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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Volcanoes and lava

The highlight of the past week was a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Friday. We shared a rental car with the crews of Dorothy Marie (Glen and Sally) and Avalon (Rick) to make the short drive from Hilo up to Kilauea crater. With a big cruise ship in port we decided to see the Thurston lava tube before the crowds arrived and had the pleasure of sharing it with just a few other cars. Rick, John and I went deeper into the unlit portion of the tube, but I had forgotten to remind everyone to bring a good flashlight, and with only Rick's headlamp and my small LED key chain light we turned around before reaching the end (assuming there is an end!). It hadn't rained for a few days so there were only a few shallow puddles and a bit of dripping from the rock overhead, but I can imagine how wet it must get during normal rainfall. It was nice to have that part of the tube all to ourselves!

Imagining that it would be very hot hiking on lava during the middle of the day, we opted to start our hike on the Kilauea Iki Crater trail at 10:15 before going to the Visitor's Center and the rest of Crater Rim drive. We should have just left our car right there in the Thurston lava tube parking lot and walked the mile to the trailhead parking lot because we ended up exiting the trail at the lava tube where the car could have been waiting for us. But not realizing this we drove the short distance to the next parking lot for our first view of the small crater in the foreground and the huge steam plume rising against a clear blue sky from Halema'uma'u Crater in the distance. Wow! We could see people already on the faint smudge of a trail on the lava and steam was venting from small cracks in the lava floor. We quickly descended through the forest of trees and ferns which ended abruptly above the edge of the crater floor. I was surprised to find there was a brisk breeze blowing the entire length of the crater floor portion of the hike keeping us cool and dry. It was very easy walking on the smooth lava and worn gravel trail marked by several rock cairns to keep us on track. We lacked the $2 map to tell us the significance of the numbered markers but we took pictures to remind us of what we had seen at each one and Sally bought a map at the Visitor's Center later. Several of the steam vents were easily accessible and we carefully reached our hands out to feel how scalding hot and wet they were. It was just amazing to imagine molten lava less than a football field length below us. We reached the opposite end of the crater edge and made the easy ascent through forest again up to the parking lot. John had sprinted ahead of everyone on the uphill trail and was nice enough to bring the car around to us for curbside service. The four mile hike took us just over the advertised two hours including lots of stops for pictures and refreshments.

We headed back towards the Visitor's Center but when we passed the turnoff for the Devastation Trail I insisted on making that stop first. I remembered it as being starkly beautiful from a previous visit over 30 years ago, but with limited time to see everything we should have skipped it. After hiking Kilauea Iki, this little trail was unimpressive.

We drove back to the Visito's Center and ate our lunch at one of three shady picnic tables between the Visitor's Center and the Volcano Art Center. The latter had a variety of beautiful and unique pieces in several mediums. It was all I could do to pass up a $32 Santa ornament with an Asian flair carved out of tagua nut and delicately dyed to give it a beautiful antique look. We regrouped for the 3 PM showing of a movie at the Visitor's Center. This had some footage of volcano eruptions but also covered flora and fauna. With better planning we might have been able to see the special 11:30 AM showing of Kilauea's eruptions.

It was 3:30 and getting late but we still hadn't seen the steam vents at steaming bluff or the sulfur banks, and we wanted to visit the Jaggar Museum for the closest possible view of the caldera. Crater Rim Drive is currently closed from Jaggar Museum counterclockwise all the way to Devastation Trail because of the steam plume emanating from Halema'uma'u Crater. The "steam" is actually full of Sulfur Dioxide and other harmful things that the park service doesn't want visitors exposed to. We quickly checked all of the above off our list and took photos of everything. I wish we'd had more time to spend at the Jaggar overlook because it was truly spectacular, but the sun was sinking and the breeze was freezing.

Not wanting to miss anything we took a quick drive down Chain of Craters road. Rick ended up getting the best out of this detour because he was the only one who opted to hike out to see the petroglyphs and got some great pictures. I was in my flip flops and didn't feel like taking the time to put my shoes back on for that short hike, so the rest of us drove out to the end of the road hoping to see the rock arch. But none of the people returning from the ocean end of the trail knew anything about a rock arch and we were pretty tired so we turned back to the car before walking out to the end of the pavement. John and Glen got out at an unmarked turnoff and clambered over lava to the ocean's edge. We picked Rick up on our way out of the park, and the race was on to get to the lava viewpoint before 8 PM.

We were all very tired and it felt like a slow drive back on Hwy 11 almost to Hilo, then to the end of Hwy 130, and finally along a sometimes one lane strip of rough pavement, with lots of pullouts to let oncoming traffic pass us. I was completely surprised by the jam-packed parking lot which had just emptied out enough to let us park right next to the entrepreneurs selling flashlights, photographs, shave ice, and crafts. We grabbed the flashlights we'd stopped to buy on the way, and picked our way carefully over the ankle twisting broken lava in the pitch dark. The county (because now we were outside the park) had thoughtfully painted yellow marks on the smoothest parts of the lava to guide us to the barricades at the viewpoint. Although we were still a good half mile from it we could clearly see the deep orange color of lava flowing into the ocean with steam clouds glowing orange above it. Shadows moving in the foreground of the lava appeared to be ocean waves breaking and receding. It would be worth another visit to arrive just before sunset to get a better perspective on the location of the lava. Glen and Sally passed a mile away from it at the end of their passage to Hilo from Fanning Island and got some great pictures, so John and I may time our passage to Kona for a closer look at it from Nakia. We were told that in October the lava broke out of the tube through which it's flowing and came within 50' of the current viewing area. Wow!

After a quick fast food stop we got back to the boats at 10:00. Since we'd left at 8:00 in the morning (with stops for snacks and beer before we really got going) it was a long day. But we packed a lot into a 24 hour car rental, and I think the Volcanoes Park is the highlight of any visit to the Big Island!