Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Mother Nature's Land Factory
Tuesday, February 28
Now on the biggest but youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, we set about getting ourselves equipped for our stay. First stop - the Avis car rental terminal. A bit hard to get to at first when an irritable agent wouldn't take a few seconds to send the shuttle bus out to the commuter terminal (by the way, that agent was probably the only grumpy person we encountered on our entire trip to the Hawaiian Islands!).
Next stop: fuel. We definitely weren't looking to replicate our fuel-search failure on Maui. This time, though, I was pretty sure that we weren't. I'd scouted out a place just down the road from the airport called Hawai'i Forest and Trail (website here
, locations page here
), which I had heard from reports on the internet had a small shop with camping equipment (primarily they are a tour operator). However, not wanting to take any chances, we immediately drove down the highway to where their nearest outlet was located, and sure enough, they had fuel canisters compatible with our stove. They were little ones and they were ridiculously-priced, but they were the right ones, and we had not wasted hours trying to find them. Sold. And a topo map of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park for good measure.
After a quick breakfast at a nearby shop, we headed off to our first visit: the lower section of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. To get there, we needed to drive along the highway that rings the highway, known as the Hawai'i Belt Road. As we drove along, we noticed that our progress seemed slow; slower, that is, than when we had been driving a similar sort of route on the other islands. Proof that the Big Island is just that - quite a bit bigger than the others in the Hawaiian chain.
We drove through a relatively built-up area of the highway as it followed along the Big Island's south-western coast. The highway always seemed to be going through one little town after another. Jenn remarked that even though the island was the youngest physically in the Hawaiian chain, it felt like the oldest from an architectural and cultural perspective. And, she had a point - the towns seemed somehow older, more historic and with more rustic buildings, than the towns on the other islands.
After driving through these series of towns, the highway bent eastwards and entered a beautiful open area of fields and coastline, with far-ranging views. The highway, which had been up to this point following a course several miles away from and perhaps a thousand feet above the ocean, angled its way down to the coast. Wanting to see more of this beautiful scenery, we turned off at a sign indicating a "black sand beach".
That black sand beach turned out to be a fairly popular spot, judging by the amount of cars in the parking lot. Punalu'u Beach, the place was called. We got out and stretched our legs. It was sunny and warm, but windy.
In addition to the black sand beach (which is made of finely ground basalt), adjacent areas near the beach offered us our first good look at a recent lava flow. It was very interesting to clearly see the textures and structure of the flow at Punalu'u Beach - corrugations caused by the flow of the lava when it was molten were clearly visible.
In addition to the fascinating lava flows, the beach held another attraction - visiting Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles had come up on to the rocks and the beach to rest and soak up the sun. They were large - perhaps four or five feet in length. They looked quite content, lazing in the sun with eyes half-closed.
Sea turtles at Punalu'u Beach
They turtles are an indigenous species to Hawai'i, and they are endangered. There were signs at the beach telling visitors not to approach, or touch, or ride (ride?) the turtles. Even so, one lady - lit cigarette in hand - was stooping down next to a turtle and lifting one of its flippers.
Hawaiian Green Turtles info sign
After our quick visit to Punalu'u Beach, we got back on the highway and continued east. The road once again gradually veered away from the coast and began a long uphill grade, eventually reaching almost 4,000 feet. We could smell something a bit strange in the air, too, something a bit sulfury.
West entrance, Hawai'i Volcanoes NP
The entrance sign to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and the more disturbing sign "Watch for cracks in road" alerted us to the fact that we were entering one of the world's most active volcanic areas.
That's a cool sign
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is home to two active volcanoes: the Kilauea Volcano (and associated vents) and the Mauna Loa volcano. The lower volcano is the youngest and most active of the two - in fact, Kileaua and its related vents have been erupting more or less continually now for nearly thirty years! Often, there are opportunities for visitors to get up and close with some of the lava flows associated with these eruptions. I was very much hoping that we would be arriving at a time when this was possible for us.
Before starting on our quest to see young lava, we stopped in at the national park's ranger station. We needed to reserve a backpacking permit for the next day's activity: the start of our backpack to the top of the other volcano in the park - mighty Mauna Loa.
After obtaining our permit (which I will talk about later on, in the next section of this report), we headed along one of the park's roads to get a look at the state of affairs at the Kilauea Caldera - the summit crater of the Kilauea volcano.
Getting out at an overlook, we peered down into a roughly circular broad plain, ringed with a cliffs all around. The caldera floor was a barren wasteland of grey-looking lava, and off in the distance on the far side of the caldera floor was another, smaller crater. Out of this crater issued a thick, whitish plume of smoke. This inner crater, known as the Halema'uma'u crater, contains the active vent from which the smoke was issuing. It was this smoke (or, more accurately, ash and volcanic gas) that we had smelled on the drive in.
The place - the ground itself - felt alive. Apart from the obvious main plume issuing from the Halema'uma'u vent, many other places on the caldera floor issued forth small plumes of smoke and gas. Even the grassy lookout upon which we were standing smoked, with small steam vents here and there around us. Not too far down below us, serious stuff was going on!
Minor fumaroles, Kilauea Crater
We drove a bit further on to the Hawai'i Volcano Observatory and the Jaggar Overlook, where we got a closer, better look at the Halema'uma'u crater. Apparently there is a lake of molten lava that bubbles upwards and downwards within a pit inside the sub-crater, but this is not visible from any angle on this side of the caldera. We would have liked to continue our journey around the caldera, but the park service had closed the road beyond the Jaggar overlook, due to concerns about high concentrations of sulfer dioxide gas.