I'll be honest, when I learned that I'd be heading to the island of Hawai'i, I wasn't exactly excited about volcanoes. In fact, I may have even been a bit apathetic, muttering "head to the Big Island, see some volcanoes, how cliché." That's not to say that I didn't want to visit, but countless honeymoon photos and uninspiring stories had colored my expectations. However, with my low expectations, Volcanoes National Park had the upper hand during my visit. I returned home inspired and ridiculously excited about what I had seen.
When I first stepped onto the observation deck overlooking the Kīlauea Caldera, I wasn't sure where to look. It was brown, really brown and somewhat desolate. My eyes wandered to the deep recess in the ground across the way where a plume of smoke was rising and I wondered to myself, is that what the top of a volcano looks like? It's not like how you see it in the movies. There's no peak to climb or edge to peer over here. One of the first of many things I learned that day was that there are different types of volcanoes, and Kīlauea, is a shield volcano with its recessed crater. On most days, I imagine, it could be a quiet spot with only the voices of visitors chatting with park staff. While I was there, however, the Hawaiian goddess, Pele, who makes Kīlauea her home, was in a bad mood.
As my group stood quietly learning about what it's like to witness an eruption or what exactly is going on inside that crater across the way, Pele made her presence known. She was shaking things up down there and the sounds of falling and exploding rocks didn't sound much different than a construction site. Large crashes resonated across the caldera and while I soon found myself comfortable with the noise, used to it, even, the park staff didn't let me forget that it was unusual as they paused and murmured "wow" at the sound of each crash. Something was going on, the earth was changing.
Change can be slow on the Big Island, so we decided to move on. We headed off to discover the rest of the park. At each stop, the vegetation awakened my wonder in nature's complexity.
I stroked the strange, fuzzy hāpu'u fern that feels more like an animal rather than a plant.
I marveled at an unassuming fern coil poking from the earth. Discovering that it surrounded me in various stages of growth, splitting again and again to form a plant that fills the forest and ultimately becomes fertile soil.
I paused at the bright red blossoms of the beautiful, yet ugly ohia lehua tree and listened to the story of its genesis. Star crossed lovers cursed by Pele became the tree and its blossoms. A story, I'm convinced, should only be told while standing on the edge of the caldera, as steam vents puff into the wind.
As we stood along the bluff, steam rolled past us like clouds of smoke. Our guide for the day, Ranger Dean Gallagher told us stories of this place's past and shared Hawaiian history with us. He then pulled a small 'ohe hano ihu or nose flute from his pocket and played a bit for us.
We then made our way down the path and towards more secluded vents. Here the warm vapor blows directly into your face, warming your skin and filling your lungs. I found myself leaning in for a better steam, intoxicated by the heat and shuffling backwards only when I realized I was getting too close to the edge. I could have stayed here all day, but it was time to move on. Just like a good spa treatment, I wanted five more minutes of bliss.
Out of the steam into the lava tube? A lava tube is an underground conduit formed from lava flow of years past. Now it's cooled and hardened and provides a quiet and dark, cave-like experience. In Volcanoes National Park, the Thurston Lava tube is easiest to access and deceptively easy. In the first portion, you'll find yourself with families, it's wide and you can indeed see the light at the end of the tunnel. For the more adventurous and flashlight equipped, the second segment gives you a better sensory experience. As we passed into the second portion and scaled down the rocks, I noticed that the rest of the crowd had decided not to join us. As we made our way into the shadows and into complete darkness, I switched on my flashlight and paused for a moment. What exactly had I gotten myself into? There was no time to stop, it was dark and I knew one thing, I did not want to be alone.
We wandered through the tube, hopping over sections of collapsed ceiling. I had my eyes and flashlight to the ground being careful not to trip. For brief moments I'd pause and shine the light around for a closer look. The ceiling was wet and shiny and glistened in the light. But, I wouldn't pause for too long and would quickly rejoin the group. I still wasn't accustom to the dark and I wondered what creatures lurked in the shadows. (Turns out only a few insects and spiders make the tube their home.) As we reached the end of the tunnel, the ceiling got lower and my group huddled into a circle. We turned out our lights for 30 seconds and sat in silence. I had to close my eyes, not out of necessity, but in order to stay calm. Suddenly, a wave of calm washed over me and I allowed myself to just be in the moment. I could hear the water dripping, feel the coolness of the air and just enjoy the stillness. As we turned back on our lights and gathered to leave, I felt myself wanting to stay in this sweet spot. My fear had left me and instead, I had found an inner calm.
I'd be remiss in discussing the beauty that I found in the park, if I didn't talk about the people who spend their days taking care of it. At Volcanoes National Park, you're surrounded by eager guides. In fact, they offer ranger tours every day, and I highly suggest you plan on participating in one. There's nothing like being lead through a place by a local, one who's familiar with their surroundings and can point out all the best sights. In the park, it's easy to get overwhelmed and hurry onto the next cool thing, but with a guide by your side, who can point out all the details to take note of, it becomes a magical experience. (Mahalo Ranger Dean!)
If you find yourself planning a trip to Hawai'i, don't be like me. Don't be apathetic about volcanoes. Prepare yourself to take in the sights, sounds and sensations of Volcanoes National Park. I'm almost positive that you'll return home like I did, with a newfound appreciation of nature, absolute awe of volcanoes, and thoroughly impressed by that slice of the world and the people who care for it.
What: Volcanoes National Park
Cost: $10 per vehicle. Good for 7 days.
When: Park is open 24 hours a day year-round
Website: Volcanoes National Park Begin to plan your visit with their great brochures.
Why You Should Go: What an incredible value. The Jaggar Museum is a hands-on learning experience that adds a deeper understanding to what you are seeing outdoors. Killer hikes, free camping, and free guided tours make for a one-of-a-kind vacation experience.