Hawaii Volcanoes NP – Our Final 13th Birthday Trip

The last of the 13th birthday trips became the first of the 14th birthday trips this time around due to COVID-19. But that didn’t decrease the fun factor one bit! For our final adventure, we headed west to the Big Island of Hawaii to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and other areas of the Big Island with youngest nephew Willie. 

Hawaii Volcanoes NP
Nāhuku entrance

We started off our park visit at the Kīlauea Visitor Center. Lots of great exhibits and information there, plus we got the always important Junior Ranger packet! Then we headed off to Nāhuku (aka the Thurston Lava Tube). A lava tube forms when lava which has been traveling a particular path ends or gets diverted and the space empties out. Many tubes are small, but this one is very large. It looks like you are entering a giant cave. It would be pitch dark, too, but from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the park turns on some lighting along the way. Stalactites used to hang from the ceiling, but selfish souvenir chasers took those long ago. Now, only tangled roots find their way through crevices in the ceiling. This hike is otherworldly and a little eerie, but worth the time. Note: This hike involves stairs at both the beginning and the end, so it is not fully accessible. The tube floor is also a bit uneven and the lighting is dim, so it’s better for more sure footed hikers with, perhaps, a good flashlight. As of August 1, 2022, the tube is closed due to newly formed cracks.

Day 2 the skies were clear so we went into the park all the way to the former Jaggar Museum site (the museum is currently closed due to earthquake damage from the 2018 eruption). That area is now the overlook area at Uēkahuna. There we could look into the caldera of Kīlauea and see the plumes of gas and steam coming up out of the Earth. It was quite impressive! This is one of the places where Native Hawaiians honor their Hawaiian volcanic deity, Pelehonuamea, or Pele, as she is often called. We saw leis and other offerings that had been left for her here and elsewhere in the park.

We also stopped at the steam vents and the sulphur banks (a short hike) which are both near Uēkahuna. It is quite something to stand over a spot where steam pours up from the earth. And to smell it….eeew.

Hawaii Volcanoes NP
Haʻakulamanu
Hawaii Volcanoes NP
Pano photo fun

To read more about the Crater Rim Drive sights, see the post from our last trip. Note that Crater Rim Drive has changed due to recent eruptions – a large section of it even fell into the crater!

Hawaii Volcanoes NP
Our Rage of Fire Book and a mural of Pele!

During our trip we always read a book together from the Mysteries in Our National Parks series by Gloria Skurzynski & Alane Ferguson. Luckily, there has been one about each park the kids picked. The mystery about Hawaii Volcanoes book is called Rage of Fire, and the Devastation Trail figures prominently in it, so we decided to do that hike. It’s just about a mile long. The weather, unfortunately, had turned, and that hike was cold, rainy, and windy. Note to self: carry that rain poncho you brought all the way to Hawaii! Luckily, with the wind, we dried out pretty quickly. 

Hawaii Volcanoes NP
Devastation Trail – See the “bleached bones”?

The Devastation Trail is interesting because it begins in a green forested area, and within a couple of minutes the reason for its name becomes clear as you turn a corner and there’s nothing but cinders and some dead tree branches. It is desolate! The trail winds around through the cinders a bit and then suddenly you’re back in a forested area. That’s one thing we really noticed about the Big Island in our travels. One minute it’s lush and green, and the next minute, lava field.

Since the weather wasn’t great up top, we decided to take a drive down the Chain of Craters Road looking for warmer temps. This 18 mile one way trip has loads of pullouts to view and explore the lava fields. We had fun lifting giant rocks (which are filled with holes from gas bubbles so they’re nice and light) over our heads and leaning into the insane wind! Not to be missed along the Chain of Craters Road are the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs. A short trail takes you to them. The 18 mile road ends at the beautiful Hōlei Sea Arch, where the jet black basalt arch contrasts starkly with the deep blue sea. Watch for birds along this road and over the ocean! Bring your own water and snacks, as there are no services on this road.

Read more detail about this drive on a post from a previous visit.

The current eruption at Kīlauea volcano, which began in September of 2021, created a huge lava lake. We read that lava is currently visible from many areas and overlooks, so in addition to seeing the steam plumes, we were really hoping we’d get a chance to see some, especially at night. Luckily, our rental house was only a half hour from the park, so we were able to pop up later in the evening after the crowds had died down a bit – apparently it’s a zoo between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.! 

Hawaii Volcanoes NP
We got to see the lava!!!

We were not disappointed. A short trip down a trail behind Volcano House Lodge led to several overlooks where we could see the glowing orange lava breaking through cracks on the surface of the lake and shooting up from a few spots. Although our photo does not show it, we could clearly see the lava cracks and the shooting bubbles and gurgles. Did you know the temperatures of molten lava ranges from about 1,300 to 2,200 °F (700 to 1,200 °C)? The surface of the lava lake is approximately 930 °F (500 °C). (Source) For that reason, visitors are not allowed anywhere too close, but it is still breathtaking. The trail is an old road, so it’s not a difficult hike, but bringing a flashlight is highly recommended. Binoculars made viewing the lava even better.

There are other places in the park to see the lava as well right now, although that can change at any moment. Check with a ranger, and definitely try to make it happen if possible. It’s a pretty rare treat and was a highlight of our trip for everyone.

Another highlight of our trip was our hike across the Kīlauea Iki crater. This four-mile, moderate hike has some areas of uneven footing, but it’s so worth the effort. It was even listed as one of the 10 best NPS hikes by USA Today’s readers. We descended from the Kīlauea Iki Overlook, and we’d recommend that as your starting place so you have a slightly easier finish to the hike, but it can also be done from the lava tube parking lot (it’s a loop trail). The descent and ascent are all forested. Once you get to the crater floor, it’s all lava, all the time, and zero shade. Most of the lava is the smoother pahoehoe lava, but there is a small section of the sharper splatter and ‘A’ā lava. We brought snacks and pulled up some rocks for a rest midway through. Being down in the lake bed, surrounded by walls of lava is a unique experience, and we all three loved this hike. Highly recommended!

3 days in the park is more than most people spend when they come to the Big Island, but we definitely think this park will blow your mind if you take the time to explore it. I couldn’t help myself, sorry. 

We hope you’re enjoying your week or your weekend, wherever and whomever you’re with!

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