Volcano National Park – Day 1
J and I take turns picking vacation destinations. I was extremely excited when she picked Hawaii because Hawaii is home to Kilauea Volcano, the most active volcano in the world. Since the current eruption began in 1983 over 4 billion cubic yards of lava have wiped out 8.5 miles of roads, destroyed 214 structures and created 500 acres of new land. At the time we were planning our trip lava was erupting from the Puʻuoʻo vent and flowing southerly towards the ocean and lava could be seen inside the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. However volcano conditions change daily so there is no telling what you will see by the time you arrive.
Sunday morning we headed off to Volcano National Park (hereafter VNP), stopping at a fruit stand to pick up a selection of fruits, some we had never seen before. We arrived at the visitor center with plans to hike around the caldera. The rangers were standing outside, advising people to enter the building immediately because of high VOG levels outside. (VOG is a smog or haze containing volcanic sulfur dioxide, dust and ashes.)
We went inside to consider our options. The VOG levels were high at the 4000’ elevation of the visitor center but lower down by the ocean. It made more sense to hike along the ocean to the point where lava flows into the ocean instead. We got back in the car and drove the 16 miles to the parking lot at the end of Chain of Craters road.
There was a gravel road from here to the flow site, that had been constructed by FEMA as an emergency evacuation road. It was at least 24’ wide and except for asphalt, was as good as any other road in the area. However due to some bureaucratic nonsense between FEMA and the National Park Service, the road was gated off to cars and everyone forced to walk another 3.5 miles. The reason, as best as we could decipher it, was that the road was built for an emergency and since there was no emergency, it could not be used. It was also possible to access the flow site from the east, but that was a sketchier proposition. There is no official parking area and some will say you are trespassing on private property and try to charge you or chase you away.
We walked on the gravel road for 3.5 miles toward the plume of steam. Then the road ended, consumed by the lava. The area was roped off with signs warning of toxic fumes ahead. We headed off across the lava, following the rope for another 1.75 miles to reach the viewing sight.
We joined a few others already there waiting for the perfect sunset picture. Everyone was staring in awe at the sight of the glowing red lava entering the ocean and the giant steam plume rising several hundred feet into the air.
In the distance we could see the glow of overland lava flows and we asked the ranger if we could go to them. He wouldn’t give specific directions, nor did he forbid us to go looking for them. But it was late, it was dark and there was no way to determine how far away they were, so decided to save them for another day. We hiked back over the lava field in the dark with headlamps and made it back to the car at 9:30 PM; overall it was 10.5 mile round trip, 7 on the gravel road, 3.5 on lava.
You can also approach by boat as seen in the photo above. A year after we left, 23 people on a tour boat we injured when a chunk of lava hit the boat. The place where we stood to take these pictures and the area we photographed no longer exist, destroyed in a massive eruption a few months after we left.
I tried to find a way of comparing the sublime beach day with this volcano hike but eventually realized it was an “apples with oranges” situation. This extraordinary view of nature at its most primeval fierceness brought the trip to a whole new level.