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Exploring the amazing volcanoes of Hawai’i

By on November 27, 2018 in Travel with 0 Comments

Houses still stand on an old lava flow on the Puna Coast.

By Alan Moen

Growing up here in the Pacific Northwest, I’m used to seeing volcanoes. In fact, I’ve climbed many of them — Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens, both before and after its 1980 eruption.

I’ve stared into the steaming, stinking crater of Mount Baker and looked down at the glowing lava dome of Mount St. Helens.

But I’ve never seen anything like the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawai’i before traveling there this fall.

In late October, my wife Susan and I flew to Kona, the touristy town on Hawai’i’s west coast.

There, we were confronted immediately by miles of old lava flows surrounding the airport. Black, contorted fields of rock, barren of almost all vegetation, stretched north and south as far as the eye could see, extending right down to the ocean beaches. When you’re on the Big Island, you’re not just in a place where there are volcanoes. In many respects, you’re standing on one.

Driving north on Highway 19 through these old lava flows, we stopped at a rocky beach along the coast. There, just 80 feet from the ocean waves, we found the Queen’s Bath — a lava tube flooded with fresh water.

Explorers exit The Queen’s Bath lava tube near Kona.

With the help of flashlights from a group of others gathered there, we followed the tube over 100 feet underground, swimming right to the end with the low rocky ceiling above us. Tubes like this once carried hot lava all the way to the sea, leaving open channels behind.

Back on the road, we reached a junction at the town of Hawi, and followed Highway 250 to the south, traveling up the spine of the Kohala Volcano, the oldest one on the island.

The narrow highway ascended to 3,564 feet through grassy rangeland, with sweeping views down to the ocean. Cattle were grazing on the broad back of this sleeping volcano as we began the descent to the city of Waimea.

From there, we began the journey down to Hilo, Hawai’i’s biggest city, watching the landscape become more verdant as we entered the “wet side” of the island, with many places receiving more than 100 inches of rain a year. Here the terrain became even more dramatic, with dozens of rivers, waterfalls and cliffs plunging to the sea.

The Waipi’o Valley, with green walls as much as 3,000 feet high, lay below us, accessible only by a one-lane road with a 25 percent grade and 4WD vehicles (we heeded the posted warnings and didn’t risk it.)

I’ve never climbed Mount Everest, but I climbed the tallest mountain in the world instead in Hawai’i.

Measured from the ocean floor, 17,000 feet below, Mauna Kea rises an additional 13,803 feet, making it actually 30,803 feet tall, compared to Everest’s 29,002 feet.

Alan Moen balances on the true summit of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world — if the base hidden by the ocean is included.

Fortunately, however, there are no glaciers on Mauna Kea, and like Pike’s Peak in Colorado, you can drive almost to the top.

And what a road it is, unsuitable for the average passenger car, especially above the Visitor Center, which stands at an elevation of 9,200 feet, 3,000 feet above the cross-island Saddle Road.

Signs there warn the upper road is suitable for 4WD vehicles only, although our rented Jeep SUV with front-wheel drive and high ground clearance did just fine in lower gears.

Above the Visitor Center, the road is unpaved and very rough, with steep switchbacks and narrow sections for the next five miles. Beyond that, it’s paved all the way to the top.

Crowned by a dozen high-tech telescopes, the summit of Mauna Kea has the clearest air on earth for viewing the universe. Its telescopes are linked electronically to other high-altitude telescopes all over the world.

The true summit of the mountain, however, is about 200 feet higher, a short but steep (and breathless) hike up a lava rock slope. From there we gazed upon miles of the volcano’s naked flanks, and looked across the valley to the massive bulk of its sister peak Mauna Loa, just 124 feet lower in elevation.

A string of telescopes view the universe from Mauna Kea, which has the clearest air on earth.

We descended and drove across to the Mauna Loa access road — a twisting, roller coaster, one-lane pathway through acres of rippling lava fields to end at an observatory at 11,000 feet. On the way we stopped to check out more lava tubes.

From Hilo, Highway 11, the major road south, climbs gradually to 4,000 feet in just 30 miles and enters Volcanoes National Park.

Here is the famous Kilauea Volcano, which has been erupting constantly since 1983, and the source of the recent eruption that began this May.

The park’s excellent Visitor Center is located close to the rim of the two-mile wide Kilauea Caldera, a truly awesome sight. We saw no lava, but many vents were issuing steam from the crater and also around the rim.

Most roads and trails in the park remain closed after the latest eruption, but places like the Sulfur Banks are still accessible by foot. A boardwalk leads through an area steaming with hydrogen sulfide gas, exposing rock colored with sulfur (yellow), gypsum (white) and hermalite (red.)

As in Yellowstone, stepping off the path in this active thermal area is dangerous. There’s a warning sign at a hole just a few feet off the boardwalk where a young boy who strayed from it sank into live steam in 2010. He was rescued and survived, but received severe burns on his legs.

Driving down the 19-mile Chain of Craters Road in the park, we saw many more examples of Kilauea’s power — numerous craters in the earth, some 400 feet deep and half a mile across. The road eventually ended at the rugged seacoast, where lava once poured into the ocean.

Southwest of Kilauea, the volcano made headline news on May 3 this year, when a new eruption caused spectacular lava flows to emerge, destroying homes and roads all the way to the Puna Coast.

Lava fountains up to 300 feet high were seen, and on May 4, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit Puna.

About 2,000 people were evacuated as 24 fissures of moving lava wiped out some 700 homes at or near Leilani Estates.

On May 17, ironically one day before the anniversary of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, a new eruption from the summit crater sent an ash cloud 30,000 feet high. The lava flows reached the ocean on June 4, filling in Kapolio Bay and creating 875 acres of new land. By August, the flows had almost completely ended.

Back at the top of the mountain, the summit crater of Kilauea sank 1,500 feet, and the famous lava lake once there is now gone. The caldera itself expanded by more than one square mile. The park was closed for over four months, not opening again until Sept. 22.

Roads into the area were still closed when we visited, but the effects of previous lava flows were everywhere.

Steam vents were still active in one place along Highway 137 on both sides of the road. At its end, houses lay scattered across the barren rocks of the 1990 flow like debris left from a monster  tsunami. That fiery event destroyed the towns of Kalapana and Kaimu.

We left the island convinced that Madame Pele hasn’t had her last word yet. The goddess of fire, “the woman who devours the earth,” is still working her chaos, destruction, and creation of a new Hawai’i.

She is both feared and revered by Hawaiians today — and no wonder.

Alan Moen is a freelance writer and co-owner of Snowgrass Winery in the earthquake-prone (but not eruption-prone) Entiat Valley.

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