After a safe arrival to the big island (read all about day one of my trip here) my hubby and I were up bright and early the following morning, ready to explore some new territory.
As many of you know, I'm a National Parks junkie. My lifetime goal is to visit as many US National Parks that I can. One reason for visiting the big island of Hawaii was the opportunity to check another park off my list - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
(**Warning** photo-heavy post ahead! I'll try and keep the commentary to a minimum so you can enjoy the images.)
|Lava flows make for bleak countryside|
So naturally our first day on the big island, we planned to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I hoped to witness glowing, red-hot lava flowing from Kilauea's crater.
But we discovered that they don't call Hawaii the big island for nothing - it is a big island. When inquiring about driving times to the park, the hotel concierge said it would take us at least three hours one way if we took the scenic route (and that was without stops).
Undaunted, my hubby and I hopped in our rental car and headed out. Wanting to see as much of the island as we could, we opted to take the longer, scenic route, following Highway 11 around it's southern tip.
After wading through congestion in Kona-Kailua, traffic opened up and we climbed tall coastal cliffs, high above the ocean. I was surprised to see much of the western side of the island comprised of barren lava fields (I'd imagined lots of green vegetation and palm trees). The big island is the youngest of the Hawaiian island chain, and the lava is so recent vegetation hasn't yet had time to establish itself. Also, the western side is in the rain shadow of two tall mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, which creates a much drier climate.
|Punalu'u Black Sand Beach|
Of course we didn't drive nonstop to the National Park - a few places along the way captured our interest. One was a unique Hawaiian bakery in the tiny town of Na'alehu, the Punalu'u Bake Shop, which claimed the title of southernmost bakery in the USA. Another was the Punalu'u Black Sand Beach.
|A genuine black sand beach!|
Black sand is created when a'a lava flow meets the ocean and shatters into small pieces on contact with the water. The small chunks are quickly ground up by wave action, forming this unique colored sand.
Walking from the parking lot to the beach, we passed by a local man selling coconuts from the back of his vehicle.
|Drinking the water inside|
For a mere three dollars we could buy our very own coconut! It was too tempting not to pass up.
|And the coconut meat itself|
|You don't see signs like this back home!|
After our coconut snack, hubby and I walked around this very scenic beach. I noticed this sign - unique hazards exist here in Hawaii!
|Lava rock coast|
Part of the coastline still consisted of black lava rock. Someone told us there might be sea turtles in some of the protected lagoons, so my hubby wanted to have a look.
|Lots of big waves|
While he searched the water for turtles, I busied myself trying to capture the crashing waves.
|Much of Hawaii's coastline is lava rock|
Hubby did spot one turtle, but he (or she) was shy. It stayed underwater, only surfacing to take an occasional quick gulp of air.
|Park entrance sign|
Although the beach was fun, it was now nearly noon, and we still had a park to see! Back into the car for the long uphill drive along Mauna Loa's east flank. As we climbed, the surrounding terrain changed from bleak lava fields to lush, green tropical forests.
|Kilauea Iki Trail|
A couple in our hotel recommended hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail, so when we finally reached the park boundary, it was at the top of our list. After a quick stop at the visitor center to get maps and use the restroom, we headed over to the trailhead.
Kilauea Iki (the name means "little Kilauea") is a crater located directly east of the main Kilauea caldera. Dormant for over a century, it roared back to life in 1959, erupting in gigantic fountains of lava, some reaching 1,900 feet in height.
Lucky for us, the crater has been inactive for many years, and rangers have deemed it safe enough for hikers.
|The trail started as a rainforest|
The trail is one of huge contrasts. It starts out in a lush tropical forest, with large ferns. The path winds steeply down the side of Kilauea Iki's steep crater wall before emerging into the caldera itself.
|Hawaiian word for "cairn"|
From forest edge, the trail is a faint boot path through the barren crater floor. Stacked rocks called "Ahu" (I assume the Hawaiian word for "cairn") lead hikers through this desolate wasteland.
|Walking through Kilauea Iki's crater|
At the crater edge grows an unusual shrub called the 'Ohi'a tree. This tree, native to the Hawaiian islands, looks like something you'd see in a Dr. Seuss book. It produces fuzzy red flowers called Lehua blossoms. According to Hawaiian mythology, picking the Lehua flowers can cause it to rain.
|'Ohi'a lehua blossoms|
Well, someone must've picked a Lehua blossom or two, because by the time hubby and I reached the crater floor, a heavy mist was hanging in the air. As we started our trek across the lava plain, it began to drizzle.
|Broken up basalt|
Of course we Oregonians weren't about to let a little rain stop us from hiking! Besides, the moisture and cloud cover helped make what would ordinarily be a hot, shadeless hike very comfortable.
The crater floor, formed from the 1959 eruption, was not a smooth plain. It was riddled with cracks and broken basalt slabs, created as the lava lake cooled.
|Barren, but oh so interesting|
Towards one end of the crater, several large cracks were venting hot steam. Although Kilauea Iki isn't erupting anymore, lava still lurks below it's caldera.
|Steam was coming out of this vent|
My hubby joked that we should've brought some hot dogs to roast over the largest vent.
|Near the crater's opposite end|
In my photos the crater floor looks smooth, but it really was a rough trek. The bumps, dips, and broken slabs kept me on my toes - I didn't want to trip and fall on this hard, sharp lava. And from personal experience, I'd recommend wearing hiking boots instead of tennis shoes if you do this hike. I could feel the hard, abrasive lava rock through my trail runner's soles.
|Back into the forest|
But finally, we came to the other end of the crater. From here, another trail led up the steep crater wall, back into the lovely rainforest.
After completing our hike, and grabbing a quick snack, it was time to see some real lava in action. We drove the Crater Rim Drive up to the Jaggar Museum where the park provided a viewpoint into Kilauea itself.
|Rainbow over Kilauea Crater|
About this time, the heavy mist morphed into full-fledged rain. But one benefit was the lovely rainbow it created arching over part of the Kilauea Caldera.
|Kilauea's large, smoking crater|
Kilauea is the most active volcano in the Hawaiian islands. The current eruption began in 1983, and is still going strong. It's one of the longest duration eruptions in the world. Besides spewing molten rock at the caldera, lava also travels for several miles in underground tubes before surfacing at the southeast corner of the island, where it dramatically flows into the sea.
|Hot lava can be seen from the overlook|
Volcanic activity changes from day to day. Sometimes lava is flowing and other times the crater just spews smoke. We got lucky and arrived during a particularly active time.
The park management wisely keeps visitors a safe distance from the erupting crater. Although the viewpoint is quite far away, we were thrilled to be able to clearly see the orange outline of glowing, molten lava.
|Red-hot lava bubbles from the crater|
This was one time I wished for a super-telescopic zoom lens. My poor little 70-200 lens just didn't do justice to such an amazing sight. The lava welled up and exploded in fiery bursts. Molten rock fragments spattered and flames leaped into the air. Roger tried to take a video with his tiny camera but neither my photographs nor his footage really captured the awe of watching this incredible spectacle. We stood and watched the lava show for over an hour. It was quite mesmerizing.
|Lots of people with cameras!|
Although I'd originally wanted to travel to the southeast coast and witness Kilauea's lava flowing into the sea at night, we found out from the rangers it was a minimum 40-minute drive and then an 8 or 11 mile round trip hike (depending upon which side you started from). Add that to another two-plus hour drive back to our hotel and it made for a long day (and night!) So hubby and I decided to bag that idea and instead return to the Jaggar Museum viewpoint at sunset to see the nighttime lava glow.
|Loved the name of this cafe|
Our tummies were rumbling, so we headed to the tiny village of Volcano, just outside the park boundary, to find some dinner. There wasn't much in town, but we did find a cute little cafe - and I loved it's name!
|Kilauea lava glow at night|
After a leisurely dinner, we waited for the sun to drop, and then headed back up to the Jaggar Museum. Unfortunately, the rain had started up again in earnest, and the volcano wasn't quite as active as it had been earlier. So hubby and huddled under the visitor center's eaves and I popped out sporadically to take a couple of shots. The hot lava did light up the steam clouds giving them a reddish glow, which was cool to see. But the heavy rainfall and large crowds (I was amazed by the number of people who returned for night viewing) finally drove us back to the car.
|Truly an amazing sight!|
We opted to take Saddle Road, which passes between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea mountains, back to our hotel. A shorter distance than the morning's route, this road climbed to over 6000 feet in elevation before descending back to sea level in numerous steep switchbacks. It was foggy, rainy, and a chilly 50 degrees on top, but by the time we'd reached the island's other side, things had dried out and the temp climbed back to nearly 80 degrees.
Our second day on the big island had been a long one, but we'd seen some amazing sights. My hubby and I headed off to bed dreaming of adventures for day three.....