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Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
By Chris Millikan
For Travel Writers' Tales

Leaving Kona at dawn, my family and I set off to explore natural wonders in Volcanoes National Park. Hiking and sightseeing throughout Hawaii's diverse wilderness, we reacquaint ourselves with Kilauea, the Big Island's active volcano.

About halfway there, a brief pit stop at Punalu'u provides an unexpected delight. As we watch, green turtles graze in the shallows, others bask along the unusual black sand beach. At the bakeshop down the road, robust local coffees and fresh malasada doughnuts filled with warm papaya cream make welcome breakfasts.

At the Visitor Center just inside the park, we bone up on volcano facts and up-to-date tips on flow happenings. Illustrated exhibits identify a surprising number of native plants and animals thriving in the volcanic barrens. Rangers offer guided interpretive hikes and supply us with detailed maps. Opting for the self-guided Sulphur Banks hike, one Ranger nods, "Depending on how much you linger, connecting trails will loop you back here in less than an hour."

Starting at the nearby Volcano Art Center, an easy paved trail leads us from dense foliage and out onto boardwalks zigzagging through the treeless Sulfur Banks. Here, seeping sulfuric gasses enshroud the landscape in these mystical coppery-red surroundings. Up ahead, we marvel at hundreds of tiny purple orchids growing amid thickets of feathery red blossoms. Returning to the car past stunted trees growing atop the crater, we're ever alert to occasional steep drop-offs along this winding trail.

Encircling Kilauea's enormous 'drive through' summit, Crater Rim Drive offers spectacular vantage points all along its 17-kilometers. We visit the Jaggar Museum and investigate Kilauea's most current volcanic activity. Honking nene geese, Hawaii's endangered state bird, escort us along the lava-rock pathway and up to the door.

Inside this museum, "must-see" exhibits explain how volcanoes are studied and monitored: equipment used by scientists past and present; working seismographs; climate maps and charred gear from scientists who got too close to molten lava! Murals dramatically depict ancient Hawaiians amid blistering eruptions.

On a previous visit we'd teetered along this massive caldera's craggy lip and watched white tropicbirds float on thermals deep inside the volcano's heart. Though crusted over since 1967, its boiling lava lake had once inspired Mark Twain to hike this same rim, high above legendary volcano goddess Pele's home. As they've done for centuries, kahuna priests still place flower offerings on Pele's doorstep, hoping to appease her blazing wrath.

Kilauea's newest plumes billow from a recent vent on Halema'uma'u's floor. "In 2008, Halema'uma'u's floor experienced its first eruption since 1924!" Our guide says, "It covered parts of Crater Rim Drive with debris, damaging the overlook. Extreme sulfur dioxide levels forced road and trail closures. A few days later, brown-gray ash replaced explosive noxious gasses. But most exciting of all, live lava splattered around this vent, activity not seen since 1982! Its glow can still be seen at night!"

Road closures prevent us from proceeding down Chain of Craters Road to the Pu'u o'o cone, its lava flowing continuously for more than 27 years. We recalled marching across endless day-old lava fields there not so long ago. Brilliant iridescent rainbows shimmered on the new, shiny-black lava. Guides had shown us Pele's tears, cooled, jet-black lava droplets and Pele's hair, spun volcanic glass strands strewn across acrid, pahoehoe lava. Awestruck, we'd later picnicked on a ledge above crimson lava dripping into the crashing turquoise Pacific surf below, spitting white steam plumes into the air..

Our last hike of the day crosses bleak landscapes along Devastation Trail, where Kilauea Iki's searing lava fountains reduced a thriving native ohi'a forest to stark charcoal skeletons in 1959. Still wondering what had awakened Madame Pele this time, we leave her smoky rift zones and ebony wastelands behind.

In lush contrast, luxuriant rainforest a-chirp with flitting red and yellow honeycreepers surrounds Thurston Lava Tube, another worthwhile stop. Along the paved trail, we're dwarfed by oversized philodendrons, towering ohia trees strung with trailing vines and gigantic tree ferns. Over a small hill and down stone steps, we enter the mammoth tunnel winding beneath aged lava fields. Visualizing scarlet lava rivers running to the ocean through this 500-year-old channel, we happily splash through cool puddles created by the seeping moisture!

Before heading back to Kona, we detour to Volcano Winery outside the park. With sips of Volcano Blush, we toast Kilauea whose volcanic activity thrills multitudes of curious travelers like us every year.

When You Go:
" to overview Big Island possibilities
" for up to the minute park details
" to sample Hawaiian sweetbreads & more in lush tropical gardens
" to top off volcano encounters with local wines inspired by volcanic fire and aloha spirit

Photos by Chris and Rick Millikan

1a & 1b Green turtles graze, swim and bask at Punalu'u's famous black sand beach, a popular stop on the way to Volcanoes National Park.
2. Kilauea's newest live vent in Halemaumau caldera can be easily seen from the Jaggar Museum, one of many vantage points along Crater Rim Drive's 17 scenic kilometers.
3. The Sulphur Banks provide diverse, atmospheric walks along Kilauea's volcanic rim near the Visitors Center.
4. Luxuriant rainforest at Thurston Lava Tube dwarfs visitors along the trail to the huge channel running under aged lava fields.
5. Inside the dark 500-year-old Thurston Lava Tube, crimson lava once rolled downward to the ocean; now seeping moisture forms cool puddles, providing diversions for visitors.
6. Legendary home of Pele, Hawaii's fiery volcano goddess, Kilauea's immense Halemaumau caldera was a molten lava lake during Mark Twain's days.

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