A trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is like a trip back in time, a glimpse back to the days when the world was made. Kilauea Volcano — one of two major volcanoes within the park boundaries — has oozed lava almost continuously since 1983, creating more than 568 acres of new land on the southern shore of Kilauea. The lava flow varies over time, so it's wise to check with the park before you visit, but there remains no better place to see calderas, pit craters, cinder cones, lava tubes, black sand beaches, and other products of geologic creation.
And where else can you see the diversity of life found from sea level to 13,677 feet atop Mauna Loa?
President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Aug. 1, 1916, more than 40 years before Hawaii made the transition from territory to state. The park was expanded in 2004 with the purchase of 115,788 acres.
Things to do
The headline attractions are easily accessible by car. Crater Rim Drive takes you to the summit of Kilauea Volcano and Chain of Craters Road drops 3,700 feet in 18 miles, stopping short of the sea because a 2003 lava flow blocks the road.
A number of short, easy trails provide a closer look at the consequences of eruptions. A half-mile loop trail takes you through rain forest to the Thurston Lava Tube, also known as Nahuku. At Sulphur Banks you walk a paved trail and string of boardwalks to see volcanic gases seeping from the ground. The round trip is just a mile.
A more rigorous hike begins at the Kilauea Iki Overlook, where the trail drops 400 feet into a crater and still-steaming frozen lava lake, the products of eruptions in 1959.
Why you’ll want to come back
More than half the park is designated as wilderness and the only access is by the park’s 150 miles of hiking trails. Even if you’re not the sort who likes to sleep on the ground, a good, long day hike will take you to places few people have ever seen.
Flora and fauna
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to the nene or Hawaiian goose (pictured), the endangered Hawaiian state bird. The nene spends more time walking than swimming and has less webbing on its feet than its distant cousin, the Canada goose.
Other birds found in the park include Hawaiian honeycreepers, Hawaiian petrel and the Hawaiian hawk or 'io.
The variety in terrain — sea level to more than 13,000 feet — and annual rain fall — 20 inches to more than 140 inches in some spots — means there is a wide variety of plant life. The mix includes 23 endangered plants, including Mauna Loa silversword. This succulent, which produces flowers and seed just once during its lifetime, was nearly wiped out by sheep and pigs. Park officials are growing and planning silverswords to boost the plant’s recovery. The new plants are descended from plants saved by a single paniolo — or Hawaiian cowboy — who fenced off a grouping of silverswords to protect them from grazing.
By the numbers:
- Website: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Park size: 323,431 acres or 505 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 1,304,667
- Busiest month: July, 129,048 visitors
- Slowest month: October, 95,689 visitors
- Funky fact: If you see what looks like smog, know that it’s a concentration of volcanic gases and the high levels of sulfur dioxide can be unhealthy. Check with the park's visitor centers on conditions and area closures.
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Inset photo of two nenes: National Park Service