Navigating the treacheries and discovering new land at one of Earth’s fieriest national parks
A towering plume of sulfur-smelling smoke explodes from the crater of this desert landscape reminiscent of the aftermath of an atomic bomb. Pictures of the A bomb detonated in barren Alamogordo come to mind. A tepid breeze blows the sweet scent of jasmine and pushes the sinewy smoke over the devastated plateau that tumbles down into an abyss worthy of Mordor. However, this isn’t 1945 New Mexico or fictitious Middle Earth, and this destructive, smoke-filled scene is not the cause of man or Mt. Doom. This is Hawai’i, and this smoke is belching forth from one of the most active volcanoes in the world, one in which the visitor can get up close and personal.
Free-flowing lava, steam vents, and lava benches that can collapse at any moment comprise Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, located 30 miles south of Hilo. But there’s much more than just the effects of millions of years of volcanism to be discovered on the Big Island’s 333,000-acre primordial park. Visitors to this World Heritage site and international biosphere reserve can literally witness the island expand, as the lava from the park’s Kilauea volcano is perpetually creating new terra firma — approximately 500 acres since it started erupting. In fact, Kilauea, often referred to as “the world’s only drive-in volcano,” has been erupting since Jan. 3, 1983, and produces anywhere from 250,000-650,000 cubic yards of lava daily, making Hawai’i’s biggest island even bigger.
But 4,000-foot-plus Kilauea isn’t the only monarch of the park, as its majestic and imposing cousin Mauna Loa is also active, and isn’t just a volcano; it is the most massive mountain in the world with an estimated volume of 19,999 cubic miles and a summit of approximately 56,000 feet, if measured from the ocean’s floor, making it more than 27,000 feet taller than Mt. Everest. Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984, looms over the fuming and immensely sprawling park and casts an ominous shadow as it is at the beck and call of unpredictable Pele, the volcano goddess, and is the most dangerous volcano in Hawai’i. Mauna Loa is still, silent and snow-capped on this October day, yet scary and temperamental, looking like it could literally blow its top at any moment depending on the mood of Pele.
On the other hand, or volcano in this case, there is a seemingly infinite emission of volcanic gas escaping from the mythological home of Pele, Halemaumau crater – one of the two current eruption sites in Volcanoes National Park. I’m viewing this from the safe vantage point of the aptly named Volcano House, a hotel located inside the park on the rim of the Kilauea caldera, which might be enough for some but I want to light out and follow the lava – past, present and perpetual.