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!

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West Coast Wander, Day 6: San Francisco, California

The day I hit a wall.

We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning.  I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.

There comes a point in every long-ish vacation when I sort of hit a wall. I get tired and cranky and frustrated and homesick. It’s usually triggered by the fact that nothing is going according to plan. Today was that day. My notes on what we did today are full of expletives that I don’t feel the need to share.

We actually did do a lot of fun things, despite my foul mood, but I’m not going to whitewash the day, because I think it’s fair for people who don’t travel as much as I do to understand exactly what it can be like, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Travel can be exciting and invigorating and fun, but it can also sometimes be stressful and disappointing. So, fasten your seatbelts.

We woke up this morning to discover that due to COVID, our high-end hotel was no longer serving continental breakfast. And the restaurant across the street had a line stretching down the block. Oh, joy. So we set off to explore San Francisco on an empty stomach. (I should never, ever, ever do anything on an empty stomach.)

We planned to catch one of those iconic trolleys and find something to eat, but eventually found out that, due to the pandemic, no trolleys were running. So I wouldn’t even get to see the trolleys, let alone ride on one. That was a disappointment, given this was my first San Francisco visit.

Well, now what? Even though we already knew that the ferry to Alcatraz was booked solid through early August, we decided to go see if we could get standby tickets. Maybe they’d have cancellations. And sure enough, they sell them, without a guarantee of passage, but with a full refund if you don’t get on. Worth a shot.

We purchased our tickets and wandered around the dock, looking at the extremely cool Alcatraz diorama and the other informational displays, along with some amazing California succulents that were as big as my head. It was a great way to kill time while waiting for the ferry to show up. And then waiting for all the passengers to board. It turns out they had room for 6 additional passengers, and we were tickets number 10 and 11.

Rather than get our refund just yet, we decided to try our luck with the next ferry. We’d now be 4th and 5th on standby. But that was an hour out, and by now we were really hungry, so we decided to run down the street and grab something to eat.

But every restaurant in the area was shut up tight. We had to walk all the way down to the IHOP, which was quite a hike, and my feet and back were already killing me. I felt like kicking puppies (not that I actually ever would, no matter how out of sorts I became, but such was my mood).

We ordered a rather unpleasant take out breakfast sandwich and practically ran back to the ferry as we ate it, which made me feel slightly queasy. I already knew we weren’t going to make it, and the running was stressing me out. Dear husband even paid a cycle rickshaw to haul me the last 2 blocks. But yeah, we missed the ferry.

The ticket taker told me that if we had been there, we’d have gotten on. I wanted to cry. You have to understand, I’ve wanted to see Alcatraz ever since seeing Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz when I was very young. And getting out to see the city from the water would have been fun, too. Can you imagine the photos I would have taken?

The clerk did say that we’d be first on standby for the next ferry, but we already had parking reservations for Muir Woods, and my husband really wanted to see more trees, so we got a refund. We really did give it a try, and it’s his trip, too, so I tried to swallow my disappointment. It was quite filling. It stuffed me.

But we had a little time to kill before heading out for the parking reservation, so we went to check out the very cool wave organ. Here’s a Youtube video of what it should sound like. But naturally, we came on a day with very little wave action, so we didn’t hear much of anything. A long, long walk out to the jetty for pretty much nothing. But the organ itself was interesting and the view was amazing. We did get to watch the fog roll in on the Golden Gate Bridge, and a sailboat regatta, so there’s that.

To add to this stellar day, it was windy and freezing cold. It reminded me of that quote attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

I could certainly relate to that. I was fearing hypothermia and getting a migraine. But, as befits a day of disappointments, according to Snopes, Mark Twain never said any such thing. So there’s another myth busted. You’re welcome.

Off we went to the woods, passing first through Robin Williams tunnel, which is decorated with the same rainbow he used to wear in the form of suspenders when he played Mork. I miss him. He should still be with us. What a tragic waste that never fails to upset me when I contemplate it. Onward.

I have to admit that Muir Woods was absolutely gorgeous. I highly recommend it. But given my mood, I don’t think I gave it a full chance. It was extremely crowded, and the raised pathways, while comfortable to walk on, took away from the natural feeling. I felt as though it was a cross between the most gorgeous forest in the world and Disneyland. And since we had seen so many more natural and beautiful forests in recent days, I was kind of unappreciative, although I really did try to keep it to myself.

We had a nice picnic amongst the redwoods, and then one of the staff told us we couldn’t do that even though we were not leaving garbage behind, because we’d attract chipmunks. We apologized, but the deed was already done. I was thinking I would love to see chipmunks. We visited the really nice gift shop, but all I could think was, “I wonder what Muir would think of this place, selling things made out of bits of his beloved trees.”

Oh, come on. It’s a legitimate question, even if it was inspired by my grumpy brain.

We also saw a very cool sculpture of the wingspans of various birds. Fascinating.

After having “done” the woods, and having had a nice, albeit rebellious lunch, we decided to head on back into the city, enjoying the views as we went, and then drive around the Presidio. We enjoyed the gorgeous vistas from Inspiration Point, and drove around to look at Fort Winfield Scott and the National Cemetery.

Lots of fascinating history in the Presidio. We did not get to go to the welcome center, however. Guess why?  $#@%$ this pandemic, anyhow.

I had also wanted to see the house from the movie Pacific Heights, but after a certain point you just want to pack it in, you know? Whew, but I was clearly tired. We decided to go back to the hotel and chill out for a bit, and I got a good nap in while dear husband worked. The nap did wonders for my attitude, and the meds knocked back my migraine.

That night we went out to have Crab Louie and calamari at Betty Lou’s Seafood and Grill, in the quirky neighborhood of North Beach with its many gorgeous murals and buildings. Many of the restaurants in the area had tables outside in spite of the bracing wind. The food was excellent and the vibe was good, despite the fact that for some odd reason this restaurant does not serve coffee. All in all, though, it was a great way to end the day.

I’m not going to lie. I was happy to go to bed that night, and even happier to close my eyes on the disappointments of this day. I hope we get to come back to San Francisco again in healthier and more fortuitous times.

The seventh day was much better. Check it out here.

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