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Volcanoes of the Big Island of Hawaii

The highest peaks in the Pacific will lead you to the Big Island of Hawaii, a giant jewel which boasts a land mass more than twice as big as the other Hawaiian islands combined. At an age of 800,000 years, this youngest Hawaiian island has been cobbled together by the commingling lava flows from five immense volcanoes. Two of these volcanoes remain active today, literally increasing the land mass of the Big Island and offering visitors an intimate opportunity to observe one of nature’s most powerful and primal forces.

On the Big Island even volcanoes seem to embody a sort of mellow volcanic aloha. Although they are among the world’s most active volcanoes, they are relatively gentle and approachable (but only in designated areas!!). Radiant fountains, lava lakes and luminous streams characterize Big Island eruptions. With low lava gas contents, Hawaiian volcanoes are safer and more accessible than others. (A huge build-up of gases precipitated the catastrophic explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980.)

The Big Island’s two active volcanoes, Kilauea (spewing in Hawaiian) and Mauna Loa (long mountain), are located on the southern half of the island. Additionally, a young submarine volcano called Loihi (elongated) is growing about 20 miles south of the Big Island. Loihi’s ascending summit is currently 3,000 feet below the ocean surface. All three are shield volcanoes, with summit craters about 3 miles across. Their relative safety and accessibility has made them the most intensively studied and best understood volcanoes in the world.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park straddles Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Sulfur banks and steam vents, lava tubes and tree molds, fern forests and lava deserts are among the many volcanic marvels accessible via the park’s scenic drive and numerous hiking paths. Stop by the visitor’s center near the entrance to the park for an overall orientation, as well as current road, trail and safety conditions.

Pele, the Hawaiian Volcano Goddess, is said to live more than 20,000 feet above the ocean floor, inside the Kilauea caldera. Her home is within the Halemaumau firepit, Kilauea’s primary vent. You can drive around the caldera by following Crater Rim Drive in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Since 1983, relentless flows from fissures in Kilauea have consumed villages and beaches, and extended Big Island bluffs further into the indigo sea. The ongoing interaction between molten rock and sea water ignites steam explosions which create dark brown or black basaltic glass pieces. Ultimately, the ocean churns and grinds these fragments into black sand beaches. Although the Big Island’s largest black sand beaches have been reclaimed by Pele, you’ll find some glistening patches nestled along the southeastern coast.

Other highlights of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park include the resident Nene (endangered Hawaiian Goose), and many marked hiking trails through varied volcanic landscapes, both mountain and coastal. You’ll crunch your way across the awesome lava fields more happily and safely if you wear sturdy shoes and long pants, and take along drinking water. Weather on the summit is cool, windy and sometimes rainy. The park’s coastal paths follow sea cliffs which are sometimes pounded by high waves and strong wind. Plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat will help protect you against the intense tropical sun radiating off the stark black landscape (there are no trees – or shade – on the coast).

For those more inclined to drive, roadside overlooks provide strategic panoramic views of unique and fascinating features of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The successive lava flows which are identified and dated along the road, and the many parking areas permit you to explore a little or a lot. The Jaggar Volcano Museum and Volcano Art House are among the treasures you’ll discover while driving through the park. Camping and lodging facilities are also available. Call Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at (808) 985-6000 for more details.

According to Hawaiian legend, the sulfur smell (like rotten eggs) of the volcanic air is to remind us that Pele is there. Please do not disrupt, destroy or remove anything from the park. It remains a sacred Hawaiian place.

The largest single mountain mass on earth is snow-capped Mauna Loa (long mountain), towering more than 30,000 feet above its base on the ocean floor. Mauna Loa has been quiet since 1950, except for short eruptions in 1975 and 1984. You’ll find the Mauna Loa trailhead in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. From the entrance station, follow Highway 11 toward Kailua-Kona for about 2.5 miles. Turn right onto the Mauna Loa Strip Road and follow it to the end, about 13.5 miles.

The best overall perspective of Big Island volcanoes and eruptions is from above. Many Hawaii air tour companies offer varying flight packages. Whole-island tours include eruption activity as well as prehistoric remnants. Some air tours focus on specific segments of the island. Try to plan your air adventure for a day when eruptions are spectacular and visibility is good. You can call the Hawaii Volcano Observatory at (808) 967-7977 for updates on volcanic activity. Air tour companies can also advise you of current eruption activity. Click here for Big Island Airplane Tour Providers or Helicopter Tour Providers.

For further details about Big Island eruptions, as well as earthquakes and other engaging information, images and links, visit the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory’s Volcano Watch site. It’s updated weekly. You’ll find further fascinating images and links at the Hawaii Center for Volcanology.

The Big Island’s dormant volcanoes are Hualalai (west), Kohala (northwest) and Mauna Kea (north). While Hualalai and Kohala were named based upon the history of the region; Mauna Kea translates from Hawaiian as white mountain. Mauna Kea is the world’s highest mountain, with its snowy summit rising more than 30,000 feet above its ocean base. (It’s about 116 feet taller than Mauna Loa. Both of these prime peaks are home to exceptional astronomical observatories.)

Winter snows on Mauna Kea are actually skiiable! When covered with snow, the summit of Mauna Kea is a dazzling moonscape with about 100 square miles of skiiable terrain. It’s an exhilarating and unique experience, but the high altitude, stark white landscape, and tropical sun create unusual safety challenges. If you want to hit the slopes of the highest mountain on earth, call Ski Guides Hawaii at (808)885-4188. They have expert guides who can advise you of trail, equipment and safety information.

The Big Island’s oldest, most deeply eroded and lush jungle valleys are carved into the northeastern side of Kohala, along the Hamakua Coast. From Kohala’s ancient remnants to Kilauea’s youthful vitality, the Big Island is a volcanic wonderland with something for everyone.