Life in the Extreme

On the historic trail of volcanoes and kings.


By Ian Shive


 Click here to watch a 4-minute video featuring images from the author’s trip.

From nearly everywhere on the island of Hawai’i you can see one gentle sloping hill in the distance. It doesn’t abruptly rise up out of grasslands or demand attention like the Grand Tetons. Rather, it subtly and humbly catches the light at sunrise, like a giant solar panel reflecting pink Cadillac pastels back into Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Yet despite its seemingly modest size and subtle coloration, this hill is Mauna Loa—the largest volcano on Earth and backdrop to the largest island in the chain of islands called Hawai’i.

Mauna Loa is a lot like the rest of the “Big Island,” as it’s frequently called, a paradox of natural phenomenon that can both inspire a painter’s gentle brush stroke or erupt in a violent cauldron of fiery earth. At first glance, the landscape may seem harmless, but its geography tells a different story of scorched trees and a chain of islands still in the making.

Visiting the island can be a challenge for the unprepared traveler, especially if you’re expecting a pristine tropical getaway plucked out of the classic film From Here to Eternity, with honeymooners romping on the beach. This is not that island.

Flying into Hilo will position you for quick access to the island’s main attraction, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Touted as the number one tourist draw among all of the Hawaiian islands, the park is a short 30-mile drive up Highway 11, a route that will take you away from the developed landscape and into a dense rainforest.

The centerpiece of the park is Kilauea Volcano, which has been erupting since 1983, earning it the title of most-active volcano on Earth. But despite that title, most visitors will be disappointed to learn that there is often no red-flowing lava to be seen. Occasionally, a flow erupts in the park, but if you’re lucky enough to see it, you’ve hit the “lava lottery,” as the Park Service calls it. That doesn’t mean the mountain is asleep. Despite the lack of lava, the volcano can expel a column of sulfur-dioxide gas that rises like a nuclear mushroom cloud and reminds visitors that that our big blue marble is still a work in progress. On still days, the cloud covers the volcano’s summit, prompting the Park Service to post signs warning of poor air quality and advising guests to keep the car windows rolled up. In concentrated doses, sulfur dioxide can be lethal, but it generally appears as a haze or smog; locals have named it “vog,” shorthand for volcanic smog. (Not sure if it’s fog or vog rolling in? Just smack your lips. If you taste a mouthful of pennies and your nasal passages begin to burn, it’s vog.) Vog’s impact has been so severe so often that a portion of Crater Rim Drive near Halema’uma’u crater has been completely shut down to visitors since February 2008. Despite this, the overlook of the volcano is stunning and otherworldly, and the flavor of the air just adds to the primordial experience.

Moving south of the volcano’s summit, you can follow Crater Rim Drive past the Thurston Lava Tube, a huge subterranean tunnel carved out by lava created as it worked its way above ground. Visitors can walk several hundred feet through the lava tube and emerge in the most dense rainforest in the park. Continuing on down the Chain of Craters Road, you’ll eventually meet the Pacific Ocean, where massive battlefields of lava overtook the landscape, paving it like black icing on a cake. Nowhere else in America can you stand on the edge of the ocean with a block of rock beneath your feet—some of it only a few years old—and know that the land is still growing, slowly covering the ocean in a protective black casing forged by fire. It’s a beginning and an ending, because this is the spot where the road toward the east rift has been cut off, overtaken by a flow.

Even if no lava is flowing in the park, there’s still one way to catch a glimpse of the fiery red stuff. Just beyond the park’s southeastern boundary in an area known as the East Rift Zone, Pele—the Hawaiian goddess of fire—is often still at work. On occasion, lava erupts here and enters the ocean, causing a massive steam plume and a red glow so hot and bright that even the night clouds reflect its luminance. This has become one of the most famous sites on the island for viewing, and it’s currently maintained by the Hawaii Civil Defense Service, which has set up an impromptu visitor’s station.

But Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is just the tip of the lava rock. If you’re visiting for a week or more, you can explore a stunning string of black sand beaches and national historic sites dotting the coastline and leading out of the park, winding all the way up to the northernmost point of the island. To get the best views, take the Heritage Drive beginning on Highway 11 and circle around the entire island, then come back into Hilo at the end opposite your departure point.

As you exit the park heading westbound and slightly north in your rented Jeep, you’re guaranteed to laugh for the next 20 miles as you try to pronounce the names on road signs revealing the “Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach” or “Welcome to Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau.” The former locale, just beyond the western border of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, is managed by the county, and it’s one of the rare places on the island to experience a truly black rock beach. It’s also a great place to dip your toes into the warm waters of the Pacific.

Continuing along the heritage drive toward the resort town of Kailua-Kona, you’ll first encounter a spiritually stirring national historical park, the Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau or “place of refuge.” At the “Nau,” as locals sometimes call it (pronounced “now”), Hawaii’s past comes to life in the traditional lifestyle preserved for future generations. Ancient temples made with thatched roofs are scattered among pools of blue water mingling with black lava, inspiring the native population to step to the edges and enact ceremonial dances at the very place where sea meets rock. It’s also a great spot to catch a glimpse of Hawaiian green sea turtles, an endangered species that can be admired from a distance as they rest on the beach. Just beyond the park’s boundary is one of the best places on the entire island to slap on a pair of fins, mask, and snorkel and experience a coral reef straight out of Finding Nemo. A brief free-dive below the water might fill your ears with the soundtrack of parrotfish munching on the hard rock coral or the song of distant humpback whales.

Heading farther north, you’ll pass through the popular resort town of Kailua. You may encounter a sleepy little town on your visit, but locals roll out the red carpet when a large cruise ship is anchored offshore. As the boat-loving tourists pile in, locals with parrots on their shoulders and hand-crafty artisans line the streets, furiously making leis for a few dollars. After a brief stay here, head north out of town to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, where you’ll see an ancient Hawaiian technology, the loko kuapa or rock-wall fishpond, a sort of lagoon that native Hawaiians used to catch fish. This is just a brief stop on your way to the final National Park Service site along the coastal highway, Pu‘ukohola Heiau. Originally built as a sacrificial temple by King Kamehameha I, the temple became an impromptu fortress during a series of battles in the late 1700s. Built entirely by hand, out of red rocks transported by a human chain 14 miles long, the temple still stands today and marks the northernmost end of a necklace of history along the Big Island’s coast.

SIDETRIP: MAUNA KEA OBSERVATORY

It’s no coincidence that the largest volcano in the world, Mauna Loa, has a view of the tallest mountain in the world, Mauna Kea. Formed by the same forces that made all of the Hawaiian Islands, Mauna Kea rises 13,803 feet above the water, and nearly 20,000 feet of mountain are submerged below the surface, making it taller than Mt. Everest. Combine its height with its location in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean and you get one of the top four places to see the night sky. The otherworldly summit is home to the famed Keck Observatory and many other high-grade telescopes, and it will soon be home to the single largest optical/infrared telescope ever built on Earth, the Thirty-Meter Telescope. But you don’t need to be a professional astronomer to appreciate the beauty of this place. The visitor center hosts nightly star tours through the heavens, using handheld lasers to point out constellations and setting up a dozen or more telescopes so people can admire nebulae and galaxies far, far away. Dress warmly; although this is the tropics, the high elevation frequently brings snow to this blustery location.

SIDETRIP: WAIPIO VALLEY

The Big Island can feel like a desert, with its fields of black lava that would seem barren if not offset by the royal blue waters that surround the island. But for some reason—perhaps fortunate geography—there is one place that carries the entire tune of Hawai’i’s rich history and picturesque landscape, and that is the Waipio Valley. Located on the northeast corner of the island along the famed Hamakua Coast, the valley is a jungle so dense that even Tarzan would have a hard time finding his way. But you should have an easier time leaping into your four-wheel-drive vehicle and heading for the place where King Kamehameha and many early Hawaiian kings ruled the entire chain of Hawaiian Islands. This valley’s beauty may have given the islands their Jurassic reputation. The region is unmatched in the diversity of wildflowers, the vibrancy of blue water and black sand beaches, and the cacophony of frogs and birds. Its canopy of trees is so closely intertwined, you might be tempted to leap off the surrounding cliffs in the hopes of bouncing off the green trampoline of lush vegetation. If that doesn’t sell you, almost everything you find in the valley is edible, including pomelos, tangelos, oranges, avocados, and more.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Hilo and Kona are the two main airports, but most itineraries require a change of planes on nearby Oahu. Hilo is closer to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, but Kona has more to offer visitors, with its variety of hotels ranging from ultra-high-end ($750 per night to the more affordable, yet still well appointed, for $90−$100). Although Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park offers no visitor services, two free campgrounds are available for up to a week. Volcano House Hotel and Namakanipaio Cabins located inside the park are being renovated, and will reopen to guests in spring 2011, so for now, visitors who prefer a hotel will find their best options in nearby Hilo (average nightly price, $120).

A trip to the island of Hawai‘i is enriched by the unique flavors of the South Pacific palate. Start your day with a cup of Kona coffee, one of the most sought-after and expensive coffees in the world. Kona’s unique setting puts it in the path of weather patterns with sunny mornings and rainy afternoons, and its porous, mineral-rich volcanic soil contributes to the fine grade of this bean. Only coffee beans grown here can legally carry the name “Kona” on the label.

It can be tricky to find good food on the island, but a few places along the way are guaranteed to please. Just beyond the boundary of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, in the town of Volcano, you’ll find Chef Jonah Gieson’s Kiawe Kitchen. Chef Gieson, a graduate of California’s Le Cordon Bleu Academy, fills the menu with touches of locally grown produce such as eggplant Napoleon—a dish of eggplant roasted in a romano and parmesan crust layered in island-grown tomatoes and topped with capers and feta. The menu changes daily, and entrees range from vegetarian pastas to gourmet wood-fired pizzas topped with Alaskan salmon.

Farther up island, in the town of Kawaihae near the Pu‘ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, you’ll find the staff at the Kawaihae Harbor Grill and Seafood Bar slinging Hawaiian and Southern-influenced meals such as black bean seafood gumbo or seafood quesadillas. And if you’re ever unsure of what to order at a local eatery, ask for locally caught fish, and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Click here to watch a 4-minute video featuring images from the author’s trip.

Ian Shive is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. His first collection of photographs, The National Parks: Our American Landscape, was released last fall.

This article appears in the Summer 2010 issue.

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