Hawaii’s Big Island is in a state of steady expansion, thanks to its active volcanoes. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can visit the smoldering calderas of two volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, and you can see vents and lava tunnels that are spewing forth a fiery show of lava.
Entrance fees: $10/vehicle for seven days or $5/individual for seven days
Visitor center: Kilauea Visitor Center is open daily.
Other services: A museum, three campgrounds, a hotel, and cabins
Accommodations: Namakani Paio and Kulanaokuaiki campgrounds are available year-round and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. A hotel, Volcano House (808-967-7321), is available year-round.
The amazing phenomenon featured in this national park begins as a deep rumble, more felt than heard. Sometimes this reverberation is coupled with an ominous, slow hiss that sounds like a disturbed snake. A series of temblors may follow: slow rumbling quakes or great cracking snaps in the ground. These early warnings may last for hours or days.
Suddenly a fissure opens, and as it lengthens rapidly, it emits a blast of steam followed by a fiery fountain of white-hot lava that shoots hundreds of feet into the sky. More and more spouts of lava burst from fresh cracks, and at night they light up the sky for miles around. The frightening roar builds to an overwhelming cascade of sound, and the acrid smell of burning sulfur is everywhere.
It is impossible to witness such a spectacle and not realize that the most colossal raw powers of nature are on display. Scientists who study volcanoes know that there are few better places to see this grandest of all sound-and-light shows than on the Big Island of Hawaii at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
There are five volcanoes on the island, two of which are encompassed by the park: Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Both are among the world’s most active volcanoes. More than 4,000 feet above sea level and still growing, Kilauea rises from the southeastern flank of the older and much larger Mauna Loa.
These fiery mountains are not huge steep-sided cones topped with snow, like Fuji-san in Japan or Mount Rainier in Washington. Instead, these volcanoes in Hawaii rise more gently from the sea to a great caldera on the summit. This kind of mountain is called a “shield volcano” because the top looks like an ancient warrior’s shield lying face down.
The enormity of these volcanoes is impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the fiery light shows you’ll see at their summits. On the next page, learn more about the amazing sights you’ll see in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The volcanoes at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are sights to behold. Mauna Loa, which means “long mountain,” rises 13,677 feet above the Pacific Ocean. It is second in height in Hawaii only to Mauna Kea, a quieter volcano. The visible elevation of Mauna Loa is topped by many mountains, but its actual size is astonishing. Measured from its base, which is 18,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific, Mauna Loa exceeds Mount Everest in height by 2,000 feet. The world’s most massive single mountain, its bulk is about 100 times that of Mount Rainier.
Atop Mauna Loa, a large caldera, called Mokuaweoweo, contains several summit craters that have erupted in the past, covering much of the caldera floor with lava twisted into nightmarish shapes, great pits, and cinder cones. Eruptions within the craters of both of the park’s volcanoes are relatively harmless. The outbursts give fairly reliable advance notice, and because they are exciting to watch, an impending eruption typically draws thousands of people to the crater’s rim.
More dangerous eruptions break out through huge fissures in the flanks of the mountains as underground pressures mount, forcing lava from the openings. Flowing slowly like a great, hot tidal wave down the slopes, an advancing wall of lava can destroy crops and whole villages in its path.
It’s fortunate that viewing the lava eruptions at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a relatively safe endeavor, because you wouldn’t want to miss out on the great photo opportunities they present. Nevertheless, make sure to exercise caution at these scenic spots.
Often called the “drive-in volcano” because its summit is so accessible, Kilauea has an awesome caldera two miles across and 2.5 miles long that is surrounded by ragged, barren cliffs hundreds of feet high.
Inside this vast bowl, fantastic lava shapes cover miles of barren landscape that looks like a desert on another world. Most of the time, the caldera emits wisps of steam. In its southern end, there is a great fiery pit that is 3,000 feet across and more than 200 feet deep. This volcanic crater is called Halemaumau, or “fern house.”
Up until 1924, the crater contained a lake of molten lava that bubbled constantly. More recently, the crater has been the scene of some of nature’s most spectacular fireworks, as wild fountains of fire spray upwards, while lava flows from great fissures in the floor. According to legend, this is the home of Pele, the goddess of fire. Geologists confirm that this may be the earth’s major opening for the upward flow of lava.
Keep reading to find out about how the lava machines at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were formed over millions of years.
Despite the Hawaii volcanoes’ awesome power for destruction, which is rarely dangerous to human life, Hawaiians have always cherished and respected the impressive mountains. Ever since the first people arrived here about 1,500 years ago in huge double-hulled, ocean-going canoes, Hawaiians have woven fascinating legends about the gods and goddesses who inhabit the volcanoes and cause them to erupt.
For centuries, Hawaiian legends have explained the way volcanic islands form: Pele, the goddess of fire, moves from place to place around the islands. As she tells others the story of her travels, she stamps her foot, making the earth tremble and forming a new island.
Geologists know that there is some truth to this legend. The spot where an island is likely to appear does move from place to place. Scientists explain this with a theory of “hot spots” and plate tectonics. For some unknown reason, there are more than 100 hot spots beneath the earth’s surface. These places produce more molten rock, or magma, than is produced elsewhere. The Hawaiian hot spot, it turns out, is one of the largest.
The hot spots are stationary, but the dozen or so great plates that make up the crust of the earth are not. The Pacific plate is in constant motion at the rate of about four inches a year. As the plate moves over the Hawaiian hot spot, enough magma rises to create a new island. This young island is pulled away from the hot spot by the movement of the plate, and in time another island forms over the hot spot.
How many vacation spots offer access to temperamental natural forces in such a beautiful setting? Hawaii Volcanoes National Park lets you get up close and personal with lava, one of the most destructive forces on earth, set in the lush environment you can find only in Hawaii.
P.O. Box 52
Hawaii National Park, HI 96718