Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Photos and story by Michele Knapp

Volcanoes have always held a certain fascination. As a child it was red-hot spewing lava; today it’s the incredible concept that from utter destruction, new life and land are created (crater to Creator).

The oldest of the Hawaiian islands is Kaua’i, making it the most lush. The youngest, the Big Island, is jagged and almost harsh in comparison. This newborn is still forming; a remarkable notion to consider.

We flew for an hour over this beautiful chain, from Kaua’i to Hilo, and then took the 45 minute drive up to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea’s summit 4,096 feet, a little shy of the neighboring Mauna Loa at 13,679 feet.

Talk about giddy! We decided on this trip after learning of the lava delta collapse (36 acres into the ocean) on New Year’s Eve at Kilauea volcano. Since then, massive volumes of lava are rushing out of the steep, mile-high offshore slope into deep parts of the ocean.

We arrived at the Volcano House Hotel just in time for cocktails and sunset. Rebuilt several times, this modest hotel has perched on the edge Kilauea Caldera since the mid-1800s.

As luck would have it, we were able to jump in on a tour of the botanicals surrounding caldera and steam vents by Abe, a well-informed native who began our walk with a chant to the goddess of the volcano, Pele.

Abe’s chant had the little hairs on the back of my neck standing on end as we all thanked Pele under the incredible colors of the setting sun surrounded by the songs of birds; completely foreign yet magical, we found ourselves consumed by “mana” (spiritual energy).

Most notable was the change in the air. Immediately we felt a little heavy headed and noticed a distinct smell. It is known to the locals as “vog,” smog made of volcanic gases and smoke which can also sting your eyes and throat. These levels of vog are monitored by the rangers for safety and ranked hourly.

It was just getting dark when we opened the door to our creaky floored room, #9 with the antique bathroom; I loved it! Loved it more when we looked out onto the red glowing caldera of Kilauea. What an incredible site!

Dressed neatly for dinner, we sat at a table for two by the ceiling to floor windows of the dining hall. Champagne to celebrate our arrival and view, we had a fine meal and retired early to catch some rest before our big rim hike.

Sitting up in bed reading about Kilauea, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the red, orange hot glow of the volcano. Turning to Dave, I admitted feeling called by Pele. No kidding around, I was being beckoned. Jumping back into my jeans, tying up the hiking boots I explained I would only be gone a little while.

Of course he insisted on driving, so off we went into the night to the very end of Crater Rim Drive, which is the observation platform of Thomas A. Jaggar Museum.

Oh my goodness! I did not know what to focus on first, the bazillion stars hanging from the sky or the lava bubbling up into it.  The caldera was huge and Pele was home; the amount of activity was incredible and no vog! For the rest of my life this will be one of the most treasured memories unforgettably etched in my mind. Majesty and mana.

Early morning rise, a good breakfast and provisioned up, we took a fascinating rim hike. Heading southeast from the visitor center is the smaller but still impressive Kilauea Iki Crater, which, in 1959, was a roiling lava lake spewing lava 1,900 feet into the air. All along the rim on the northern side is evidence of flying molten rock spattered in between the serenity of the lush forest with its walking palms. The views from the rim are incredible; the height staggering. 

Walking down into the crater and across the lava lake I would liken to a moonwalk. The trail markers were made of piled up chunks of lava. Occasionally a small shrub, which had bright
appropriately red blooms, would appear along the way. Simply fascinating!

Hiking back up the tight switchbacks required all the water packed earlier in the day. I thanked God for the air quality, as the day before was high caution.

Not to be missed as you reach the last trail mark, across the road is a hike down into a tropical valley and through a lava tube. Almost unrecognizable, the cavern reveals itself amidst green hanging flora, palms and blooms. A small bridge allows entrance into this ancient portal. The tube is big – two stories high and wide and my imagination has me considering the hot stuff flowing through here at an incredible rate. Secretly, I am glad Pele is not chasing me!

Famished, Dave and I head back to the lodge for a quick lunch before taking the drive down to the coast to meet up with our guide, Gilbert, who will take us on a five mile hike over a live lava field which concludes at the ocean.

Non-stop chatter the duration of the ride, we discover the road abruptly ends and we are surrounded by a cooled flow. It is startling to see!

Remnants of what would have been a home sticking out of the blackness while the opposite side revealed a lovely yard with children playing, chickens darting and a rooster sounding off. A little further brings us to our meeting point where there is a local makeshift bar, a guide booth and restrooms. Formerly, this was a beautiful surfing beach and village – wild.

Gilbert is happy to see us, never stops smiling and enjoys his job more than anyone I’ve ever met. We are joined by a couple of very nice Air Force boys on leave, who are just as happy. Gilbert gives us his speech with caution and a very stern “walk in my footsteps only!”

‘Ohi’a Lehua; the lava-loving bush that grows out of the crags in Lava Lake. Hawaiian mythology says that picking the flowers can cause it to rain. Read the love story here.

Turning to Dave, “Is it me, or is it getting hot?” Glad for our walking sticks we are off! Keeping pace with Gilbert’s steps, i.e. lava boulder jumping, is a challenge and could lead to a melted boots contest. Even the Air Force guys are exhibiting some huffing and puffing.

What’s great about Gilbert is his ability to convey his culture, history and personal family experiences, going back generations while we hike along. We even shared the Pele dreams, really…he finds himself beckoned daily and has some chunks of skin missing out of his calves as evidence of Pele’s chase. He is haunted, but says his wife blames only himself for his own manifestations. He also tells me she is not Hawaiian, suggesting she could not possibly understand.

There are moments along this hike where the lava is actually coming up and out, pushing up plates of cooler black to reveal bright orangey red as it takes new shapes, flows, coils and pools. Absolutely incredible, we are able to get within feet and sometimes too-close inches.

Do you see what I see? The Goddess Pele herself on the chase.

“Herb” Kawainui Kane’s rendition of Pele

As we were marveling, a new flow forming mesmerized me. I dove behind the lens and started clicking away. I thought I saw something that was highly unusual, yet I couldn’t put my finger on it, only that I felt connected. There was uniqueness in the shapes and tones through the lens that I hadn’t seen while walking along. Lava closing in, I had to turn and make my way to cooler territory.

It was sunset as we approached the ocean. The crowds grew, many folks kept to trail on bikes and others hiked to the viewing point. This is approximately a half mile from the immense flow as it rockets out of the side of a sheer cliff and plummets into the ocean causing not only thunderous shock waves, but towering plumes of smoke and debris as the extreme heat of molten lava collides with the cool ocean water.

What a show Mother Nature gave us that night! As the stars began to take over the sky, we chose the dirt trail back rather than lava. Head lamps on and adjusted downward, we made our way back listening to the tales of Gilbert, gods and goddesses, changing times, sea life and the concern for the children as the old Hawaiian fishing grounds disappear. We all agreed, there must be change – drastic change as well as respect for our mother Earth and the resources she gracefully shares.

Back at the Volcano Lodge bar, Dave and I hovered over our cold beer and my camera. As we made our way through the pictures, we both stopped and stared at each other. I had a chill up my spine, the only chill of the day. In that moment I spoke of earlier clicking away I caught Pele in my lens! It was she and we have no doubt in our minds whose image it was. More mana!

Mahalo Pele; thank you for sharing with us your grandeur and magnificence! Many thanks to Abe, Gilbert and all the incredible Hawaiian’s – their hospitality and love of life have been transformational for Dave and me. A gift.