The crater seemed massive, huge billows of smoke pouring forth from underneath. And when the wind blew just the right way, and strong enough, glimpses of the lava and sulfur below were clearly visible. I could almost feel the wrath of the goddess Pele deep inside the belly of the enormous volcano, where she is said to live, just waiting for the moment to spew molten rock over Hawaii again.
This was the edge of Kilauea caldera, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. For the past one hundred years Kilauea has been almost continuously active, and has erupted a total of forty times since 1924 at both its summit and along its flanks. The current ongoing eruption began on January 3, 1983 and wiped out several housing developments, with no indication of when it may end. This is Hawaii’s largest and longest flank eruption in recorded history.
Seeing an active volcano with lava visibly flowing from it is an experience not likely to be forgotten. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visitors can view the Kilauea crater from a prime overlook, as well as tour the adjacent Thomas A. Jaggar Museum with its geologic displays, working seismic equipment and videos of previous volcanic eruptions. Excellent hiking trails are throughout the park, including the new one-mile, wheelchair accessible Sulphur Bank trail that explores active steam vents and a raised boardwalk over natural geothermal processes, and the four-mile Kilauea Iki trail and eleven-mile Crater Rim trail. The Thurston Lava Tube meanders through the fern forest and down into a hollow, extinct lava tube once created by flow from the Kilauea volcano.
Pu’u Loa petroglyphs can be accessed by car from the Chain of Craters Road, a forty-mile drive that takes about three hours round-trip and offers spectacular vistas of both the volcano and its surrounding rainforest, a very unique seventy-million-year old ecosystem. Guests can stay overnight at Volcano House, the oldest continuously operated hotel in Hawai’i and where Mark Twain stayed in 1866. Here the work of local artisans is displayed in the Crater View Gallery, and more than two hundred artists exhibit their works at the Volcano Art Center Gallery. Campgrounds are also available within the park, and a visit also makes a good day trip with tours such as those offered by Polynesian Adventure Tours.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, the domain of fiery Pele deserves to be seen more than just by land. Pele, the goddess of creation, was said to have been driven from island to island by the goddess of the sea, until Pele found sanctuary in Kilauea. When she is displeased, lava eruptions flow freely, spewing the molten rock into the air where they form droplets that scientists call Pele’s tears or glassy filaments called Pele’s hair.
Nowhere is the current 25-year eruption better seen than from the sea, as day turns to night and the newest land in the world begins to glow with an inner fire . The lava flows from the caldera more than 3,700 feet to the coast, where it drops off into the ocean with enormous fury. Just before twilight, spectators gather in the dozens and sometimes hundreds on a nearby cliff to watch Mother Nature’s show of epic proportions, as the liquid lavafalls meet the surging sea in an explosive ballet. But nothing gets you as up close and personal as a boat. Captain “Lava Roy” Carvalho is an experienced boat tour operator who has been in business since 2005. He took me out to see the lava flow – but not before the former United States Coast Guard Captain rescued passengers from another tour boat that stalled and stranded its guests just off the coast.
Once our hero had returned, we were off on the lava viewing of a lifetime. As the sun set in a magnificent, orange and pink glow over the water and cliffs around us, we raced over the waves for twelve miles, to where the lava met the ocean in a hissing, steaming battle. Expertly navigating the boat back and forth to within a hundred yards of the molten lava, I was able to clearly see the orange glow that slowly flowed down the mountain’s slope and dropped off the black edge and into the water below. Everyone on the boat was nearly silent in awe of this amazing spectacle, from a vantage point that few get to experience.
Another unique way to view the volcano is by helicopter. Done during the daytime, a helicopter tour doesn’t offer quite the spectacle that nighttime viewing of the lava does, but with two of its own distinct benefits. One, you fly directly over the mouth of the crater itself – an unmatched position from which to look straight into the mouth of the volcano and all of its violent steam, sulfur and lava. Second, a helicopter tour also affords a viewing of many of Hawai’i’s other amazing scenery, such as cliffs, waterfalls, macadamia nut and coffee farms, and the beautiful rolling green hillsides.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters offers absolute first-class tours, having won multiple awards and the highest ratings for safety, with some of the most experienced pilots. The company has been featured in National Geographic, and many Hollywood films have used them including “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World,” and “Pearl Harbor.” After an orientation and twenty-minute safety drill, our group was led to our pilot waiting in the helicopter. Flying over the Big Island was exciting and gorgeous – an experience that is not to be missed.