Visitors to Hawaii often have something other than visiting a park on their minds. Yet, this island state offers one of the most unusual national parks in the system: the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park covers nearly 505 mi²/1350 km² and has several distinct ecosystems.
Here, explorers can find the results of over 70 million years of the planet’s volcanism, including two live samples. They are part of the famed Ring of Fire – a series of volcanoes, many of them underwater, that lie along the edge of several continents. The world’s largest, Mauna Loa, stands 13,677 feet high. The other, Kilauea, is considered one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Hiking is a favorite activity of park visitors. There are thousands of trails here that wind through trees and along ridges of lava deposits. It’s easy to take a leisurely walk across the black sand beaches of Kalapana. Along one, hikers can enjoy the 350-year old Thurston Lava Tube. The 4-mile hike along Kilauea Iki trail descends 400 feet through rainforest into a steaming crater.
There are several scenic drives, as well. The 11-mile Crater Rim Drive circles the Kilauea caldera. A ‘caldera’ is the large, circular depression formed when the volcano’s interior collapses after an eruption.
As recently as March, 2008 the Halema’uma’u crater erupted, spewing ash and gas over 70 acres. The Chain of Craters Road offers a 40-mile round-trip drive that descends 3,700 ft/1130 m from the coast and reaches a dead end at an active lava flow.
A mile from Halema’uma’u is Keanakako’i Crater. This active volcano last erupted in late 1982 and the evidence is still easily visible. Across the road it’s easy to look over the edge and see the smoking fumaroles. It’s also an excellent place to get a view of the nearly 14,000-foot Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea mountains. At the top you can make out astronomical observatories that are among the world’s largest.
Only a mile further along the road is Devastation Trail. Park and take a half-hour stroll through a cinder outfall, produced by the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki. As with some other areas in the park, breathing can be uncomfortable. Sulfur dioxide and ash are a common product of volcanic activity. Sensitive individuals should avoid downwind areas.
Not quite a mile from Steaming Bluffs visitors can find the Kilauea Overlook for a great view of the caldera below. In 1959 this area was a lava lake with fountains spewing almost 2,000 feet up. The opening is 3,000 feet across and a mile long.
The park also houses the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, the Jagger Museum and many other facilities offering unique displays describing the park’s features. Inside the Jagger, there are several seismographs that monitor volcano-related earthquake activity.
Visit the park and enjoy some of nature’s most astounding dynamism on display. But because it’s an active volcano area, check http://www.nps.gov/havo/closed_areas.htm first to see which areas are closed before your trip.