There is much to see in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. I’ve already written a few posts about it, and plan to do a few more. But for the purpose of this post, the first thing you need to know is that Chain of Craters Road is the main thoroughfare through the eastern portion of the park, and it’s 18 miles long.
Once you go down this twisty bendy road, you’ll have dropped from 4000 feet to sea level, and you’ll have to make a u-turn and go all the way back, because the lava flows over the years have blocked further progress. (There is an emergency access route that goes along the coast, but it’s only opened up if there’s an active eruption that prevents you from returning the way you came. And if that’s the case, here’s hoping you have a 4 wheel drive and plenty of gas.)
Chain of craters is worth traveling on even if you’re not in the mood to check out the many hiking trails along its route. There are a lot of gorgeous overlooks where you can peer down on inactive craters. And you’ll see every type of lava stone imaginable, along with a lot of very determined plant life that has somehow managed to force its roots into the sharp ebony cracks. In many places you’ll get stunning views of old lava flows, and the ocean view is breathtaking, too.
We traveled this road many times during our visit to the Big Island, but on our first journey we decided to go all the way to the end and work our way up in order to see as much as we could and yet be close to our hotel before dark. We did cheat a bit and stop at some overlooks on the way down, because they were too beautiful to pass by. But our initial planned destination was Hōlei Sea Arch, which of course, was at the end of the road.
We parked and walked on a path along the cliff edge, which is a safe enough distance from the crumbling cliff itself. Looking westward we could see along the shoreline, toward a magnificent arch that is still being pummeled by the rough sea and the strong winds to this day.
The park’s information placard describes how these arches are made. First, of course, the lava flows down to the sea. The ocean starts beating against it even before it has had time to cool. Over time, a sea cave is worn into the cliff face, and then the splash back from hitting the cave’s back wall starts carving the arch. Once it’s an arch, there’s no more cave. And eventually there will be no more arch, as it collapses into the sea, most likely leaving a column of rocks called a sea stack. Over time, that column will disappear as well. It’s sort of the life cycle of shoreline lava. Fascinating.
It was a sunny, humid, windy day, so we didn’t linger long. The next part of our plan was to head up to see the Pu‘uloa Petroglyphs, but when we got to the parking area and read the sign, it made us realize that to get to them, we’d have to take a 0.7 mile hike, over jet black, uneven, undulating rock, in the glaring sun, as the wind, which felt like dragon’s breath, tried to knock us down. So, maybe not.
I was disappointed, though, because I had read that this was the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the state. And if you have read my post entitled, “Rock Art Rocks!” about my visit to some stunning displays in the Moab, Utah area, then you know that petroglyphs are some of my favorite things. But not dying of heat stroke is right up there on the list, too. So we left.
But three days later, we found enough space in our itinerary to return. The weather was different that day. It was overcast, drizzly, and the breezes were cool. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, so a little drizzle isn’t going to deter us. We could see heavier rain on the horizon, but we hoped we’d be back to the car long before it got bad.
We set out on the 0.7 mile trail, which, I assure you, is not wheelchair accessible at all. Often, we were unsure of the exact path. There was nothing for it but to keep your eye out for the next cairn and then try to take the straightest, most level route we could in order to get to it, and then look for the next cairn.
A few times, the cairns seemed to blend in with the surrounding rock, and once we were out of sight of the road, that caused a little bit of panic within me. I was having visions of being forced to spend the night in my shorts and thin shirt as the sun went down and the temperature dropped. That would have definitely made sh** get real rather quickly.
And then, to make things more interesting, we suddenly found ourselves in a downpour. Thank goodness Dear Husband had a hooded windbreaker for me. Even so, we were drenched in less than a minute. On this gigantic plain of lava with no trees to speak of, I tried not to think of lightning or flash floods. The sky was boiling, angry, and as black as lava rock, and I knew this rain wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Oddly enough, though, we decided to press on, because, well… petroglyphs. And Hawaiian rain is usually nice and warm, and today’s was no exception. The warm rain may have been coursing down my spine and pooling in my shoes, but… petroglyphs.
Just to cover my bases in the face of this fearsome rain, I had a little chat with Madame Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire. I wanted to assure her that we were approaching this sacred site with nothing but honor and respect in our hearts. We would not damage anything, nor would we take souvenirs. It felt important to say that, and I hoped it was obvious that I was sincere.
Eventually, we saw a raised boardwalk and some signage amongst the wet black stone. It seemed like a foreign invader, much like we were, but I was glad to see it. We knew we were there, and that the park service is doing its best to preserve these petroglyphs, which were most likely very old before the first white man, a missionary (of course), saw them and wrote about it in 1823. The lava field itself is at least 550 years old.
We stayed on the boardwalk the whole time so as not to damage this wonderous place. Some of our photos are below, but if you really want to see some truly amazing ones, check them out here, on the park’s website. Looking at this work made me feel reverent.
Many of the petroglyphs consisted of round holes pecked into the lava. These were used to store umbilical cords for many generations. It is said that they would place the cord in the hole, cover it with a rock, and the next day it would be gone. This would ensure the long life of the child.
At one point I was surrounded by a thousand such holes, each one representing someone who was born on this island centuries ago. I wondered how much DNA has been deposited in this place. This was like gazing back on generations of people who belonged here and knew it. A legacy in lava. It must be wonderful to have such a strong sense of your roots.
I became so engrossed in the scene that I nearly forgot about the rain. Eventually, though, we had to go, and as per usual, the walk back was not nearly as much fun as the walk in. I already knew what I was up against. I was struggling to not roll my ankles on the uneven ground, and my old arthritic hips already felt like they had burning coals in the sockets. At least the rain was starting to slow down. A little. And after all, it’s not like we could have gotten any wetter. And that made me start thinking about hypothermia. But truly, I didn’t feel cold. Just soggy.
If you’d like to watch me trudge/waddle through this rainy landscape, check out this time lapse video of me walking from the petroglyphs to the car. I had no idea that dear husband was even taking it at the time. I’m glad he waited until we were away from the sacred site, though. A video there would have felt disrespectful.
So, trudge, trudge, waddle, waddle, and then finally we saw the road. I wanted to whoop for joy. But it’s a good thing that I was still watching where I was going, because I went around a rock and came upon this poor waterlogged lizard, the first creature we had encountered during this trek. He was still alive and moving, but he looked cold and miserable. I wanted to rescue him, but I had no idea how to pull that off, and so we decided to let nature take its course. I hope he made it.
When we got to the car, there was no one around for miles, so we stripped off as much of our wet clothing as we reasonably could. Still, when we sat down we made squelching sounds. We turned on the heat and it felt like heaven.
We were too tired to contemplate seeing anything else, even though we had planned to visit the active lava after dark once again. But walking two miles in the cold darkness in wet clothes and shoes didn’t hold much appeal.
We knew that this day was still going to be a lifelong memory of an insane adventure, and we therefore had no regrets. It was a day well-spent. So we just went to the hotel, had a nice hot shower and a nap, and looked forward to whatever the next day would bring us in this unpredictable paradise.
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