riders. Any time clients want to take a break from cycling, they can sit in the van.
Chances are they won’t need to. These tours are more about stopping and learning about the geological features of the UNESCO World Heritage Site than about power pedaling. The trails are mostly flat with a few gentle rolls, and the bikes are comfortable enough for even novice cyclists and seniors.
Three tours are offered: a 15-mile ride stopping at key highlights of the national park; a shorter eight-mile version; and a 12-mile coastal road tour in the afternoon that ends after sunset at the closest viewing point to the molten lava spilling into the ocean.
We booked the 15-mile tour. After meeting our van driver, Will, and bike guide, Eric, our group visited the park’s Jaggar Museum. It is perched right near the rim of Kilauea Caldera, an enormous round depression that measures approximately two to three miles in diameter at the summit of Kilauea Volcano.
The views of steam billowing from a large pit crater within the scalded gray-black caldera are quite amazing. We watched the volcanic show, mesmerized, as Eric explained that Kilauea has been erupting daily since 1983. Most eruptions have been relatively gentle, sending lava down the slopes of the volcanic mountain and into the sea. But starting in early 2010, the volcano has been acting strangely, he said. Instead of traveling down to the ocean, the lava has been creeping back up toward the summit. Locals are hoping this heralds a spectacular — but safe — fiery show in the near future, said Eric.
With a little knowledge of volcanology under our belts, we were ready to start riding our bikes. An off-road trail along the caldera’s rim took us to an area of fenced-off steam vents. If we stood close, we could feel the hot, moist steam rising up from within the earth and sniff the rotten-egg smell of the volcanic gases.
Back on our bikes, we cycled through a changing landscape of emerald rainforest and fields of jagged black lava. Eric pointed out the beautiful red lehua blossoms growing on ohia trees, the first trees to sprout up in lava. In pictures of the mythical volcano goddess Pele, the lehua blossom is shown crowning her long black hair.
Then it was on to the most startling sight — the Thurston Lava Tube. We walked through a forest of 20-foot-high tree ferns with thick roots shaped like tipi frames. Armed with flashlights handed out to us, we entered the winding, dimly lit tunnel.
Water dripped on us, and tree roots dangled from the wet ceiling. It felt like we were walking through the belly of some giant prehistoric monster.
Back outside, we cycled downhill to a viewpoint overlooking the ocean for a picnic lunch before finishing the day with a tasting session at the Volcano Winery. Toasting Eric, we all agreed it couldn’t have been a better day.