Observing Nature’s Fury

Going with the flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

By: Chuck Graham

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The lava flow creates plumes of steam where
it meets the water along the coastline.
The flows cracked beneath our trail shoes, their soles warm to hot as we walked lightly across the path of hardened molten lava. We parked our car at the end of Chain of Craters Road where a flow had swallowed up a good chunk of the road inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was nearly dark, and a throng of visitors had gathered for an evening hike to view the steam wafting above the black-sand beach and the ethereal lava spilling into the Pacific Ocean. As it grew darker, the glow increased.

Earlier, as we planned our trip to Hawaii’s Big Island, we knew we had to visit the park, especially because Kilauea Volcano has been going strong since its most recent eruption in 1983, making it the most active volcano in the U.S.

The day after our hike on the flows, my wife surprised me with a helicopter ride over Kilauea, arguably the best viewing platform in the national park. Hovering above the grand mass of lava offered views of nature unleashing its ferocity, volcanic ash steaming out of newly opened vents on an island still adding acreage.

As we flew over lava fields, our pilot gave us a brief history of the volcanic activity on the Big Island and explained the different types of lava. He pointed out a lone house, the only structure standing, while others around it were swallowed by lava decades ago. It looked as if it stood on an island surrounded by an ebony sea only a few swaying palm trees still standing tall alongside a solitary home. It was a crystal-clear day, and the contrast of black molten lava against the turquoise-blue ocean was simply stunning from above.

Even more spectacular and a touch intimidating was our flight over the steaming cone of Kilauea. We made three gradual passes over the volcano, hovering above as it spewed billowing plumes of sulfurous gasses, like a gaping wound protruding deep from the earth’s core.

As the helicopter skirted the coast, we counted the line of cars parked along the Chain of Craters Road where we had walked the day before. Flying above the towering plumes of sulfur caused by lava greeting the cooler ocean we watched hikers zigzag steadily across the trail. From the air, we were rewarded with unparalleled views of nature’s fury as steep, hollow waves exploded into the molten lava as it oozed into the frothy surf, a daily occurrence since the last eruption 25 years ago.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Aerial view of steaming Kilauea
the most active volcano in the U.S.
Latest Update
Hawaii’s volcano goddess, Pele, has been particularly busy of late, sending a steady stream of glowing molten lava down Kilauea volcano to the ocean. On land, clients will currently find the best views in Kalapana, located at the end of Highway 130 on the eastern tip of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There, county workers have set up a viewing area open 2-10 p.m. Clients can expect a 40-minute walk from their car to the viewing site.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is still very much open for client explorations. Though the downwind stretch of Crater Rim Drive is closed off for now, from just past Kilauea Military Camp (as is Jaggar Museum and its overlook) visitors can get stunning views of the plume from the trail along Volcano House hotel.

“Visitors should know that if they follow precautions, come prepared and listen to officials, the volcanic activity on Hawaii Island is not only fascinating to witness, it’s also safe,” said Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director George Applegate. “A contingent of scientists, local and federal officials are keeping close tabs on the situation, and keeping the public well informed.”

The Big Island Visitors Bureau has launched a new volcano eruption update page on its Web site www.bigisland.org/volcanoupdate


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Exploring on Land:
Be prepared for all weather conditions. Clients should dress in layers, bring raingear and drinking water and wear hiking boots or trail shoes.

Exploring by Air:
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
Rates: 50-minute tour for $218 per person; two hours for $440 Commission: 15 percent

Safari Helicopters
Rates: 45-minute tour for $169 per person; 50 minutes for $219 Commission: 25 percent

Additional Big Island Air Tour Information:

It comes down to good judgment, following the cones left by park rangers that mark the trail in a national park where natural wonders are unpredictable.

It’s never a sure bet where the flows are streaming into the ocean because they constantly shift. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s visitor’s center has the most current updates.

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