Lava flows at your feet, a changing landscape
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
The hottest attraction in Hawai'i this summer is just that: Hot.
Christie Wilson The Honolulu Advertiser
Cameras ready, visitors to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park watch in amazement as lava flowing from Kilauea Volcano creeps along the Chain of Craters Road.
Christie Wilson The Honolulu Advertiser
If you've been thinking about witnessing this primordial spectacle in person, do it soon: Flow patterns can change at any time.
Over the past month, an average of 2,500 visitors a day have made their way to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Although many folks have been making day trips to the Big Island for this purpose, you'd be denying yourself the full experience if you don't see the lava at night, when it casts a fluorescent orange glow.
It hasn't been getting dark until 7 or 7:30 p.m., and the last interisland flights leave Hilo at 8 p.m., so you'll need overnight accommodations.
Traveling local style during a Big Island vacation earlier this month, my family brought a big cooler and stocked up on bentos, drinks and Donna's cookies at the KTA supermarket in Hilo before heading off on the 45-minute drive to the entrance to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
The highway is lined with banks of yellow and white ginger, and we just couldn't resist pulling over and picking the fragrant flowers by the fistful.
Our strategy was to enter the park in the early afternoon and explore the sights along the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive before hitting the lava-viewing area just before dusk.
After stopping at the visitor center to catch up on the latest eruption info, we made leisurely stops at the otherworldly Sulfur Bank and Steaming Bluffs, the Kilauea Overlook, where we consumed a picnic lunch under a covered shelter. We also visited the Jaggar Museum, the Southwest Rift Zone and the Halema'uma'u Overlook.
Driving past the Chain of Craters Road turnoff, we walked the one-mile round trip on the Devastation Trail, which, after almost 45 years, isn't as devastated as it used to be.
Traveling on a short distance, we entered the park's rain forest and walked the length of the Thurston Lava Tube. Then, doubling back, we headed down the Chain of Craters Road, which descends 3,700 feet in 20 miles and ends abruptly where lava crossed it.
It was almost 4 p.m by the time we got down there. The day trippers were leaving, and we found a spot about 100 yards from where the highway is coned off.
Cars are allowed to park on one side of the two-lane road only, and during the peak viewing hours from 5 to 8 p.m., the line of parked cars can stretch for nearly three miles. Passengers can be dropped at a turnaround area but the driver will have to take a walk.
The National Park Service has set up two restrooms and a small covered structure with two picnic tables. Water, snacks, rain ponchos and film are available from an authorized concessionaire operating out of a van, but don't count on these items being available they sell out, so it's better to arrive well-stocked.
We walked a quarter-mile of paved road before veering off onto the lava field, following yellow markers to the viewing area, which was cordoned off with yellow tape.
It wasn't a difficult or long hike about 15 minutes on a clearly marked trail over days-old pahoehoe lava but the glassy crust crumbled easily, and the footing was tricky.
About 100 onlookers watched three or four small streams of lava pour into the ocean about an eighth of a mile away. Although there was bright overcast that day, you could still see flashes of orange. On the mountainside, billowing smoke let us know the lava was creeping downhill from where it had burst up from underground tubes, but we couldn't see it.
On this day of at least 90 degrees, we could feel the heat rising from the lava around us, which was less than a week old, and we found a few small steam vents.
There were three or four park rangers at the viewing area ready to answer questions and to keep visitors out of trouble. They were chock full of amazing tidbits about the eruption, such as the fact that since July 10, the flow has added 10 acres to the Big Island's coastline. Each day, they said, enough lava flows out of the volcano to pave a two-lane road for 250 miles.
Sunset was almost three hours away, and I was disappointed that I had miscalculated so badly. But getting there too early turned out to be a good thing, because the traffic steadily increased. We walked back to our van, took off our shoes, opened the cooler and felt quite smug watching other folks troll for parking spots.
As dusk fell, we headed back toward the trail with the advantage of already being familiar with the terrain. There were at least 1,000 people at the viewing area. Many had staked out the prime spots and weren't about to budge. But with a little jostling, you could get a good view.
Climbing to a higher perch, we settled in for a half-hour or so, sharing a pair of binoculars. We did not meet any centipedes (some watchers have been bitten by the nocturnal, venomous creatures, which come out from under rocks at night).
With the help of flashlights, we safely retraced our steps back to the road. At one point on the trail, we straddled a eight-inch-wide crack in the lava and could see a streak of incandescent red-orange, like hot charcoal briquets, radiating from deep below.
Back on the paved road, we paused for several minutes to watch veins of lava pulse down the mountain. Occasionally, a tree would burst into a ball of flame.
The circumstances couldn't have been more ideal. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of walking on new lava in utter darkness, or traveling with very young children or companions who can't get around very well, you can still get an eyeful from the road.
Because the volcano's behavior has been changing virtually every day for weeks, it's impossible to know how active it will be when you get there. As of Friday, a considerable amount of lava was pouring down the slopes and the ocean entry was continuing, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported.
1. Bring plenty of water. Heat stroke and dehydration are dangers in the dry, super-heated landscape.
2. Wear sturdy shoes and long pants; falling on lava is like falling on broken glass. We saw a lot of skinned knees, and a park ranger said that rubber slippers have been known to melt on the hot surface.
3. Bring rain ponchos or garbage-bag facsimiles in case of downpours, and expect windy conditions.
4. There are a lot of opportunities to breathe in toxic volcanic fumes, so pregnant women, infants, small children and people with chronic health problems such as asthma or lung disease are advised to stay home.
5. Bring one flashlight per person and extra batteries. There is no lighting, and the black rock absorbs light, so a single flashlight doesn't cast much of a glow. Don't load batteries until ready to roll. Our cheapie flashlights got switched on while being bounced around in the car, and two out of five were dead when we needed them.
6. Get there before 5 p.m. or after 8 p.m. to avoid the crowds. Arriving before dusk also will allow you to get your bearings for the walk back in the dark, and it's best to take photos when there's still enough light to see some of the landscape.
7. Before you go, study the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park Web site for safety warnings, trip-planning tips, maps and other invaluable info.
If you go ...
Lava-viewing at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Hours/fees: The park is open 24 hours daily. The entrance fee, good for a week, is $10 per vehicle. The Kilauea Visitor Center is open from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
How to get there: From Hilo, it's a 30-mile drive southwest on Highway 11; from Kailua, Kona, it's 96 miles southeast on Highway 11, or 125 miles through Waimea and Hilo via highways 19 and 11.
Lodging: Moderately priced hotels are available in Hilo, a 45-minute drive from the park entrance. Volcano House, nestled on the rim of Kilauea inside the park, has been booked solid most of the summer, but room availability is expected to loosen up after this weekend. Rooms are $85 to $185.
Nearby Volcano village hosts bed-and-breakfast operations with rates starting around $70 a night. Check the Web site for a list of inns.
Or bring a tent and camp for free at the park's Namakani Paio Campground, a large, open grassy area with tall eucalyptus and ohi'a trees. Reservations or permits are not required. The campground has restrooms, water, picnic tables, barbecue pits and a large pavilion with picnic tables and a fireplace (bring your own firewood).
Info: Get daily eruption updates from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory by phoning Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park at (808) 985-6000 or visit its Web site.
Correction: Devastation Trail is one of the sights at the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The trail was misidentified in a story on Page E1 Sunday because of a reporters error.