On Hawaii's Big Island: Powerful Pele’s Playground

Curtains of steam, rivers of fire: Land gives birth to itself. It is Pele, Hawai’i’s fiery-tempered goddess, who many hold accountable for all the volcanic activity.

My grandmother used to tell me about her Hawaiian great-grandfather, who drove long-ago tourists up to the Volcano in a horse-drawn carriage.

Back in the late 1800s, the journey from Hilo took two days, with an overnight stop to rest the horses and travelers. But once they arrived, the landscape undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

Still an otherworldly land worth visiting, the unique Volcano area is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Sprawling, huffing and erupting within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea and Mauna Loa exhibit nature’s drama in action. But while change and creation, and birth and destruction, are part of the park’s inherent nature, I can still see what my ancestors very likely saw: a moonscape in places, where ghostlike trees hold their ground as ethereal steam swirls from a landscape pocked with vents.

The park includes primeval rainforest where endangered honeycreepers sing their ageless songs and feed from delicate lehua blossoms. Ancient petroglyphs tell their stories from the smooth ground of pahoehoe lava fields, and a lava tube invites exploration. Here and there are kipuka, the green islands of mature vegetation surrounded, but not covered, by new lava that spared them. You can hike across a beautiful, dormant, volcanic crater where an endangered nene (goose) may waddle by confidently, and you might encounter rare Mauna Loa silversword plants and witness molten, red-orange lava pouring down cliffs to the sea, where it hardens and creates new land—some 560 additional acres so far.

It is Pele, Hawai‘i’s fiery-tempered volcano goddess, who many hold accountable for all the volcanic activity. Hula dancers and other cultural practitioners still journey to her home, Halema‘uma‘u crater on the summit of Kilauea, to pay their respects in chant and dance. And whether it’s Pele who causes the lava to flow, or the pressure of molten rock pushing up from 60 or 70 miles beneath the ocean floor, or both, the Volcano puts on an awe-inspiring show.

Five generations past the horse-drawn carriage days, I take visiting friends to the Volcano by car. We usually stop first at the overlook next to the Jaggar Museum to gawk at Halema‘uma‘u. Its enormous plume of smoke and ash reaches for the sky, and, sometimes at night, its haunting orange glow is visible for miles. Created by the crater’s recent explosive eruption, its first in more than 80 years, it’s a powerful visual spectacle.

Our other “must-see” stop is 12 miles away along the East Rift Zone, where lava has erupted almost continuously since 1983. There, the lava glows red and orange as it crawls down the pali (cliff) and cascades through lava tubes. In its slow but steady tumble to the sea, the lava, more than 100 feet deep in places, has buried a highway and covered more than eight miles of road so far. Sometimes a county-provided viewing area is open at the end of Highway 130; you can hear a recording of current viewing conditions at 808.961.8093.

As spectacular as it is, the Volcano area is much more than its eruptions. It’s a timeless and provocative experience that allows glances both forward and back. And it’s a hothouse of information for scientists. With more endemic species than the Galapagos Islands, the region draws scientists who peer back in time to study, fascinated, the evolutionary processes. You can still see footsteps, preserved in ash, of Hawaiians who walked there centuries ago. Some have speculated that they are the footprints of the chief Keoua’s warriors. In 1790, the story goes, after indecisively battling rival chief Kamehameha for control of the island, they were caught in an eruption while retreating to Ka‘u.

The Volcano is a rare place where the past is still in view, for us and for future generations. We are eyewitnesses to the birthing of land, to the forces shaping an island in transition—an island still alive, still growing, still evolving in its own relentless saga.