Hawaii’s hot spot: viewing the Kilauea volcano

Hawaii’s volcanoes attracted tourists long before its beaches and surf. And the sight of lava spewing out of active Kilauea certainly puts the island’s more conventional pursuits in the shade

“Right now, it’s erupting in two places,” says Jessica Ferracane. Born in Hawaii, she is now head of communications at Hawai’i Volcanoes national park, home of Kilauea, one of the world’s most restless volcanoes. “Pu’u O’o vent is in the remote middle-east rift zone and not accessible to the public but you can get spectacular views of Halemaumau crater from the Jaggar Museum lookout.”

This side to Hawaii offers a much richer experience than sipping mai tais on the beach. We’re at the southern end of the archipelago, a 45-minute drive from Hilo, on the Big Island.

Kilauea’s lava has been spilling forth continually, in one way or another, since its current eruption began in January 1983. It runs down the mountainside every day, following the path of least resistance – sometimes destroying a lush rainforest or burying an entire fishing village, like it did at Kalapana in 1990. It is mercilessly covering over and simultaneously becoming some of the youngest land on Earth.

But this is nothing new. Travellers have been coming to stand transfixed before Kilauea’s power since the mid-19th century. In fact, volcano tourism predates beach tourism in Hawaii by a few decades. English explorer Isabella Bird made the pilgrimage in 1872 and published The Hawaiian Archipelago in 1875. Mark Twain detailed his earlier (1866) Kilauea trip in the travelogue Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It In The Sandwich Islands.

The best time to view the volcano is just before dawn. You arrive at the park under a canopy of stars. The trade winds are still calm, the crowds are asleep, and the brilliance of the lava is at its most stunning. Within Kilauea caldera is the rim of Halemaumau crater, beneath which a bubbling lava lake rises and falls, dictated by the volatile mood of an enormous magma chamber below.

This is a rare and magnificent sight – there are only a handful of persistent lava lakes on Earth, Mount Erebus in Antarctica is another – and it is best appreciated from the air on one of the island’s helicopter tours. But the park also has 155 miles of hiking trails for visitors who want to connect with the landscape in a more intimate way.

“My favourite place to take family and friends is the ‘backside’ of Halemaumau crater, accessing it from the Keanakako’i side,” says Ferracane. “While two miles of Crater Rim Drive are closed because of hazardous volcanic gases, this part of the road is open to hikers and cyclists. Hardly anyone goes, but it affords striking views of Halemaumau and Kilauea caldera and, the giant of them all, Mauna Loa, to the north [the largest mountain on earth, by volume].”

This area can be explored from the Devastation Trail car park at the intersection of Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road.

Visitors can stay in the park itself, at the recently restored 33-room Volcano House near the rim of Kilauea caldera (and with views of it from the bedrooms), or in the nearby town of Volcano, a mile from the park entrance. Hale Ohia Cottages, tucked away down a long drive in an exquisite native forest, is one of the best B&Bs.

Vehicle entry to Hawai’i Volcanoes national park is $10, individual entry $5. Kilauea visitor centre is open daily from 7.45am-5pm. Check current volcanic activity at nps.gov/havo. Safari Helicopters offers a 45-minute volcano tour for $169pp

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