Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Crater Rim Drive

Trip Start Dec 27, 2008
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Flag of United States  , Hawaii
Saturday, December 22, 2007

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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Crater Rim Drive


This is just a reminder that the "Hawaii" in the name refers to the Big Island and not the "Hawaiian Islands".

Today was one of the most highly anticipated days on our Hawaiian trip because the itinerary called for us to visit Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park.

There are few other things that stir up the imagination as much as the thought of volcanoes. How often does one get the opportunity to get up close and personal with a volcano?

My imagination was certainly working full time as I seemed to vaguely recall the tales of my friend Ed Ambrose hiking in the volcanoes with the hot lava within sight.

That is something I wanted to experience today as I imagined hiking down into the caldera of a volcano or two.

My last exposure to a volcano was at Mt. Etna in Sicily when I was on my way back from the edge of the Sahara Desert in Tunisia.
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Since I am writing about my travels in the broader sense, allow me to digress. If you just want to read about Hawaii, skip the next ten paragraphs.
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To minimize my flight costs to Tunisia, I took the European Railway System, in this case, Ferrovie dello Stato, the Italian Railway, to Palermo, Sicily. Since I had a Eurail Pass this part of the trip was "free" so to speak.

The year must have been around 1973, because "The Godfather" Part 1 had been released not too long ago.

On the last part of the trip to Palermo I was by myself in a train compartment. That's normally not a problem, but this being Sicily; I was unnerved by the train passing through frequent tunnels without functioning lights in the train compartments. So each time, while the train passed through the tunnels with unlit cars, I propped my foot up against the door handle to discourage any uninvited guests. My actions were motivated by what I had seen about Sicily in the Godfather as well as the presence of armed guards on the train.

Nothing happened, but speaking of Italian trains reminds me of the following. In 1992 my uncle's European traveling days came to an end when he was gassed in an Italian train compartment near Turino. That's the same uncle who was the inspiration for my early travels, including this trip to Palermo. He woke up the next day in the same compartment in the train which by now had been parked in a siding. He was left with nothing but the clothing he was wearing but otherwise unharmed. That was the last straw for him and he never did go back to traveling in Europe.

Now back to my own trip, from Palermo I flew to Tunis, Tunisia. Traveling on my own, I headed for the sand dunes on the edge of the Sahara Desert near the village of Douz.

I still clearly remember sitting in the open air market of Douz. Sometimes, it is a special cup of coffee that brings back memories of a place that I have visited a long time ago. In this case it was a lemon. It may have been the heat, but I had such a craving for a lemon that I bought one in the open air market, peeled it and ate it. It felt just right. Maybe I even ate two.

On my way back to Central Europe, I flew back to Palermo from Tunis. On the south coast of the island, near the town of Agrigento I toured the famous Valley of the Temples, renowned for the largest collection of but Greek ruins in the world, not Roman ruins as one would expect.

Traveling up the east coast of Sicily, after passing through the cities of Syracusa and Catania, I came upon world famous Mt. Etna, known throughout the world along with Mt. Vesuvius, as Italy's contribution to volcanic lore.

Mt. Etna is 3,350 meters in altitude. It has proven to be the most prolific volcano in the world with over 150 documented eruptions over the years - the most recent having been in 2006.

If my memory serves me correctly, access to the mountain was by téléphérique and then a long hike further up the mountain. Unfortunately I have no memory of a summit, a caldera or flowing lava. It was lots of barren landscape covered with lava rocks. The descent was made in pouring rain sufficiently intense to have put the integrity of my passport in my money belt into jeopardy.



Continue reading here if you skipped the diversion into volcanoes of the past


Mt. Etna therefore is a classic. It is above all a high mountain. The same cannot be said for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

As one leaves Hilo to drive the 35 km to get to Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, the road gently slopes upwards till it reaches a forested area where the village of, what else, Volcano is located. A little further is the park entrance and information center.

The facilities are low key in the usual U.S. National Park style that I had seen most recently in Denali (Mt. McKinley) National Park, Alaska.

The visitor's center is a great opportunity to spend a half hour in an attempt to try and get some idea of what we are about to see and explore.

While perusing the exhibits in the information center, surrounded by fantastic murals of flowing lava, I was playing it cool. All the while, I was hoping to find, on my own, what I really came to see.

However, none of the information panels gave me what I sought. Then, there it was, a snippet of overheard conversation between a ranger and two German visitors.

I drew myself closer just in time to hear the fateful words "flowing lava".

Dammit, yes, "flowing lava", that is why I came here after all. Where is it?

That's when I heard what I didn't want to hear.

"At this time, the only lava flow is on the south side of the island. The road is closed and the lava can only be seen from the air".

I think I could hear the air going out of my balloon.

Didn't I come all this way, full of anticipation to finally, for the first time in my life, see this phenomenon of "flowing lava"?

Disappointed or not, there was no flowing lava to be seen, on this day at least. The thought of paying $250 to get an air tour of the site where the lava flow entered the Pacific Ocean also left me stone cold.

The island of Hawaii (Big Island) does have two of the world's most active volcanoes - Mona Loa (4,170 meters) and Kilauea (1,250 meters) which is our destination today at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. An information panel in the visitor's center claims that Kilauea is the most active volcano on earth, never mind Mt. Etna in Sicily.

Just the very fact that there is lava flowing somewhere on any given day, even beyond any observation point, reinforces the statement that these are "two of the world's most active volcanoes".

While Kilauea has an elevation of 1,250 meters, like I said, it does not even seem that the elevation is noticeable.

From looking at the large map in the Visitor's Center, the level of anticipation is raised by the prospects of seeing Crater Rim Drive and the vast area around it.

It is a road which surrounds the expansive "Kilauea Caldera" which contains Halema'uma'u Crater".

The summit caldera is the collapsed land or massive depression which is the result of a volcanic eruption. It creates the impression of a huge bowl with steep walls.

In this case it would be incorrect to talk about a "summit" as the caldera is more of a sunken hole in a plain of igneous rock. On the floor of the caldera, which was a lava lake, most recently from 1823 - 1924, is the Halema'uma'u crater. The crater is much smaller than the caldera and could be compared to a hole in a Swiss cheese, undoubtedly a comparison which would drive a geologist "nuts". This is the point where the action is and if any eruptions of magma would occur it would be coming from the steaming crater.

Driving along Crater Rim Drive gives the impression of driving along the edge of this immense bowl.

The whole scene is very reminiscent of a lunar landscape, as the caldera, which appears to be about a kilometer in diameter, is devoid of any vegetation or sign of life, other than small columns of rising steam.

There is a hiking trail that goes into the caldera but due to time that was not an option for us. There was also a distinct lack of hikers to encourage us to do the same thing.

As one of the information panels proclaims, all hell breaks loose on the days when an eruption occurs. That would be a great sight but I doubt that any visitor would actually see this as prudence would dictate that visitors are kept at a safe distance. Nevertheless it would seem that it would produce what Barnum and Bailey called in the context of their circus "The Greatest Show on Earth".

To actually see this, I think the "Discovery Channel" would be the best bet.

Nevertheless it is an impressive sight, even on an "off" day.

When is the last time that we got the chance to look at lunar scenery and to walk among its "splendor".

When I read the history of eruptions here at Kilauea, I can see that it was quite possible for my friend, Ed Ambrose, to have seen "lava flow" in some of his early visits to the island of Hawaii.

Suffice it to say that we could make no claim on this particular day to having seen magma erupt in the form of gas, lava and ejecta. Come to think of it, we did see gases escaping from the Halema'uma'u crater. That was, in and of itself, amazing. When we had the opportunity to touch the steam coming out of a blowhole, it was indeed steaming hot, not to mention the strong odor which permeated the gases. Ample signs warn of not breathing in this mixture which could be ly.

Hawaii and volcanoes are inseparable.

It felt good to be in Hawaii because it was the only part of the world that we had visited where the geological mumbo jumbo of how a particular part of the world was created, was totally simple and understandable.

In the beginning there was nothing but ocean.

Eventually, vents or in earth's surface appeared at the bottom of the sea. These vents led to volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions are made up of lava (molten rock), gases and ashes. These volcanic eruptions continued and continued to eventually build up mountains which broke through the surface of the water to create the Hawaiian Islands - end of story. Well, not exactly, as the same process is still taking place today, just as it has for millions of years.

Also fascinating is how the Hawaiian Islands were populated by people and vegetation. Let's save that for another blog.

Now try and explain how Canada came about and how people came to settle in North America over a Siberian land bridge. That is a lot more complex.

My inclination would be to say that Kilauea is not a cone volcano like Mt. Etna. To say that Kilauea lacks the steep slopes of Mt. Etna would be a vast understatement. At Mt. Etna, I first took a chairlift and then hiked a long way to get to the top to get a closer look at the crater.

But then as I said, the whole island of Hawaii sits on top of a huge dormant cone volcano, parts of which, like Kilauea, Mona Loa and Mona Kea to the north still show evidence of volcanic activity.

At Mona Kea (later blog) the point is made that if the mountain were measured from the ocean floor it would surpass Mt. Everest in altitude.

Our initial itinerary called for us to spend two days at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, meaning we would return here from Hilo tomorrow.

We quickly got the lay of the land and concluded that we could see it all in one day.

The first part, as I mentioned, was to drive the Kilauea Crater Rim Road.

We made frequent stops to take advantage of the vistas afforded at various points along the road.

Our main approach to the caldera and the crater was from an observation point on the south side of the caldera. Following a walking trail of about a half a kilometer we crossed the flat plains of igneous rock to get to the very edge of the caldera.

This was definitely a "sweet spot" as it can only be described as awe inspiring and unforgettable. As great as it was, it was a view that was destined to be surpassed by what we saw later on the island of Maui.

We then proceeded to the Jagger Museum for a primer on volcanoes.

It needs to be said that it was all a very quick but spectacular visit. In my own case it was too quick because I was really not capable of getting the bigger picture and I wonder if I got the smaller one as well.

It took the reflections induced by my blogging to gain a better understanding of what we had seen. I know that may sound strange but I arrived there with absolutely no knowledge and three hours later I left with a visual impression but not necessarily a basic understanding as to what I was looking at.

I emphasize the word "basic" as all of my comments should be taken in that context.

Coming Soon:

Hawaii Volcanoes National Part  -  In Search of the Lost Road
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