We spent most of the past few days exploring the Hawai’i Volcanos National Park. This (very) gradually expanding park features a lot to see and do, if by see, you mean look at expanses of black hardened lava, dormant calderas, and a few steam vents, and if by do, you mean hike around and baiting dehydration. We did a little of both, and it was really worth it.
We happened to come at a time when no lava is actively flowing down into the sea. On June 17th, after several years of pretty steady activity, part of the active Pu’u ‘O’o eruption area collapsed into itself, effectively sealing the lava flow off and causing the lava to only build up in one inaccessible area rather than sliding down the hillside to a place where we could get to it. Eventually, the lava will build up and overflow, probably creating a new path down to the ocean, but for now, there was nothing really to see other than the historical wrath of Pele. Thankfully, there was a lot of that to take in.
For the driving public, the park basically consists of 2 roads, one that leads around the crater and another that leads down from the crater to the sea. We took both, making sure to stop and take in the stark beauty as often as possible. While it would have been great to have gotten close to some active lava flows – particularly to cook some lava chicken – we actually got a chance to spend more time just taking in the landscape, which is amazing in its own right.
Before making it into the park, we explored the east side of the Big Island, in an area called Puna. This is a place of small, winding, one-lane roads that lead through stretches of lava fields and mangrove swamps, by seemingly suicidal surfers and ancient trees cooked by lava flows, whose crust now stands nearly immortal.
When we picked up the rental car, the Hawaiian lady behind the counter asked me where we were going, and when I mentioned that Puna was one of our destinations, she said, “Why? There’s nothing there. I live there; I should know.” A clever trick to keep a haole from discovering a slice of paradise or ignorance about one’s home? Who knows; all I can say is that, if you get the chance to go, definitely do it. There is something about walking across an expanse of 40-year old lava to the edge of the pounding ocean, far away from park rangers, common sense, and, well, probably legality.
Inside the park, we walked to the end of the road, literally, where a 2003 lava flow covered up the highway through the park. It is a strange thing to see asphalt covered by a more organic but harder surface. The National Park Service really tries to strike a balance between allowing people to really get up close to really pretty dangerous areas without letting them go all out and hurt themselves. By looking at the flow’s expanse over the highway, a thing we can all visualize and understand, you can really get a sense of just how much liquid rock moved through that area. It is unlikely that highway will ever be cleared and rebuilt to connect with Puna.
Today, walked through a 500 year-old lava tube, traipsed through a micro-rainforest on the side of the Mauna Loa (the largest volcano on Earth), watched a tiny lizard eat jelly out of a disposable packet, peered across the bay where Captain Cook was killed, drank way too much Kona coffee, and walked around a Hawaiian traditional kapu site, watching gigantic turtles looking back at us in crystal clear tidal pools. The day ended eating fresh wild-caught tuna steaks that I cooked behind our hostel, along with an organic salad and fresh edamame, while watching the sun gradually sink into the Pacific.