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Fire It Up

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sparks a sense of adventure and awe in travelers to the Big Island.

It was dark when we arrived at our hotel. A soft rain had begun to fall. We were slightly jetlagged and ready to fall face-first into bed, but we crossed the room in a rush, jerked open the drapes, and pressed our faces up against the window.


Above: After sunset, the vivid glow from the lava lake within the Halema’uma’u Crater illuminates the plume rising from it. A good view can be found at the Jaggar Museum. Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Below: Visitors exploring the Thurston Lava Tube. Kirk Lee Aeder/Big Island Visitors Bureau

Lava Tube

There it was – what we had flown 4,000 miles for – a warm orange glow that, even in the rain, let us know that our day tomorrow was going to be like none before. We had a date with Madame Pele – the Hawaiian goddess of fire and the force behind the volcano Kilauea, which was producing that powerful orange glow outside our hotel room window.

In honor of the U.S. National Park Service's 100th birthday in 2016, we had come to the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a park that also was founded 100 years ago when Hawaii was a U.S. territory in order to provide travelers from around the world a rare opportunity to witness an active volcano. In 1987, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Before the park service came into being, it was a difficult and dangerous journey for visitors to see the volcanoes, but still they came,” said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist at the park.

Two Volcanoes in One Park

Volcanoes National Park is much more than a big lake of molten rock that often takes off on a new path to the sea. At 333,000 acres and 520 square miles, the park is almost as big as the entire island of Oahu and covers seven ecological zones while protecting more than 50 endangered species.

While Kilauea is the more visible and smelly of the two volcanoes, Mauna Loa is the world's largest volcano. The summit is more than 13,000 feet high and only accessible by hiking and backcountry camping. Mauna Loa has been rather quiet since her last blow in 1984, but she is far from dormant. Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (located within the park) have recorded a number of minor earthquakes in recent years and anticipate another big show is on the horizon.

We spent our first morning hiking the Halema’uma’u Trail that begins just behind the Volcano House Hotel. It drops about 425 feet into the crater through a rich, dense rainforest. If you're a person who likes to see, touch, and read about unusual plants that don’t grow at home, this mile-long trail is for you. Just remember, when you hike down 425 feet, you also have to hike back up 425 feet.

After we caught our breath, we hiked the Devastation Trail, in part because we liked the name, but also because the moonscape appearance of the area, just four miles away, is such a drastic contrast to the verdant Halema’uma’u Trail. Both trails emphasize the unique character of this land and that to truly appreciate a national park, you must get out of your vehicle, burn a few calories, and check out what Mother Nature has created.

That said, you do need a vehicle to reach some really cool places inside the park.

The Chain of Craters Road takes you past a number of former Hawaiian villages en route to the ocean and the Holei Sea Arch, which the sea has carved from a massive piece of lava over 100 years.

A trip along Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road provides great views of both volcanoes and a number of geological features that demonstrate the life cycle of a volcano. One of the most popular sites in the park is found along Chain of Craters Road – the Thurston Lava Tube.

Entering the Thurston Lava Tube is like walking onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie. A dense, creeping rainforest nearly covers the entrance to what looks like a cave but is really the remains of a massive lava flow. As outer edges of the lava cool and harden, the interior remains filled with flowing hot lava until the eruption has played out. This now-cool tube is a nice walk, a little rugged in places, but well lit. Come in the early morning for the sounds of birds and the sunrise slicing through the thickness of the forest.

After Dark in the Park

Perhaps more than any other unit of the National Park Service, Volcanoes National Park is most spectacular after dark. That's when the parking lot at the Jaggar Museum fills to the point that park rangers are needed to manage the commotion.

From the observation deck, you are about a mile from the fiery, molten lake of Kilauea's crater, and really, that's about as close as you want to get. The observation deck is open 24 hours, but in those hours between the sun setting and rising again, You'll likely not be alone watching and photographing the glow and steam.

The Jaggar Museum, named for the founder of the adjacent Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, is open until 8 p.m. This museum makes the science of volcanoes a fascinating field of study. A working seismograph shows real-time activity in the ground just below your feet, while other exhibits teach you about the various types of lava and eruptions.

Regular patrons of the National Park Service may recognize that “After Dark in the Park” is not limited to Volcanoes National Park. This popular program now enjoyed in many places began here in 1990 in an effort to continue the educational and cultural programming that makes a national park visit so worthwhile.

To celebrate the birthdays of the National Park Service and this particular park, the 2016 programs focus on the science, ecology, and biodiversity of this unit. Many of the programs will showcase wildlife, such as the endangered hawksbill turtle and the Hawaiian goose. The history of the park will also be explored.

Instead of bringing a present to this birthday party, schedule your visit to coincide with one of the Centennial Hikes where visitors can get their hands dirty to save these resources. Chop down invasive Himalayan ginger from the rainforest at the summit of Kilauea or clean up parts of state Highway 11 that pass through Hawaiian goose habitat. Other ranger-led hikes are not so labor-intensive, but instead illuminate the archeological and environmental treasures within this park's boundaries.

Spend the Night on a Volcano

“It helps to wake up here,” said Ferracane in talking about the best times to experience the treasures of this park. Because it is so spectacular after dark, spending the night here is certainly worth the time and money. There are two campgrounds that include some rustic cabins and one 33-room lodge, which is a treat in itself.

The Volcano House Hotel predates the founding of the park and the park service by 70 years. Missouri's own Mark Twain was a guest here in 1866. The original property burned and was rebuilt in 1941 and, as recently as 2013, was remodeled.

Even if the rooms are booked, make every effort to enjoy a meal at The Rim Restaurant, which offers an unobstructed view of the Kilauea crater.

Diana Lambdin Meyer is a contributor from Parkville, Mo.

March/April 2016 Issue


Bring rain gear and warm jackets. The Kilauea Visitors Center is at 4,000 feet and at that altitude, it gets a little chilly, especially at night in the rain. The temperatures in the park are easily 15 degrees cooler than at sea level. you're in a rainforest and it rains a little bit almost every day. November is the rainy season.

Bring a tripod or some lightweight, low-cost gadget to balance your camera for the best shots at night. For more details about activities in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, call
(808) 985-6000 or visit

Let AAA Travel help you plan a trip to Hawaii. Pleasant Holidays, a member of the Auto Club's family of companies, offers several packages to this destination. For more information, contact your AAA professional near you.


A date which will live in infamy

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy surprise attack at Pearl Harbor that immediately launched the United States into WWII. A symbol of the lives lost that day, the USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated in 1962 and became a unit of the National Park Service in 1980. A new, expanded museum and visitors’ center debuted in 2010.

The events of Dec. 7, 1941, are well documented in film, books, and at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor. But what is not as well known is the work of National Park Service divers whose job duties, among others, include the interment of USS Arizona survivors in the wreckage of the ship.

Travel writer Diana Lambdin Meyer talked with two members of the NPS dive team about this solemn responsibility and their unique perspective of the USS Arizona and Pearl Harbor. Find her story at


The national memorial that straddles the sunken battleship. National Park Service

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