Volcanoes National Park is on the must-see list of every visitor to the Big Island, though since early 2021, there has been no red lava to be seen, not even a red glow after dark. Still, everyone wants to see a massive volcano. Our visit was a big expedition because we are staying at the opposite end of the island. It would be difficult to find a place farther from the park than Hawi.
Everyone knew it would be a long ride. We drove the Saddle Road that cuts across the Big Island, where vast tracts of dry ranchland turn into vast areas of green grassland as the climate shifts from the dry leeward side of the island where we are located to the wetter windward side.
At the Visitors Center we confirmed our route along the edge of the crater, starting at the overlook of Kilauea, then on to the new overlook at the Halema’uma’u crater. We saw the white tailed tropicbirds that live inside the Kilauea crater soaring across a background of black lava. It is difficult to comprehend the size of the volcano. Only the now-abandoned museum sitting on the edge of a cliff that was once many yards from the edge shows how unexpected were the effects of the 2018 eruption, despite the fact that the volcano had been active constantly since 1983. The past year is unusual in having NO red lava for visitors to observe.
The steam vents were the most entertaining part of the day once I determined that the steam comes from rainwater and not volcanic vents. That is, the steam doesn’t contain sulfuric acid, as volcanic vapors do. When Jonathan decided to stand in the steam I could stay calm.
Down the path from the steam vents, sulfur-bearing steam condenses on the hillside, creating sulfur crystals. This is steam to be avoided! A tiny whiff gives you the sulfur/rotten egg smell that we humans recoil from. A larger breath can damage your lungs because of the acid content. The sulfur crystals are bright yellow and on rare occasions have tempted people to step off the path toward them. The results are horrible, as the ground appears solid, but is just a crust over steaming acid. It’s a deceptive landscape.
A giant cave, the Thurston lava tube, is another popular stop, and often short of parking spaces. We visited in the mid-afternoon and found parking. The walk down to the mouth of the tube is steep, but manageable. The section of this lava tube that is open for visitors is not long, but turns just enough that you cannot see the exit when you enter, making your first steps a bit eerie. The tube is very dark, illuminated by some lights along the walls during the day. The park is open 24 hours a day, but after 5 pm visitors must bring their own flashlights to see inside the lava tube.
It’s a bit like walking down a dark hallway or subway passage. A veil of roots hangs in the dark overhead. These threadlike strings have made their way through the lava from the surface. Much of the inner surface of the lava tube is covered with small bumps of mineral that has accumulated from water that seeps through the rock. Technically stalactites, hanging from the ceiling, what I saw looked more like goose bumps of whitish rock and less like the long hanging crystalline deposits I imagine from the word “stalactite.”
Once out the far side of the tube and back up the stairs to the parking lot, we had spent all the time we had available. There is lots more to see at Volcanoes National Park. Not far from the lava tube is the start of Devastation Trail, an easy walk through a desolate lava landscape. Just beyond that trailhead is the start of Chain of Craters Road, that heads toward the coast, passing a number of different volcanic formations. Toward the far end of the road is an area of petroglyphs that would be worth a visit. Sampling these stops would take an additional half day, and there are many other trails and hikes around the crater.
Outside the park there is more to see. Another hour of driving gets you to the town of Pahoa, where you can drive through Leilani Estates, a housing development that was partially destroyed by lava from Kileaua in 2018. I have read that the community rapidly tired of “disaster tourism,” visitors who came to gawk, parked haphazardly and climbed on the lava that was clearly labeled off-limits. Still, it’s a dose of reality to see that even today, no one can stop Mother Nature. (I looked at Leilani Estates on Google Earth. You can see the path of the lava right into the neighborhood.)
We had a good visit. I enjoyed the Volcano Art Gallery by the Visitor’s Center, where many local artists are represented. The Visitors Center has useful information, all outdoors at the present. The drive home was a long one, and we were grateful to have a swimming pool to fall into at the end of the day. I’m not entirely sure what attracts us to a big, dark, distant, rocky hole, but we were there. I’d only go again if there was really red lava visible. But then, I’d complain about the traffic.