5 Ways to Get Your Volcanic Fix on Hawaii’s Big Island

by  Will McGough | Dec 3, 2015
Mauna Kea summit
Mauna Kea summit / W. M. Keck Observatory

Hawaii Island is one of most ecologically diverse islands in the world, home to dozens of microclimates and nearly every ecosystem found on the planet. Each and every one of them are fascinating, but our favorite is arguably the volcanic terrain. Good thing, then, that the island offers the chance to explore not one but five fiery formations -- in fact, Hawaii Island (or Big Island) owes its existence to their eruptions. Here, we share five volcano experiences for all levels of adventuring.

1. Peer down into the pit craters on Hualalai.
All visitors flying into Kona International Airport are greeted by lava from Hualalai, which last flowed during the 1801 eruption. The volcano’s other claim is its 120 pit craters -- including one of the deepest on Earth, known as Puhia Pele and measuring 800-900 feet. You can hike to it yourself in under a mile -- the SummitPost forum has great detailed directions -- or go with a tour for guidance and education.

2. Explore the northern coastal valleys of Kohala.
Kohala is the oldest volcano of the Big Island’s five -- meaning that when you walk upon it, you’re exploring the origin and birthplace of the island. Its best attribute is its northern coast, which encompasses Waipi’o, Waimanu, and Pololū Valleys. The first of the these valleys is the most accessible, punctured with waterfalls and a black-sand beach. Start a tour of the coast here, heading to the Waipi’o Valley lookout in a four-wheel drive and stopping to read read about the 1946 tsunami that wiped out most of the valley. From there, drive down the steep road (descending 800 feet in 0.6 miles) and make your way to the black-sand Waipi’o Beach, before continuing along the coast to Kuluahine Falls.

3. Hike cabin-to-cabin in route to the summit of Mauna Loa.
This one’s exclusively for the experienced hikers. Summiting Mauna Loa is one of the most rewarding, extreme experiences a person can have amongst the volcanoes. The world’s largest volcano in terms of total area, Mauna Loa’s terrain covers a little more than 50 percent of the island. Even more interesting is the harsh Mars-like ecosystem of the volcano, including un-Hawaii-like temperatures that dip below freezing. Multi-day excursions to discover this phenomenon are made possible by two overnight cabins -- one at 10,035 feet and another just below the summit at 13,250 feet. Note that permits are required and can be obtained for free from the Volcanoes National Park Backcountry Office.

4. Visit the summit observatories and experience some of the world’s best stargazing on Mauna Kea.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea is an oldie but such a goodie that it deserves another highlight. Topping out at 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea is the tallest volcano in the world, with a collection of observatories support by 11 countries at the summit. Unsurprisingly, stargazing is phenomenal here, and, for city dwellers not used to the view, the number of stars visible can be quite overwhelming. If you're looking for some guidance, the volcano's Visitor Information Station hosts a nightly program that's free. Or, sign up with Hawaii Forest and Trail and make it a day's experience, complete with a picnic dinner, summit sunset, and stargazing session with an 11” Celestron telescope (eight hours for $199 per person).

5. See the lava meet the sea by day and see the crater by night on Kilauea.
Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes; it’s been erupting consistently since 1983. The lava isn’t overflowing into the ocean currently, but you can see where it once did by driving to the end of Crater Rim Drive in Volcanoes National Park. From the sea, you’ll get a clear view of the lava path as you look back inland. Another great way to add perspective is to get a map that identifies the lava fields and the year they flowed from the visitor center. Stick around till nightfall and be rewarded with glowing views of the fiery, bubbling lava at the Kilauea crater. (In fact, it’s one of our favorite places to visit after dark.) For a nightcap, pay a visit to the adjacent Volcano House Restaurant and try a piece of coconut crème pie.

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