Lava tubes give visitors insight into island creation. // © 2012 Hawaii Forest & Trail
Twenty-five years ago, when UNESCO designated Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) as a World Heritage Site, the geographical marvel was a literal hotbed of activity. Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world, had erupted in 1984, and Kilauea was in the fourth year of a continuous flow that’s still going strong today, adding 500 acres of new real estate to Hawaii Island.
One of only 21 World Heritage sites in the U.S., HVNP was tapped for its outstanding universal value and the high number of endemic species it protects.
To mark its 25th UNESCO anniversary, HVNP is planning a free, public celebration on Nov. 11. Park entrance fees will be waived since it’s among the National Park system’s 2012 special events. Other free events include a cultural festival on July 14 and National Public Lands Day on Sept. 29. HVNP is also gearing up for its centennial anniversary in 2016.
With two of the world’s most active and accessible volcanoes, HVNP offers visitors a glimpse of island creation with lava tubes, steam vents, sea arches, caves, craters and calderas, most of which are accessible along hiking trails and roads. Kilauea Visitor Center provides updated information about flows, hiking and ranger-led activities. Among the sure-fire ways to catch the dazzle is by visiting the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum — especially at night, if clients’ schedules permit. A fiery glow from the lava lake in Halemaumau Crater illuminates the gas plume rising from the vent.
During my recent visit, surface-flowing lava was accessible beyond the end of Chain of Craters Road, but I didn’t have enough time to make the 10-mile trek that takes an estimated 5.5 hours to complete. Instead, I scoped out the action via the one-hour Lava Flight with Iolani Air. Headquartered at Hilo International Airport, Iolani operates flightseeing excursions onboard air-conditioned, eight-passenger Gippsland Airvans designed for stability at lower speeds and boasting large convex viewing windows.
My pilot assured me this was the right trip to complement my previous ground experiences at the park. Since it cuts to the chase, it’s geared toward people who are limited on time.
The big buzz on Hawaii Island during my visit was the lava destruction of Jack Thompson’s home in the former Royal Gardens subdivision. Situated 3.75 miles down a steep slope southeast of Kilauea’s active vent, the former 1,800-acre community boasted nearly 200 dwellings in its heyday. Over the next three decades, flows picked off every structure in its path except for Thompson’s. He finally helicoptered out on March 3, 2012, just before lava consumed his home.
As we flew above the area, only a tin roof and water catchment were visible in the vast, inky landscape below. It’s humbling to realize that no matter how hopeful and tenacious you are, nature will always take its course.