I booked a full day tour that took us around the southeast side of the Big Island and included a tour of the Volcanoes National Park, a black sand beach, and some of the lava fields, as well as a brief tour around Hilo. One added bonus of the tour was that it included airfare from Kauai to the Big Island, so that was one less hassle that we had to deal with. Although, making it a day trip from one island to another meant for a long day, it was definitely worth it.
When we arrived at the Hilo airport, we met our guide, an awesome guy named Jay. He asked what we wanted to do and offered (jokingly) to take up up to Mauna Kea to go skiing. Did you know there is actually snow in Hawaii??!!! Yep! On top of Mauna Kea, which sits at 13,796 feet above sea level, although when measured from its oceanic base, it measures 33,000 feet, which makes it the tallest mountain in the world... according to wikipedia... anyway, it was very cool to see snow in Hawaii. (I seem to recall before we left on vacation hearing something in the news about how 46 of the country's 50 states had snow and thought, 'well, not where I'm going...' :-})
|Mauna Kea off in the distance|
Once we picked up all the other folks on the tour, we did a quick tour of Hilo and then headed off to the national park. The first place we stopped was a lookout over the Kilauea Iki, which is part of the volcano that erupted in Hawaii in 1959. This part has since stopped erupting and the crater has cooled and hardened enough so that you can actually walk across the crater along the Kilauea Iki trail!! Sadly, we didn't have time on this tour to actually hike the trail, but I definitely plan to return and hike that trail someday! How cool would it be to say you hiked across a volcano crater?!?!? My mom has actually done it, and I am supremely jealous!
|Kilauea Iki; you can see the trail across the crater|
|another view of Kilauea Iki|
The next stop was a short trail that took us through some lava tubes. There were actually 2 lava tubes; one was lit and packed with tourists and then there was another, much longer lava tube that was not lit, so you needed a flashlight to walk through it. It was also a much more rugged walk, with puddles and low ceilings, but still a very cool experience. If you ever go to Volcanoes National Park, be sure to wear shoes you don't mind getting a little wet and bring a flashlight so you can experience this. It's much different (and i thought better) than the lit lava tube everybody and their brother and their dog walks through.
|the lit, more populated, lava tubes|
|inside the unlit lava tube|
|I think hubs kept taking pictures just so he could see from the flash!|
I tried to get some pictures, but my poor camera had no idea what to focus on or anything. My husband's camera, on the other hand, was able to take a few shots. So, super-spendy DSLR: 0, rinky point-n-shoot bought the previous day from walmart: 1.
Then we went up to the Jaggar museum where you can look out over the landscape and see the currently erupting volcano crater. While you can't see any towers of lava spewing high into the air (at least, we couldn't on the day we were there...) you can definitely see the smoke and ash plume rising from the volcano.
|Steam and smoke rising from Kilauea|
While I was standing there over a period of about 5-10 minutes, I saw a slow but steady stream of ash and steam rising from the crater and then a huge belch of steam come from the crater. It was a very real reminder that earth is still a work-in-progress.
Finally, we headed out of the park, and on the way, stopped off to see some of the steam vents. The landscape was like something out of a science fiction movie. Everywhere I turned, I just saw steam coming out of the ground. We were warned to stay on the trail, since the vents are everywhere and they didn't want us to fall in, and I didn't really feel like testing that theory out. Apparently, the side of the road we were on had just steam coming out of the vents, but on the other side of the road, there was sulfur steaming out of the vents. I'm not sure why it was different on our side of the road, but that's what they said (and, again, I didn't really feel like testing the theory out.)
|steam vents in the ground|
|you can see the steam amongst the vegetation|
|another view of Kilauea; if you look closely, you can see lots of steam vents in the background|
Later in the afternoon, we drove down to one of the black sand beaches. Now, this might sound stupid, but I didn't really know what to expect. See, I've been let down before. When I was in England, I was super excited to go see the "white cliffs of Dover" and, let me tell you, it was a bit of a haul to get down to Dover and... the "white" cliffs?? Yeah, they're more grey. It was a bit of a disappointment. And whenever people tell me about the beautiful "white sand beaches" of wherever, I'm not super impressed. It usually ends up being a beach, which is still usually beautiful, but the sand is nothing to write home about. But this... this was definitely something to write home about! And, I don't know why I was so surprised, since I had to walk 20 minutes through a black lava field to get to the beach, but it was just so stunning to see! It really was a black sand ... well, beach, technically, since it did lead to water, but there were rocky lava cliffs and the sea was a bit rough, so I don't recommend swimming there, but it was so gorgeous nonetheless.
Another thing that amazed me was, along the path to get to the beach, I saw countless coconut trees growing in the hardened lava. It made for a rather surreal scene.
|given that these trees can apparently grow under very harsh conditions, perhaps even I could keep one alive?|
|the path to get to the black sand beach|
Finally, as the sun was getting ready to set, we drove along this road that had been crossed/overtaken at several points by the lava flow. So, one moment, we were on an actual asphalt road, and then next, we were bumping over a hardened lava flow that had crossed the road. We got out of our van and walked about a half-mile down the road (as far as we could) and waited for the sun to go down to see if we could sight any lava flows. The landscape was like the moon or something. Hardened black lava for as far as the eye could see, punctuated every now and then by some crazy person's house.
|you can see the steam coming off the lava|
Who in their right mind would build a house there, seeing what has happened and most likely will happen? I guess the housing is cheap but I would imagine the homeowners insurance is quite steep!
At first, during twilight, we couldn't really see anything. I kept thinking I saw lava (kind of like how I kept thinking I saw whales, when it would just be a whitecap...) but as the sun went down and it got darker and darker, more and more orange glows appeared off in the distance.
Now, I want to take just a minute and manage any expectations (maybe mine). We did not see rivers of lava flowing just a few feet or yards from our feet. Maybe that happened later in the evening after we left, or the night before or the night after. If that did happen, we likely would not have been able to see it at such a close vantage point. As I mentioned above, my time on the Big Island reminded me that earth is mother nature's work-in-progress and when lava flows, it does not stick to one path or stay on the trail. It's also hot. Like hella hot. You cannot get close to flowing lava. It's a bad, bad idea. To explain this point, as I was standing there, looking out at my phantom lava sightings, I glanced across the landscape of hardened lava (that was at few weeks old) and I could literally see the heatwaves rising off the surface. LITERALLY. If you've ever seen an asphalt road in the middle of August, you know what I'm talking about. And that was coming off of lava that was several weeks old. It is not out of the realm of possibility that, if I stood on that for very long, it would melt the soles off of my shoes.
So, no flowing rivers of lava. What I did see, as the evening progressed, was spots of lava up in the hills and along the ridge line. I know the pictures not great, but if you look closely, you will see a couple of orange spots off in the distance. That was my lava sighting.
|see those 2 orange eyes in the middle? LAVA!!!!|
|and a little more to the left of the 2 eyes (or, some dudes out in the distance holding orange lights to dupe all the haoles!)|
This was a really long post; sorry about that. This was a very cool trip and I wanted to share as much about it as I could.
|Since I've got a picture of my toes in the water in St. John, USVI, I figured I'd take a pic of my toes in the black sand in HI.|
(dear lord, are my legs pale... can i blame it on the contrast of the black sand????)