“Anything that can create itself by erupting out of the bowels of the Pacific Ocean is worth looking at.” —Hunter S. Thompson, The Curse of Lono
The rain closed down the backcountry trails my first few nights on the island. “It’s an El Nino year,” I kept hearing. Remnant pieces of a tropical storm were saturating the islands, but I imagined that would pass soon. I learned the truth later: that sitting 3,000 miles from everywhere else on the planet means that any disturbance in the entire Pacific Basin eventually finds its way to Hawaii. Typhoons in Japan. Low pressure systems in Alaska. Everything that stirs up the cauldron of the Pacific sends slowly building waves and weather in the direction of Hawaii.
Meanwhile, back on the Big Island, the ground belches smoke and lava works its fingers out of the Earth to spread another layer of magma on top of the existing ground. Lava works slow, but it works efficiently. Whole towns steadily catch fire and get buried, and behind is a broken field of black rocks like a shattered freeway in a disaster film. There’s a cauldron bubbling inside the island, and that cauldron sits in the middle of an ocean whose name sounds like a cruel joke. Put it together, and it’s not a stretch to call the Big Island the most violent landscape on earth.
Buried stretch of road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
This was the work of Pele, said the locals and the rangers, the Hawaiian fire goddess who was a symbol of kindness and mercy until her temper gets up, at which point she buries anything in her path with fiery lakes of lava. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with Pele. Things are either completely cool or completely on fire.
But I was going to have to wait to see Pele’s domain, because of the rain, which the brochures don’t tell you about. All you hear, normally, is about the incredible tradewinds that sooth the islanders with balmy breezes morning, noon and night. But the tradewinds were on a smoke break most of my time in the islands, which left either rain or the stifling dead calm of hot, humid jungle weather. No matter what you might think you know about the islands from the countless episodes of Hawaii 5-0 you have undoubtedly watched, you must never forget that you are in (or on the edge of) the tropics. And that means rain, and often means jungle. Hot, steamy jungle.
Or hot, steamy lava pits, if you want a break from the jungle.
You might already know this about Hawaii. But even if you think you know it, you still may be surprised by exactly how hot Hawaii is in the summer. Also humid. And after a couple weeks of high humidity, the lava fields can suddenly seem like a blessing.
There are a couple options for seeing the park. The first is to swing through with a car. This is the best option for the nighttime visits to the park, when you can view the Kilauea Crater lighting up the clouds with a bright orange glow. You don’t see hot lava, but you are very aware of where it is when you see that big orange disc cut into the ground.
The better option, of course, is to get out of your car and start walking. There are a lot of hikes in the area, from simple loops you can cover in an hour to multi-day hikes deep into the backcountry (bring lots of water). But for a nice taste of the island’s volcanic side and its jungle side, you want to take the Kilauea Iki Trail, which descends into a 50 year-old former lava lake.
I made this trek on my final day on the island, and for the first time on the entire trip I was glad for rain. You have to descend 400 feet through some seriously steamy jungle, and after two weeks of sweltering in frequent days of intense heat, I was fine with the weather turning gray. There are stairs and occasional railings to help you down, but the real show doesn’t start until you hit the floor.
It comes up on you suddenly, this landscape like an evil moon. You’re coming down through the jungle and then you turn and the world ends. Everywhere you look is a field of black, jagged rocks. It’s intense, strange, and looks mean as all hell. You wonder how anything could possibly grow in this landscape, ever.
But things do. Once this lava breaks down, it turns into the richest soil in the world. It’s just a matter of time.
I’m not sure if people have gotten lost on this terrain, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Everything looks vaguely nightmarish, so it’s hard to know exactly where to go. Fortunately, the park service decided to add these little rock piles throughout the route known as ahu, which help guide you along the path until you come to the floor of the lava lake.
The opening stretches require very good shoes. After my last pair of boots ate it in the Waipi’o Valley, I hit up a store to get some new ones. The clerk informed me that the pair I bought were the only ones that could handle lava rock. I guess that’s a selling point in Hawaii.
Once you pick your way through the rough patch, things smooth out, and I mean really smooth out, as you descend to the floor of the lava lake.
Despite its rolling design, this lava is as smooth as an asphalt highway.
Once you get here, it’s superhighway all the way across, and a well worn trail has been grooved across the plain. In the center, two walls of lava converge on either side of the smooth path like gates into Mordor (and if you can refrain from “Eye of Sauron” references as you pass through that portal, you’re a better soul than me).
It’s a powerful thing to do a full turn in the base of that lake and take in the 400 foot cliffs all around you. That’s solid rock, and the volcano cut this little stretch of hell like a hot knife through butter. It’s like standing at the beginning of the world.
Yes. That’s lava.
Once you hike out of the lake, you can make your way down the 20-some miles of the Chain of Craters road, where an astonishing amount of black lava has accumulated. You get so used to seeing the stuff that it’s a shock when you realize the world has dropped away and you are staring at the Pacific Ocean. A long, twisting road brings you to the foot of the island, where the lava flows finally capitulate against the rush of the Pacific. They’ve been doing this dance for thousands of years, and the island slowly built up. It looks like a struggle when you see film of lava pouring into the sea. Steam everywhere, the loud hiss of cooling fire. But the dance leads to some extraordinary moments, none more impressive than the massive sea arch jutting out from the edge of the land. Battered by the sea, but holding on like an anchor for the rest of the island, which continues to slowly grow in the middle of the ocean, fed by the center of the Earth.
Or, if you’re a romantic, by Pele’s furious temper.