Each piece begins with a bird’s-eye view of the history and impact of a unique American site, then zooms in to reveal the experience on the ground.
In this article, Hawaii-based writer Catherine Toth Fox explores the fiery magic of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
35,000 feet: the beginnings of Hawaii
The creation of one of the most beautiful places on Earth began with violence. Geologically speaking, of course. The Hawaiian Archipelago is a chain of volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, over 1,300 miles from the nearest landmass. In this isolated part of the planet, 70 million years ago, when Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratopses roamed the Earth, the first of the 140 or so islands that make up Hawaii arose from a plume of magma that erupted through a plate tectonic. As the Pacific Plate moved slowly from east to west, this lava hotspot created islands, the youngest and largest of which is now known as the Island of Hawai’i. This island, commonly referred to as the Big Island, is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. Since 1952, the Kīlauea – which means ‘to spit’ or ‘spread a lot’ in Hawaiian – has erupted 34 times, and from 1983 to 2018 the eruption was almost continuous. The famous shield volcano is also the homeland of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes who, according to chants and mo’olelo (stories), would cause earthquakes by stamping her foot and digging homes with her pā’oa (divine staff).
The Polynesians arrived on the Hawaiian Islands – particularly the island of Hawai’i – as early as 400, navigating the ocean using only the stars to guide them. Not only were they skilled sailors and navigators, but they were also keen observers of nature, including volcanic eruptions, which were woven into their songs and stories. This area remains culturally important and sacred to native Hawaiians, as many still come to Kīlauea and Mauna Loa to pay homage to Pele and other gods and connect with the spirit of the place.
5000 feet: Humans in the frame
Native Hawaiians lived and moved in this region long before the existence of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Warriors and their families left thousands of footprints in moist volcanic ash, now fossilized in the Ka’ū Desert after an explosive eruption from Kīlauea in November 1790. A geologist from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory discovered the footprints in 1919 and the national park acquired them 21 years later. Today, the footprint area remains relatively unchanged, apart from the addition of trails and interpretive panels.
Further evidence of human interaction with this area is Puʻuloa (“long hill” in Hawaiian), an archaeological site that contains over 23,000 images of petroglyphs – circle patterns, geometric designs, canoe sails, feathered capes – in hardened lava formed between 1200 and 1450. A short round-trip hike on the 1.4-mile boardwalk circles this sacred place, the state’s largest petroglyph field.
Even before the establishment of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in 1916, Kīlauea was already a popular attraction. There are historical Hawaiian documents written by American missionaries, scientists, and sailors between 1823 and 1850 that refer to Kīlauea, noting lava flows, steam vents, and craters. Even famous author Mark Twain visited the then erupting summit of Kīlauea in 1866 – 50 years before the national park opened – and wrote about it for the Daily union newspaper from Sacramento, California. “Volcanic tourism preceded sun, surf and sand tourism in Waikīkī,” says Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist for the park.
The national park was established in August 1916 in what was then Hawai’i territory. In 1921, the first year of attendance was recorded, approximately 16,000 people visited the park. In 1929, more than 100,000 people made the trip. Interest only grew over the decades, and in 1972 the park first recorded over a million visitors.
In the field: The lived experience
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on Hawai’i Island has the most visitors when Kīlauea is erupting; in 1983, a new lava flow from the volcano’s Pū’ū’ō’ō vent attracted more than 2 million people. But from 2018 to 2020, the years when Kilauea did not erupt, the park still had nearly 3 million visitors. “It’s a special place,” says Ferracane. “There is no other place in Hawaii like this. “
The park stretches from sea level to 13,677 feet – the peak of Mauna Loa – and has seven ecological zones, from coast to alpine. The scenery of the volcano itself is awe-inspiring, with calderas, craters, ash cones, splash ramparts, pāhoehoe and a’ā flows, tree mussels, and black sand beaches. . There aren’t many places in the world where you can be surrounded by snow on top of a volcano and then jump into the warm Pacific Ocean a few hours later. The park is also home to seven endangered species such as the nēnē (Hawaiian goose) and 47 endangered species, including the ‘io, the only hawk native to Hawaii; the native seabird ‘ua’u (Hawaiian petrel), of which only about 60 breeding pairs remain; and the Ka’ū silver sword, which can only survive on the flanks of Mauna Loa between 5,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level.
The park attracts a variety of people, from scientists to cultural practitioners, from bird watchers to budding geologists. The one thing they all have in common, however, is an appreciation for the power of this place. And Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is committed to preserving that experience. “We constantly communicate with visitors to respect the land and culture, to be pono, ”Or in a state of harmony, says Ferracane.
There are interpretive guards at the reception center lanai (porch) every day to help visitors and share tips to protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources of the park: do not feed the nēnē, drive slowly on roads and in parking lots, do not take anything out of the park and resist stacking rocks. (Park staff stack stones to mark trails, and moving stones or creating new piles can be confusing for hikers, not to mention their cultural insensitivity.)
From the coast to the top of Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is about the size of O’ahu, with over 150 miles of hiking trails across a variety of terrain, from rugged coastlines to lush tropical forests to alpine tundra. Walk along the 1.6 km paved devastation trail and through a desolate landscape buried by ash falling from fountain lava during the 1959 Kīlauea Iki crater eruption. Or take the Kīlauea Iki Trail from 4 miles, which runs through a rainforest filled with native ‘ōhi’a and hāpu’u (Hawaiian tree ferns) trees and ends at the still-smoking crater floor, which in 1959 was a vast lake of spewing lava flaming fountains like up to 1900 feet – the highest ever measured in Hawaii.
More than a third of all American birds protected by the Endangered Species Act reside in Hawai’i, from the arboreal tree ‘akiapōlā’au (Hawaiian climbing plant) to the’ io, which only breeds on the island of Hawai’i. The most accessible place to find these forest birds is on the 1.2-mile Kīpukapualulu Loop Trail, affectionately known as the “Bird Park”. Take a look at the white-rumped apapane as it flies from tree to tree, or hear the unique hissing sounds of the crimson i’i’wi (scarlet creeper), which are often compared to balloons rubbing together or a squeaky hinge.
The 17 km route along Crater Rim Drive, which circles the Kīlauea Caldera, is lined with essential experiences: smelling the vapors of colorful sulfur crystals at Ha’akulamanu, scanning the desolate landscape of Kīlauea Crater Iki or walk through the Nāhuku Lava Tube, also called Thurston Lava Tube.
The park is open 24 hours a day and much of its beauty can be discovered after sunset. “Half of the park is after dark,” says Ferracane. “The dark skies are amazing here.” With very little light pollution and amber down lighting throughout the park, the view of the starry night sky – weather permitting – is breathtaking. The park is in the process of achieving International Dark Sky Park certification by the International Dark-Sky Association, which would ensure that the park stands out as much for what sits above as it does for what sits below.