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Hawai’i Trip, Part 5

We knew Tuesday was going to be a really long day. We were headed to the volcano which is on the far side of the island. Saddle Road cuts right between the two big mountains on the island, but our car rental agreement only allows 4x4s on the road — not our little Chevy Cobalt — so we had to take the long southerly route. We were told it would take us about 3 hrs to get to the volcano park, then another 1½ hrs to get to the lava viewing site (outside the park and on the coast at Kalapana).

Since we were still getting up relatively early, we headed to Lava Java to get our daily dose of cinnamon pastry goodness and headed south for our drive. This morning did not start out quite as hazy as normal in Kona. Since the volcano constantly spews out lava into the ocean, huge plumes of sulfur dioxide steam are released into the air. The trade winds carry the gray fog west to Kona all day long, and it has been officially named vog (volcanic fog). The residents in Kona hate it when Kīleaua is active because the vog can get pretty bad and cast a thick haze over the west coast. Apparently it’s been quite bad for the past few months.

Our drive to the volcano was uneventful with very few other cars on the road. We definitely seem to have hit off-season in Hawaii — in general most of the places we’ve been were very quiet (which we think is just fine). We made it to the Volcano Park by about 11am and headed straight to the Visitors center where we could get the most up-to-date information about the volcano. We confirmed that active lava flow is currently not visible at the park but the best time to watch was in the evening along the coast, so we had plenty time to see the park before the lava viewing. A relatively new vent at Halema’uma’u Crater contains a liquid lava lake, but the lake is only visible from directly overhead (i.e. helicopter). The vent is constantly spewing out poisonous sulfur dioxide gas, so half of Crater Rim Drive which circles the volcano was closed where the gas crosses the road.

Poisonous sulfur dioxide venting from the caldera closed much of the road that loops around Kīleaua’s rim.

We drove down the open part of the road to the steam vents and the first overlook. Steam vents are found throughout the park but at the first overlook you can see it most prominently. Mostly these are areas where rain falls, gets heated by the warm volcano rocks and comes back out as steam. It’s definitely hot, and a little fragrant. At the overlook we were able to see the huge gas vent at Halema’uma’u Crater with an even better view at Jaggar Museum. No wonder the Kona residents get annoyed: that thing puts out major amounts of vog!

A better view of the Halema’uma’u Crater.

We also hiked through the 400-year old Thurston Lava Tube. Lava tubes are tunnels formed when the top part of the lava exposed to the air cools and hardens, while liquid lava continues flowing underneath. Eventually the volcano stops pumping out lava, and the liquid drains away leaving a smooth, hollow tube. The Thurston tube is giant, about 20 feet in diameter at the largest point. We followed the dimly-lighted path 450 feet to a stairway up and out, but since Kat had done her homework before vacation, we brought flashlights and were able to skip the exit and continue another 150 feet through the unlighted tunnel. It’s amazing that once you get past the first curve in the tunnel, it immediately becomes pitch black. It was a bit spooky going so far in the dark, and we only saw one other couple make the trek into the back of the tunnel.

At the entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube

Next on the agenda was a drive down Chain of Craters road, which is a 20-ish mile drive from the 4,000 foot top of the volcano, down to the coast. The road passes along many old, and some recent lava flows, and many very old (and large) craters from past eruptions. At one point we came across two Nēnē, endangered Hawaiian geese. Along the coast, the road is blocked off, so we parked and walked another half-mile to the point where the roadway was covered by a 2003 eruption.

Chain of Craters road ends where the lava flows of 2003 covered it

After driving back up to the caldera, we stopped at the overlook for Kīleaua Iki crater. There is a great hike to this crater, but we just didn’t have the time for it this trip. The hike is a few miles through the rainforest, and then across the smooth surface of a mile-wide hardened lava lake inside the crater. Instead, we looked down onto the crater lake surface from the rim of the crater 400-feet up.

Kīleaua Iki crater, and 50 years ago, a lake of lava

By now it was afternoon, and we were quite hungry, so we stopped in Volcano Village, a small town near the summit of Kīleaua, and had some lunch. We continued driving east, so that we could get to the lava viewing area by evening. We drove down to the coast, and along the other end of Chain of Craters road. Twice we came to fairly long sections of road that were covered by lava flows in March, 2008, and we had to drive up and on top of the lava for a while until the road was accessible again. The state and county had paved a rough lane on top of the lava so our car didn’t have too hard a time, but it was still pretty odd. At one point we saw a “For Sale” sign stuck in the lava pointing to a house that somehow had been spared when the lava covered this side of the island and destroyed the community of Kalapana in 1990. There’s no power, water, or roads left so we don’t expect the house to sell very soon.

Eventually we made it to the end of the road, parked, and grabbed our gear (flashlights, camera, water, etc.). We followed a ½-mile hike across recent lava flows to get to the viewing area. The route was clearly marked, but it was interesting seeing and walking on the recent lava.

Our trek across the recent lava fields, to get to the viewing area

The viewing area was a roped-off area on top of the lava, right along the coast, and there was a pretty good crowd of people gathering. The lava from Kīleaua has been flowing continuously since 1983, but the eruptions and flows change location, type, and intensity all the time. A couple years ago, visitors could walk right up to the flowing lava, when it was at the other end of Chain of Craters road. Earlier this year, it was visible coming down the mountainside in ribbons. During our visit, the top of the flows had cooled and hardened, so the lava was flowing through tubes and wasn’t visible. However, once the lava reaches the ocean, it pours in creating huge plumes of steam (and creating new land). As the waves crash on the shore, they block the lava flow for a second, causing huge explosions of lava to shoot up in the air every 15 seconds or so. The best time for viewing is dusk, when the orange glow of the lava is most easily visible. We think we were about ¼ to ½ mile away. It was amazing to watch, but difficult to photograph for a variety of reasons, such as the plume of steam obscuring the lava, the distance requiring a long zoom lens, the night viewing requiring high ISO and long exposures, and my lack of a sturdy tripod. I took about 100 pictures, and am pretty happy with some of them, despite them being fairly grainy (shot at ISO 3200) and shaky (most were taken with 2-second exposures at 200mm zoom). Below are a couple good examples:

Well after nightfall we decided we’d better start heading back, so we made the trek back across the lava (in the dark this time, except for our flashlights) to our cars, and then began the long, 3+ hour drive back across the island to Kailua-Kona.

 

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