Service at the coffee shop was efficient and quick. But my need for a latte changed the trajectory of our entire day.
We had set out to explore a number of waterfalls, starting with Rainbow Falls just west of Hilo. When we left our guesthouse, Google informed us it was a 33-minute drive. But shortly after I emerged with my beloved caffeine, we were informed with a familiar “plunk” that there was now a shorter route, and we were to turn left at the next intersection. It turns out we had no choice in the matter. The flashing blue lights and hand directions from the police forced us onto a local street to avoid whatever it was that had transpired on the main road and summoned the emergency vehicles we saw flying by.
Suddenly we were crawling along behind an endless stream of cars, creeping through neighborhoods on a narrow road that lost its center line and bits of its pavement. Progress was imperceptible, frustration high. There was no escape, only the inexorable inching forward. The next 4.5 miles took us an hour and a half, and by then we had a new plan. When our creeping serpentine of cars turned right hoping to regain the main road, we turned left. Forget the waterfalls. We were going to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!
We felt liberated as we flew down the road toward our new destination, and I desperately thumbed through my guidebook to gain as much knowledge as possible before we arrived. We had planned to visit the National Park during our stay, it just had not yet come up yet on our loose agenda. But a quick consultation at the Visitor Center quickly gave us good direction.
Our first destination was the Kilauea Overlook. “The view is especially good at this time of day,” the young ranger assured us. The volcano had returned to active status just eight days prior, and although we were eager to see a “live volcano” we were unprepared for the sight. As soon as we reached the roped off area overlooking the crater, we could see what looked like flames dancing in the oval shaped area of activity. Thanks to Rich’s binoculars we could see lava bubbling up, flowing over and spilling out. A real lava flow! Even with our naked eyes, we spotted other areas of lava that seemed to come and go on the oval floor of the crater. It was all over the place! We had no idea that we would be watching a live volcano that day. The fact that it was far away did little to diminish our fascination, and we made a firm commitment to return in the dark when we could see it glow.
Rich was able to get more detail on the bubbling lava with his telephoto lens.
I wanted to stop and see the Steam Vents on the way back. Out on the edge of the crater, the cervices pumped out white steam, hot warm humidity. They were interesting, but even better was the conversation I had with a Park Volunteer who was happily spending 3 months in Hawaii instead of her home in Iceland. We happily commiserated on the cold and snow back home. Better yet, she gave me some great tips on where to watch the sunset when we returned for our night viewing.
I was eager to do the 3.5 mile Kilauea Iki Crater hike, reported to be one of the best hikes in the park (and endorsed by our son Erik and his wife Katie from their recent visit). It was reported to be an “easy, okay maybe moderate” hike in my guidebook. But Rich would beg to differ. We started in a shady forest, lush with greenery and a smooth path to follow. It was easy going at the high elevation far above the crater’s floor and a pleasant walk.
When we reached the far end of the crater, we began our descent. Although there were helpful steps to ease the drop, it was undeniably rough and steep, and the forest greenery soon gave way to crusty lava. I inched my way down, finding some drops a bit long for my short legs while Rich extended a hand to help. We met some young men making their way up. They had just crossed the lava lake. “It’s like a relationship I had,” one told us. “It just kept going on and on and never ended.” We had to laugh at their attitude and assured them that better terrain lay ahead for them.
Once down on the floor of the crater, we picked our way across the rough lava, keeping to the rock cairns or “ahu” as the stacked rocks are known here. In time that gave way to smooth lava flows, the lava lake that formed at the bottom of the crater. The hot, unprotected sun beat down but was offset by cooling winds. By the time we reached the other end, the tree coverage felt heavenly. The ascent is said to be more gentle there due to the switchbacks which keep it to a milder grade. But it is still a formidable vertical distance. Over 550 feet, as Rich points out.
Even so, I had to agree with the guidebook. If you do only one hike in the park, that’s the one to do. After all, how often do you get to walk across a lava lake? Not a bad alternative to a waterfall. Especially when there is a sudden change of plans.
I love when travel plans change but turn out great. I also hope you get to see the waterfalls too during this trip!
Great story and pics! There are 2 National Parks in HI and we’ve been to Haleakala, but not Hawaii Volcanoes. We definitely plan to go and will take your advice on that trail!