Kilauea Iki: Walking on a Lava Lake

“What a great adventure!”

The older I get, the more I take to heart something a friend once told me: “You can’t do everything.”

That applies especially to my travels. Gone are the days when I would be willing to climb mountains and conquer hardscrabble terrain. I’m not quite at the age where I’m in constant fear of breaking a hip, but I am at the age where a rough hike leaves me feeling as though I had broken one. That’s when exploring ceases to be fun.

A younger me would have loved to have joined Dear Husband on his trek across the hardened lava lake of Kilauea Iki. But that’s a 4 mile hike, with a descent and ascent of 400 feet, which is the equivalent of a 40 story building. Discovering that, the current, more pragmatic me declined, rather than force DH to walk more slowly, listen to me complain, and probably carry me back up the side of the crater like a dead moose. (Okay, I know there are no moose in Hawaii, but you get the idea.)

So I had a delightful evening in our room, reading a good book, which is a luxury I rarely have time for these days. Bliss. Meanwhile, DH went on his incredible adventure.

Naturally, I couldn’t write about an experience that I didn’t have, so I asked him to do so. What follows is written by him, unless it’s in italics. Italics are me butting in on the story. But I truly think he did an excellent job of allowing us all to feel as though we’re tagging along.

Thanks, DH! And enjoy, Dear Reader!

_______________________________________________

With just 18 hours left in Hawaii before the flight that would take us home, I still wanted to use every opportunity to fully experience my first visit to the Big Island of Hawaii. The Volcanoes National Park had been a fascinating site to explore, and l decided there was enough time and daylight for one more adventure.

One of the many trails at the park gives you an opportunity to walk across a “once-molten lake of lava” in the Kilauea Iki crater. [In Hawaiian, Kilauea means “much spreading” or “spewing” and Iki means “little”. This is because the crater in question is much smaller than the nearby and still-active main caldera of Kilauea. But it’s still 3000 feet across, which is more than 9 football fields. What is “iki” from a volcano’s perspective is still nui (huge) from a human perspective.]

That sounded like the once-in-a-lifetime adventure I was looking for! Since I would be starting just three hours before sunset, I first stopped at the Visitors Center to talk with staff, to make sure I wasn’t heading for trouble. They assured me there was time enough before sunset to begin that hike and I purchased the $2 trail guide for a better understanding of how to achieve my goal and return unharmed.

Although this national park goes down to sea level, the park entrance and many sections are at an elevation of around 4,000 feet, and in Hawaii, that means it’s a rain forest environment. So, along with comfortable shoes, flashlight, water, camera and fully charged phone, I also brought a rain jacket and was glad for that. When I parked at the trailhead to review the guide, it was already 5 pm with the sunset around 7 pm, so I would need to step lively to complete the hike in the remaining hours of daylight. The printed guide recommended following the trail in a counterclockwise route, along the rim of the crater to the far side, and then down the inside of that rim to the floor. After crossing the once molten lake of lava, the trail would bring me back up the 400 feet to where the trail has easy access to the road.

As I began, I watched for the numbered trail markers, where the guide offered details specific to that location. The clouds were settled just a few hundred feet above me, with a light drizzle falling (much like what frequently happens back home in Seattle) and a comfortable 70° temperature. (Which doesn’t happen nearly enough in Seattle.) The trail was certainly wet but not soggy, and I kept my feet dry as I headed through the lush and very wet forest of tall ferns and dripping trees.

Occasionally I’d reach a break in the growth to my left, where I could peer over the steep rim and down onto the lava lake that was my goal. Frequently there were large puddles across the trail, stretching from four to eight feet across, with muddy soil surrounding each one. They were far too big for jumping across and the footing was way too slippery to even consider a leap. The trail was about five feet in width, and fortunately there were usually fallen branches at one side or the other that provided a stepping place and I could reach for small trees to provide a handhold. This method allowed me to take long, careful strides and avoid soaking my comfortable running shoes. Their thick soles provided protection when my steps took me down to the water level.

As I approached the far side of the crater, I met a family of three coming toward me. They were looking rather tired. My path crossed other trails and I was pleased to find them all well marked with destinations and distances, making me wonder if the printed guide was necessary. (But it’s a really cool, detailed guide which gives you a complete description of the 1959 eruption, complete with diagrams, so I highly recommend it. You can download it from the bottom of this page.)

When I reached the far side of the crater, the trail sloped downhill for a short distance and then headed over the rim, where I looked down onto the treetops below. At this point, a steel handrail had been installed, providing both support and a barrier beside the steep drop off. The entry to the floor of the caldera was at the base of this steep trail, built with switchbacks every 100 to 200 feet and with large (and tall) stone steps to lower oneself down the steep hillside. I was glad to be going downhill and recognized why the family that had just climbed these stairs had looked tired!

Near the last of the switchbacks, I heard hikers through the trees heading in my direction. When we met, I stepped aside so they had access to the handrail beside the narrow trail and they told me it was easy to find the trail, and to watch for the rocks stacked in cairns that mark the route. Those were the last people I saw as I reached the lava lake at the bottom of the rim.

The transition from the lush rain forest to the landscape of hardened lava is both jarring and abrupt. There is only a short distance where a few plants have succeeded in taking root in the harsh environment. Beyond the first dozen paces, the occasional plant was all alone and appeared foreign in the environment of sharp stone. And in those first steps, it was quickly evident that the floor is not at all level, but instead made up of jumbled pieces of sharp and porous rock that would inflict great damage to me if I were to fall. Despite an end to the daylight in just 90 minutes, there was incentive to step cautiously and not rush through this place.

The floor was like walking on the waves of a stormy sea, if they had frozen with the peaks and troughs at their extremes, often much deeper or taller than twice my height. Looking into the distance I saw a half dozen stacks of rocks showing the direction I should travel. There was no visible path or footprints from previous hikers on the hard, stone surface. Further along the trail, the large rocks had been reduced to crumbled gravel and the heavily traveled trail became visible.

I was surrounded by an exceedingly strange environment, and I realized that the sounds of the forest were gone; no birds, no rustling of the leaves or sounds of rain dripping from the trees. Instead all was silent. (Personally, I would have shouted hello to test for an echo, but that’s me.) The low clouds kept the rim of the crater hidden in most directions, so it appeared as though the hills surrounding me simply rose up into the clouds. It was truly an otherworldly feeling, alone in an environment that had been molten rock the year my parents got married.

One of the numbered markers referred me to the trail guide, which invited me to look at the perimeter of the lava lake and recognize the “bathtub ring” where the molten lava had once filled this crater. The pool of lava had risen and dropped several times during the eruptions, and it first cooled and hardened at the edges. When the pool dropped, those edges broke off, falling into the center or onto what had been a forest covered hillside. Looking all around, that ring was unmistakable, and, I thought, named appropriately. Apparently prior to the 1959 eruption, this had been an 800-foot-deep crater, not the 400-foot one that I had just descended.

As I continued my walk, the land became jumbled hills of black lava piled even higher than before, making me feel quite insignificant in comparison. At another of the numbered markers, the trail guide explained that this was the location of a cinder-and-spatter cone that came into existence in 1959. During that eruption, a fountain of lava shot 1,900 feet into the air (one of the highest eruptions ever witnessed by man) and all this jumble of rock was the spatters thrown out during that event.  (Here are some historic pictures of the eruption.)

For most of my life, I’ve seen lava rock that was used in BBQ grills, or as landscaping rock in gardens. In those instances, it was from ½-inch to perhaps 2-inches in diameter. In this crater there were crumbs of that size, but they were dwarfed beneath the hills of rock, with chunks the size of my head and up to three feet across. The piles of these abrasive, black boulders surrounded me in a jumble of debris, often mixed with voids or even small caverns. I recognized that these boulders could easily shred my leg if I stepped into a hole, or perhaps even onto an unstable rock.

After passing through the steep hills of spattered lava, I reached an area that had a much more level surface. This portion of the hardened lava lake reminded me of an old asphalt parking lot where sinkholes or landslides had caused the pavement to shift or break. Except that this parking lot covered acres of land and there was no soil visible where the surfaces sank and broke. This surface provided great examples of the dropping pool of lava, where the support beneath cooled stone had disappeared, causing it to sink or drop, often ten, twenty or even forty feet. This was yet another example of the power of nature, where the land is currently motionless but has not always been so. To keep heading toward the next guidepost cairn, I frequently had to step over large cracks that provided and opportunity to peer down several feet into darkness. The path I walked was often meandering, in order to avoid crossing large gaps between slabs that I could easily fall into.

As I neared the halfway point in crossing the lava lake, the surface once again changed, but for the last time. The hills were behind me, and the relatively level surface finally looked like the lava lake I’d heard about. It was more than a quarter mile to each side and more like a half mile ahead of me, to where the trail leads out of the crater. The surface still had a rolling unevenness and the stone floor reminded me of the crust on a loaf of black, pumpernickel bread. The unevenness of this vast acreage was accented by the puddles from the recent rain and the shadows in the low places, contrasting with the higher spots. It also had a mottled look, due to the smallest of rocks and dust having been washed and blown around, leaving other patches of stone bare. An occasional plant stood about 24 inches tall, proud to be surviving and creating yet another eerie contrast as the daylight began fading.

The final few hundred feet of the lake surface was once again broken pavement, sloping up to the bathtub ring from where I could then look back to see some of the trail I’d just traveled. From a distance, it was evident that many people had crossed the same route and I realized I was fortunate to have had the entire caldera to myself for that hour.

Only a few steps away from the lava, I was immediately into the rain forest again, welcomed by a gigantic puddle that I had to skirt as I entered the canopy of trees that covered the trail. Again, it was a well-worn trail, but the path was a gentle uphill slope with an occasional step, built with a log across the trail as the riser to the next level. Sometimes the steps were twenty feet apart, at other times a hundred feet from the previous, repeated over and over, with an occasional switchback that allowed me  to gently climb the hillside.

This was so much more comfortable than the steep bluff I’d walked down at the far end of this crater. And yet there was still an incline, so I stopped for a rest. This gave me the opportunity to listen to the coqui frogs chirping in the forest. (They are an invasive species which traveled to Hawaii from Puerto Rico on house plants in the 1980’s. I happen to love their sound, but it drives some people crazy.) They truly add to the unique sound of this setting, and I took the opportunity to record their voices as they remained hidden from sight.  I continued up the sloping trail, back and forth across the hillside, as the trees hid all views of the vast openness inside the Kilauea Iki crater.

Sunset was almost upon me, and I considered breaking out a flashlight, but then I heard the sound of cars on the road that goes along the edge of the crater. Moments later, when I reached the road, I found several squirt bottles and a sign with instructions to spray and rinse the soles of my shoes, so I wouldn’t track any seeds or plant life from this location to other parts of the national park (and I did so.)

I checked the time, and I realized it was two hours after I’d started and I had covered just over three miles. In reviewing the trail guide, I discovered the route included crossing the road and continuing the hike to explore the Thurston Lava Tube, however we had visited that just a couple days earlier (read about it here), so instead I took a different part of the trail, back through the trees, that led to the parking lot where I had left the rental car. This turned out to be a great opportunity to peer back into the crater and take a photo of where I’d been. From this vantage point, the last half of the trail across the open lake bed was extremely obvious, however it was impossible to recognize the rolling surface. The many puddles along the way are evident and I took several photos during my hike, including one in which this trail is so visible.

The last half mile hike to the car was at dusk and beneath the trees, so I appreciated having the flashlight. At one point, there appeared to be a slope on the opposite side of the trail, and upon closer inspection I found it to be a large hole, with just a few ferns hiding it from sight. That’s not the kind of thing one should stumble into at any time, let alone twelve hours before any other people would be walking the trail!

This impromptu hike turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Hawaii. (And no, I didn’t take that personally, as I was cuddled up with my good book. We were each in a happy place.) I doubt I’ll ever get the chance for another hike across the caldera of a volcano with no other people in sight or earshot.

“What a great adventure,” I texted to Barb, letting her know I was safely to the car and heading back to her.

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Nāhuku and Its Origins

Nature is aweful.

Nature is awful. But it’s awful from back when awful meant “full of awe”. To fully appreciate this, you have to imagine what it was like for ancient people to gaze upon some wondrous natural phenomenon, before we had any grounding in science, and have absolutely no idea what caused it.

Imagine coming upon the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, or the Great Barrier Reef and thinking, how? Our ancestors can’t be blamed for assuming that everything that wasn’t man made must be of a spiritual origin. And while my belief system differs greatly from theirs, I do enjoy hearing the old creation stories and imagining the various deities as living, breathing entities who shaped the earth in ways mankind never could.

That’s what was running through my mind as Dear Husband and I walked down through a rain forest full of fern trees and birdsong. We felt as if we had been transported to prehistoric times.

Our ultimate destination was Nāhuku, also known as the Thurston Lava Tube to those uninspiring name-changers of European descent. (They may not have been poetic, but hey, at least they were arrogant.)

One such white guy was Lorrin Thurston, a newspaper publisher who “discovered” this tube back in 1913. I’m actually grateful for this man, because he was instrumental in creating Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where this particular lava tube is located. It’s only because of him that I was able to walk into said tube. But that doesn’t mean he gets to take credit for its very existence, as far as I’m concerned.

Even the National Park Service website makes it seem as though Thurston discovered this lava tube. Poppycock. It is estimated that this tube is 350 to 500 years old, and the Polynesians first arrived in Hawaii at least 1400 years ago. It’s safe to assume that they knew of this tube from the time it formed.

In fact, Nāhuku means “the protuberances” and probably refers to the lava drippings that used to hang down from the ceiling of the tube, until white people started breaking them off for souvenirs. What a shame. I’d have loved to have seen them. People suck. (I tried to find images of these drippings on the internet, but came up empty.)

Lava tubes are created when a river of molten lava with temperatures over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit travels along, and then eventually leaves an empty tube in its wake, as the outer edges cool and harden long before the flowing, orange-hot center does. That’s the scientific explanation. But scientists and ancient people can agree on this: No mere mortal is responsible for creating such an incredible formation.

According to Wikipedia, Ancient Hawaiians believed, and some of their descendants still believe, that the goddess Pele governs the Kilauea volcano, and is responsible for all its lava flows. It is she who shapes the sacred land. She is known for her power, passion, jealousy, and capriciousness. It is said that she lives in the caldera of Kilauea, but her domain is all the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

I felt quite privileged to explore Nāhuku, which could be described as some of Pele’s most impressive handiwork. I have to say it’s still very cool, literally and figuratively. It’s located about a mile and a half past the park entrance, and there is limited parking, but we happened to luck out on the day. We walked through the 600-foot tube, which was well lit, and has ceilings that are more than 20 feet high in some places.

The site is actually open 24 hours a day, but it’s only lit from 8 am to 8 pm. I think walking through there at night with just a flashlight would have been exceedingly creepy, but it can be done. You used to be able to walk through another 50 yards of the tube which is always unlit, but now that portion is closed off. The whole tube was closed off for a time during the 2018 eruption, and closed again for a year during the height of the COVID 19 pandemic.

This was not my first lava tube, but it is my favorite so far. (Read about the one we visited in Oregon here.) As we wandered through this natural wonder, I thought about colonization and its arrogance, science and its value to our knowledge base, and the goddess Pele, who I will forever associate with the gorgeous painting below, which can be seen at the Volcano Art Center. (Or at least it could be seen there at the time of our visit. I wish I could have been the one to buy it.)

As we neared the other end of the lava tube, you might say that my mind was on fire with history, facts, and mythology, and I was struggling to process it all. I was tempted to turn around and walk back the way we came, just to give myself more time to think. Then a rat ran across my foot.

Nope. It was definitely time to go.

Fun fact: There’s also a “psychedelic, experiment surf instrumental band” called The Thurston Lava Tube. Interestingly, they hail from England. Their music is kind of fascinating, and a lot of it can be found on YouTube. Check out their cover of Bohemian Rhapsody, which gives the song an entirely new vibe.

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Hawaii’s Volcano House and Volcano Art Center

We could see an active freakin’ volcano from our room!

In today’s blog post I will be taking you to the historic Volcano House hotel where we stayed in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, as well as letting you enjoy an amazing art gallery that is easy to overlook if art isn’t your thing, and as you will see, that’s a crying shame.

Volcano House has been around in various forms, in various nearby locations, since 1846, long before the national park was established. Mark Twain even stayed there in 1866, and according to this article by the National Park Service, he wrote about it in his book, Letters From Hawaii, which is actually a collection of articles that he wrote for a Sacramento newspaper called the Daily Union. He was in the state long before it became a state, and he visited the Big Island as well as Oahu and Maui. (For four months. Nice work, if you can get it.) Of the hotel, he said it was “neat, roomy, well furnished and well kept.” Then, in typical Twain fashion, he added, “The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did.”

Fortunately, he (and we) didn’t stay at the first version of the hotel, which is said to have had a dirt floor and a fireplace and not much else. The rain/drinking water was caught in an old canoe full of sludge and rotting leaves, and it was so nasty that even the horses didn’t want to drink it.

Twain got to stay in version two the same year it was built, and it was a vast improvement. The floors were made of wood, and it had a brick fireplace and a thatched roof, and people raved about the food. Twain himself said, “The house is new – built three or four months ago – and the table is good. One could not easily starve here even if the meats and groceries were to give out, for large tracts of land in the vicinity are well paved with excellent strawberries.”

Volcano House was rebuilt again in 1877. It was now more sturdy, and had elaborate nail-less joints and redwood shingles from California. It also used native timber. This article about the house’s history mentions that “Princess Liliʻuokalani (who would later be the final monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom), witnessed the start of the 1880 rift zone eruption of Mauna Loa” from this location.

Due to the hotel’s popularity, a two story Victorian addition was added in 1891. Then, in 1921, all but the Victorian portion was moved to a different spot, and eventually became the Volcano Art Center, which I’ll describe in more detail below. In its place, a two story wing was added to the Victorian house, thus quadrupling its capacity. Volcano House now had 104 rooms.

After all those expensive additions, the hotel was sold for $300 at a sheriff’s auction during the Great Depression, and trundled along without any additions or deletions until 1940, boasting such visitors as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart.

And then it burned to the ground. A kitchen fire made quick work of the structure. For a time, the current Volcano Art Center became a part of the hotel once again, until a new structure was built late in 1941. This Volcano House is the one that stands today, and has hosted presidents Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon. And me!

I was very grateful that the current Volcano House hotel, despite being near the rim of the very active Kilauea caldera, is still going strong. I’ve always wanted to settle into one of the historic national park lodgings, so for me, for two glorious nights, this was a dream come true. It has 33 rooms, 10 cabins, and 16 campsites.

What was probably state of the art in 1941 is charming but dated now. The rooms are small, and the bathroom is even smaller, with a tile shower, a pillar sink, and no counter space whatsoever. The second story hallway reminded me so much of the one in the movie The Shining that it kind of gave me the shivers…

…but the place was clean and comfortable, the staff were welcoming, and The Rim restaurant served us some delicious Hawaiian fare.

From our room, we could see the steam of Kilauea during the day (when the fog burned off), and its orange glow at night. Since the place needs no air conditioning, it has none. We slept with the screened windows open, and got an occasional whiff of volcano sulfur for our troubles. I kept waking up, not because the place was noisy, but because I couldn’t believe I was able to see an active freakin’ volcano from our room! I mean, how cool is that?

As an added treat, here’s a time lapse video that Dear Husband took of the volcano late at night from our room. You’ll have to forgive the screen. It was nailed shut, so there was no avoiding it. But it’s still an incredible sight to see. There are two other videos of it on my YouTube channel, but this one is the best.

If you ever have the good fortune to stay at the Volcano House, it will have been because you made your reservations in advance — at least 6 months in advance during shoulder season. I can’t imagine what high season is like. But it’s worth the effort and the expense, Dear Reader.

Having given you the full history of this delightful hotel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the equally wonderful Volcano Art Center, which resides in the 1877 building that had once been part of Volcano House until it was sawed into pieces, moved, and reassembled in 1921.

According to a flyer given to me at the art center, the building was used briefly as the hotel’s interim lobby, bar and post office after the catastrophic fire in 1940. Then it was employee housing, then it was a storage place for furniture. Eventually it was deserted and started to disintegrate.

In 1971, two photographers came upon its ruins and decided to rent it out so that they could hold wilderness photography workshops. These workshops were so successful that they asked the park if they could use it permanently, and permission was granted starting in 1974. Needless to say, the structure needed a lot of rehabilitation, but you can still see the amazing nail-less joinery from its original builder.

This building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as Hawaii’s oldest visitor accommodation, and it sits about a half mile from the current Volcano House. It’s worth visiting even if you are more interested the volcano, or more in architecture than art.

I have to say that as an art lover, I found this gallery to be a treasure. It now displays the work of up to 300 Hawaiian artists at a time, and you can see Kilauea’s influence on their work everywhere you look. I wanted to buy everything in there (especially the painting of the goddess Pele with the lava hair), but to do that I’d have to start cashing in my gold teeth. (And, mind you, they are amalgams, so they’re not worth much. I might have to yank out yours, too, if you have them. Fair warning.)

This amazing place also hosts music concerts, book signings and readings, art and environmental workshops, Hawaiian language classes, and hula performances. Sadly, none of those activities were going on during our visit, but the art alone was spectacular. Check out their website here, and if the spirit moves you, become a member or make a donation to this amazing nonprofit.

I took about a million pictures in the gallery, knowing I wanted to tell you all about it but that words would not suffice, so now I’m faced with the daunting task of weeding through all of them for the best ones, which I’ll include below. Enjoy!

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Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and the Beating Heart of Mother Earth

The Earth breathes fire.

On my commute to work, I was thinking about the many, many, many blog posts I can still write about Hawaii. If I keep posting them every 4 days, I could easily still go on for 2 ½ months. And then I remembered being forced to watch distant relatives’ home movies while pretending to be interested in their photo albums that were full of people I don’t remember, doing things that I couldn’t care less about. I don’t want my blog to turn into that. (In case you didn’t know, this isn’t meant to be torture for you or for me.)

Keeping that in mind, I’ve decided that my Hawaii posts aren’t going to be a day by day recounting of every little thing I did. I don’t want to drag you, kicking and screaming, through my itinerary. That might cause me to throw my back out. We can’t have that.

Instead, I’ve decided to focus on various adventures, and/or various general topics about my experiences, and do them in no particular order, and space them between non-Hawaii posts. So I apologize in advance if you get whiplash from hopping from Kauai to the Big Island and back again, interspersed with entirely unrelated tangents, as is my wont. I never promised you a smooth ride, but I’ve always hoped to keep it interesting.

Today I’m going to give you an overview of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. I’ll tell you about the park itself, and then allow you to feast your eyes on what I view as the beating heart of our planet. There will be subsequent posts about some of the other experiences we had while there.

The park itself is the 11th national park in our system. It was established in 1916. It consists of 323,431 acres of land. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

But let’s back up a bit. According to this article, the Big Island of Hawaii was created by five volcanoes. One of those, Kohala, is extinct and is, in fact, eroding. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world if measured from the floor of the ocean to its summit. (I’ll be writing more about this volcano in a subsequent post.) It’s been dormant for the past 4,500 years. Hualālai is the third-most active volcano on the island. In fact, the Kona International Airport is built on one of its hardened lava flows. It’s expected to erupt again within the next hundred years. (Aloha, airport!) The other two, much more active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea, are both protected within the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth, because it has erupted in several different directions in the past, thus adding quite a bit to its real estate. It last erupted in 1984. Its next eruption is decades overdue. We didn’t get up close and personal with this particular volcano. Most of that part of the park is only accessible if you’re into vigorous hiking. (Not only has that ship sailed for me, but I find no evidence that it ever docked at my port in the first place.)

There is a one lane road to the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory, but that facility hasn’t been open for its (by-appointment-only) tours since the pandemic. While I’m sure a lot of good science is conducted there by the visiting scientists and the staff of eight, it appears to be a stark and uncomfortable place, at 11,135 altitude-sickness-inducing feet above sea level. I didn’t feel particularly deprived by missing it. The gently sloping peak of this volcano is pretty cool to see on the horizon, though.

Our main focus while visiting this park was Kilauea. It’s one of the most active volcanoes on earth, with a magma system that goes down more than 37 miles below the Earth’s surface. It has been erupting pretty much continuously since 1983, with no end in sight. It has destroyed towns, resorts, and highways, along with a 700-year-old Hawaiian temple. Its caldera expanded significantly in 2018, leaving the Jaggar Museum, with its volcano observatory, teetering on the edge of an extremely unstable cliff. The building itself also experienced severe structural damage during the earthquakes which accompany most eruptions. It’s safe to say it is permanently closed. It has welcomed millions of visitors during its lifetime, so it will be greatly missed. Nature is a formidable force.

I was looking forward to seeing that force up close, in all its glory. During the day, we visited several active steam vents. I can’t even describe to you what the heat blasting from those vents felt like, except to say that the Earth breathes fire. It deserves a lot more respect from us than it gets.

The many hardened lava flows all over the park, and indeed all over the state, were fascinating to behold. I never knew how many different types of lava existed. Some is as smooth as glass, some looks like the dry, crumbling top of a brownie, some is jagged and forbidding, and some is rippled or patterned like coiled rope. Nature is art writ large.

We wondered how many names for lava rock there are in the Hawaiian language, because it is said that Eskimos have a lot of words for snow. (That turns out to be a simplistic conclusion for a lot of reasons, but it’s going to require a blog post. It’s on my to-do list.) Still believing that “fact” at the time (more or less), I was expecting about a dozen words for lava rock. It turns out that there are only two. According to this article, the sharp, rough kind of lava rock is called aʻā, and the smooth, billowy, ropy kind is called pāhoehoe. But I digress. (But then, when don’t I digress?)

That night, we wanted to see bright orange lava on the move. We started by taking a walk after sunset along the caldera’s rim. The park was kind enough to provide glowing raised pavement markers along the nice stable sidewalks. It was amazing seeing the residual orange glow coming from the caldera, but, now that the Jagger Museum’s tower is inaccessible, we couldn’t see the actual lava itself. That would take a little extra effort.

After talking with a park ranger about the best viewpoints, we decided to drive over to the aptly named Devastation Trailhead parking lot, and then walk a mile along Old Crater Rim Drive in the pitch blackness to see the lava at eye level. I don’t know why, but I expected to have the place to ourselves. It was late at night, and I figured it was past most children’s bedtimes, and I’ve never been to a national park at night that wasn’t all but deserted.

On the contrary, there were probably 200 people making the trek. Most of them were reverently quiet, and the groups were widely spaced apart. Much of the walk was paved because this used to be a functioning road. You used to be able to drive all the way out to the viewpoint, park, and walk about 100 feet to see nature’s drama. An eruption in 2008 put an end to that. The road is now permanently closed to all but the most determined pedestrians. I’m sure the big hole caused during yet another eruption in 2018, which we had to walk around, had much to do with that permanence.

It takes a lot longer to walk a mile in the chilly, drizzly darkness than you would think. But the ever-increasing orange glow on the horizon was exciting, and it fueled us. The last part of the walk was on dirt that was interspersed with large, embedded trip hazards in the form of aʻā. I was grateful that Dear Husband had thought to pack a flashlight.

We walked all the way out to Keanakākoʻi Crater, which we overlooked in the darkness, and when we unknowingly turned our back on it, just like that, we came upon an awestruck crowd, and then there it was… rivulets of moving, burping, incandescent lava, only about three quarters of a mile away from us. Kīlauea, within the Halema`uma`u crater, where the goddess Pele is said to reside.

We were at a safe distance. We couldn’t feel the heat or smell the sulphur. And yet it still felt as through we were gazing into the beating heart of the earth.

I can’t emphasize that enough. For the first time in my life, I finally got it. We are living in, and desperately dependent upon, a vast, interconnected ecosystem. It’s alive, and it will change regardless of our desire to keep it the same. We are impacting it in horrible ways and must immediately stop doing so if humanity is to survive, but in the end, we are mere gnats that are not even taken into consideration when this planet of ours wants to do its thing. We’re a cancer, we’re a nuisance, we have the great privilege to be tolerated, but that could change in an instant. Not only does the world not revolve around us, but it has the means to flick us off into the oblivion that we deserve if we don’t clean up our collective act. We need to have respect for this gift of life, and take care of the planet that is giving us this gift every day.

We stood there for about a half hour, in awe. What we were experiencing felt sacred. We didn’t want to leave. But in the end, you can only stand in the drizzling rain and gusty wind for so long, even if you are in the presence of something so profound.

Mark Twain also had the opportunity to view Kīlauea at night, in 1866, long before the national park existed. At the time, the volcano was much more active than it is now, and he of course was much more capable of waxing poetic about it than I could ever be.

“The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky”

You can read more of his description here, including a quaint mention of gazing at the view through opera glasses. He also says, “The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.”

Oh, how I love Mark Twain.

Back to the present, I found that the walk back to the car wasn’t nearly as fun. But I was tempted to get volcanically evangelical and tell all the people that were heading in the opposite direction that it was worth it. Keep walking. You’ll be transformed. I know I was.

After experiencing the Earth in all its potent vibrancy, it feels strange to be sitting back here on my drawbridge in Seattle, tapping away on my laptop. Big cities like this one now feel like an unforgivable blight on the landscape. They’re artificial and inauthentic. I’ll never look at the planet in quite the same way again, and I have volcanoes to thank for my new perspective.

I feel a renewed gratitude for having been given the gift of a life that allows me to bear witness to such miracles. Thanks, Universe! Thanks, also, to my newfound friend Pelehonuamea, “she who shapes the sacred land”. I am truly humbled by your power.

I’ll be writing more about our adventures in this beautiful national park, including the petroglyphs, the goddess Pele, the sea arch, and the Thurston Lava Tube in subsequent posts, so watch this space!

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5