Volcanoes National Park: A Must-see on the Big Island

By Rodney Campbell, Contributor

The Big Island is unlike any other in the Hawaiian chain. It's the only one that's still growing, thanks to a volatile series of volcanoes that help put down more real estate whenever they erupt.

Undoubtedly the best way to experience the Volcanoes National Park is by booking a tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail. No one knows the volcanoes better.

The tour usually takes 12 hours, so get up early so one of the group's vans can pick you up at your Kona-Kohala hotel by 7:30 a.m. The tour is limited to 10 guests, so any questions you may have can be answered.

It takes a solid two hours to make the drive to the other side of the island where Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world's most active volcanoes, reside. Mauna Loa is a huge mountain, covering 19,000 cubic miles. Measured from its base on the sea floor, it rises 56,000 feet.

Be sure to bring a jacket because the park reaches 4,000 feet in elevation. It can be cool and rainy any time of year, so be prepared.

While the guided tour is fantastic, don't count on seeing active lava. Only a lucky few ever witness the orange-red flow to the sea and even those folks have to keep their distance. Gasses emitted from the lava can be deadly and only those authorized to do so should get within 300 yards of an active flow.

What you will see is the incredible destruction these volcanoes can cause. There are numerous spots within the park with signs telling which month and year a particular flow occurred. There are two types of lava: the jagged a'a' and smooth pahoe-hoe. Both are chemically alike, though the pahoe-hoe is hotter and contains more gasses.

For an update on volcanic activity, call (808) 985-6000 day or night.

One of the highlights of the trip comes when the guide takes the group into the Thurston Lava Tube, a cave formed by the hot flow. You'll be provided either a headlamp or flashlight for the excursion, which is the only way you can make the trip. After walking for only about five minutes, the light at the beginning of the tunnel disappears. Just for fun, your guide will ask everyone to turn off their lights and your group will be enveloped in total darkness. And it gets darker than you can imagine in there.

The Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile trip that circles Kilauea's summit and craters and passes through rainforest and desert, is a fun part of the trip.

Not fully included in the package is the 40-mile Chain of Craters Road, which descends 3,700 feet to the coast and dead ends at a lava flow across the road.

You will stop by the Jaggar Museum, which gives a history of the park and includes a seismograph that tracks tremors on the island.

Bird watching is a favorite activity in the park. The 'Iwii and 'Apapane are brilliant red birds that reside in the trees above. Wildlife isn't abundant in the park, but you may catch a glimpse of a mongoose or feral cat.

Hikers have numerous treks to take, from ones of less than a mile round trip to 19.6-mile trip to the top of Mauna Loa. The hike can take three or four days and will reach nearly 14,000 feet. Hikers should be in superior physical condition and prepared for winter mountaineering.

There are two campgrounds in the park: Namakani Palo (off Highway 11) and Kalanaokuaiki (along Hilina Pali Road). They have restrooms, pavilions, and fireplaces. Camping is on a first-come basis and no fee is charged. Stays are limited to seven days a year.

When returning to your hotel, your guide will take you on the dramatic Saddle Road that climbs between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea peaks. It's an eerie drive, with low-lying clouds and vog (volcano-induced "fog") enveloping the lonely road midway through the trip. Tourists are best advised not to take this drive alone because the road is quite rough.

Hawaii Forest and Trail also offers tours of rainforests, caves, waterfalls, and a Mauna Kea summit, home of world-famous observatories. With crystal clear skies and an ever-shrinking ozone layer, Mauna Kea offers some of the best views of the heavens.

The Volcanoes tour runs $145 per person and includes a continental breakfast, deli-style lunch, binoculars, bottled water, daypacks, jackets, and rain gear. Children under 4 ride for free. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-464-1993.

If the fare sounds expensive, consider the fact that you would likely never be able to learn what your guide can teach you. Our guide talked almost non-stop for 12 hours, dishing out interesting facts and Hawaiian legends. We would have never known that Hilo, located 30 miles down the road, was practically wiped out by a tsunami in 1946. Or that the Big Island goes through roughly 3,000 bouts of seismic activity every year.

We even learned about the "Ring of Fire," a series of volcanoes, including mountains from Alaska to the Philippines and Japan. The volcanoes on the Big Island are considered a hot spot, where fluid rock, charged with gas, pushes its way to the surface.

The best way to learn all of this is to have an expert along on the Big Island, a strange and fascinating place.

Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Forest & Trail
74-5035B Queen Kaahumanu Hwy.
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
Website: www.hawaii-forest.com

Rodney Campbell, Contributor

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