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Only two things worth seeing in Hawaii, King Kalakaua once said: His Royal Highness and the volcano. The Merrie Monarch and his kingdom are gone, overthrown by US Marines directed by sugar planters, but the volcano lives on inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the oldest and liveliest national parks in the United States. Established August 1,1916, the 520-square mile park goes from sea level to the 13,679- foot summit of Mauna Loa, the world's largest sea mountain. Inside that vast charred badlands are eerie sites: fuming Halemaumau Crater, home of Pele, the goddess of Fire; forlorn Devastation Trail; spooky Thurston Lava Tube, ...

Only two things worth seeing in Hawaii, King Kalakaua once said: His Royal Highness and the volcano. The Merrie Monarch and his kingdom are gone, overthrown by US Marines directed by sugar planters, but the volcano lives on inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the oldest and liveliest national parks in the United States. Established August 1,1916, the 520-square mile park goes from sea level to the 13,679- foot summit of Mauna Loa, the world's largest sea mountain. Inside that vast charred badlands are eerie sites: fuming Halemaumau Crater, home of Pele, the goddess of Fire; forlorn Devastation Trail; spooky Thurston Lava Tube, which goes who knows where? And past disasters to observe: a yellow school bus frozen in lava,the remnants of Kalapana village, overrun years ago. There are odd words to learn: a'a, pahoehoe, pyroclastic, fumaroles, rift zone and more, all easily defined at Thomas Jaggar Museum. Trails go between tuff cones, across historic lava beds to kipukas (oases of green bypassed by lava), and petroglyph fields, even ancient warriors' footprints eternally etched in lava. The peak experience is a hike up13,250-feet through all kinds of weather, even snow, to Mauna Loa cabin (which sleeps 12) on the rim of Moku'aweoweo. Kilauea Crater daily creates the newest land on earth, and watching it has been the most popular event in the park since 1983, when it began its current episode. Out of its hot gaping mouth lava explodes and spills like a river of fire destroying everything in its way on its meandering flow down to the Pacific. The scent of scorched earth lingers long after you're gone. From all over the world millions come "to see the red," making the park Hawaii's Number One attraction, for good reason: There's nothing like it anywhere. Some stay in Volcano House, the shabby 1800 lodge on the rim of Halemaumau. Others camp in the park, and most seek shelter in the fern forests of adjacent Volcano Village. Volcano-watchers hover over the park in helicopters to gain the big picture but most take a hike after dark down to Chain of Craters Road, long blocked by lava, to reach the red-hot burning edge of the island. Plumes of deadly sulphuric smoke mark the spot. It is not the only spectacle here. There are everyday earthquakes, rock slides, whole ledges sometimes collapse into the sea, claiming the unwary. Danger is everywhere but do not be afraid. Take the king's royal advice: go see the volcano.

Rick Carroll
About the Expert

Rick Carroll has written dozens of articles on Hawaii and the Pacific. His books include Great Outdoor Adventures of Hawaii, Madame Pele: True Encounters with Hawaii's Fire Goddess, and Travelers' Tales Hawaii.

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Rick Carroll for Triporati

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Facts at a Glance

Climate

  • Best Time to Visit:

    Year-round but especially when Pele is dancing in the park.