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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is once in a lifetime experience


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is once in a lifetime experience, anyone who is planning on visiting our islands really should plan a day on the Big Island. It truly is an education for all ages, where many sights will have you going “Ha, Oh, or Wow.”

The first time I drove up to one of the viewer look out points, I parked my car and I started getting out when I was hit with a sulfur smell. So strong I thought I would die right there from lack of oxygen. But no, I jumped back into my car and lucky for me the windows were all rolled up.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is once in a lifetime experience

 There are many different viewpoints, as well as things to be aware of and you may wish to go with a guided tour, which may be very beneficial.

Who among us doesn’t remember chanting, “igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic” during our grammar school geology sessions? Or holding those same  types of rocks in hand as the teacher passed them around?

While I don’t expect a trip to Hawaii to be in most classroom budgets, for families traveling to Hawaii Island, it’s a chance to delve into geology right at the source. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visitors can see where new rock is made, 24/7. Kilauea Volcano has erupted almost continuously since 1983 and the volcano produces an estimated 250,000-650,000 cubic yards of lava per day. That’s enough to resurface a 20-mile long, two lane road daily. But we’re not talking explosive lava. While there were a number of lava fountains visible in the eighties, these days Madame Pele is content to send her fiery lava down the mountain via underground lava tubes or surface flows. Sporadic “break outs” allow visitors to see the actual flow as it moves down the mountainside and – sometimes – into the ocean.

We were fortunate enough to catch an ocean entry a number of years ago. Hiking over rough ground, the product of a previous flow, we were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t access the flowing red lava up close. During the daylight hours, there wasn’t much to see, other than plumes of steam where the hot lava flowed into the cool water. But, whoa, as the sun set! The coastline lit up with an orange glow and small explosions – the result of hot meeting cold – burst in a natural fireworks display. The mountain above us, which had earlier looked as innocuous as any other mountain, glowed with the lava making its way downhill under a crust of newly formed rock.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is once in a lifetime experience

While lava viewing isn’t always possible, there’s plenty to see at the park, and a stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center is a great place to start. Pick up a map and ask a ranger about current conditions. Make sure to stop at the model outside that shows Loihi, an island currently forming below sea level. It’s expected to break the surface some 19,000 to 100,000 years from now. At Jagger Museum, discover the difference between pahoehoe and a‘a lava, see seismographs in action, and seek out Pele’s tears. Just outside the museum is Halema‘uma‘u Crater where the sulfur plume rising from the vent is visible. At night, the orange glow of lava just below the surface is visible.Lava flow from the Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii

Imagine walking through an underground tube where lava once flowed. You can do that at Thurston Lava Tube. The main section is a 20-minute walk that can be both damp and crowded, but let me tell you a little secret: there’s a second section of the lava tube that’s accessible if you bring flashlights. At the end of the main tunnel, there’s an unlocked gate and a set of stairs. This portion of the lava tube is not lit at all. The last time we visited, we went equipped with flashlights. We were one of the only groups who ventured in, and certainly the only group with an ‘ukulele. (My musician son wanted to see what the acoustics would be like deep inside the earth, of course.) And yes, we turned off our flashlights while we were in the depths. Dark. It was very, very dark.

If a trip to Hawaii isn’t in the cards, how about a virtual visit?  You can check out some of the action via a number of webcams provided by the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory, including Kilauea Caldera, Pu‘u O‘o Crater, and Halama‘uma‘u Crater. They even have a number of cameras showing thermal images for comparison purposes. It may look like nothing’s going on, but check out the same location with thermal imaging. If you plan to visit the park in person, check out the Kilauea status update page.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is once in a lifetime experience that you’ll never forget and will tell your kid’s kids…

~~Aloha Nui Loa



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