Kilauea Caldera Hi Volcanoes Natl Park
Kilauea Caldera Hi Volcanoes Natl Park

By Lee Foster

On Hawaii’s Big Island a traveler can see ongoing volcanic eruption of the Kilauea Volcano. The sight occurs from a ledge adjacent to the Jaggar Museum. Few places on earth offer the traveler such a dependable presentation of this major geological phenomenon.

Pele in the mythical Hawaiian goddess in the volcanoes. The domain of Pele amounts to an enduring attraction on the Big Island of Hawaii. Pele is the goddess of fire, daughter of Haumea the Earth Mother and Wakea the Sky Father, who lives inside the two volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Pele is the melter of rocks, the builder of mountains, the eater of forests, the burner of lands. Within Pele are the paradoxical roles of creator and destroyer.

An appealing introduction to Pele’s domain at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park occurs at the Jaggar Museum (, on the north rim of the Kilauea Caldera. The Museum opened in 1987 to coincide with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Diamond Jubilee, the 75th anniversary of their volcanic observing, mapping, and surveying contribution to American life. The Museum honors Thomas A. Jaggar, a professor from MIT who founded the volcano observatory here in 1912.

The Museum enriches the discovery of Pele’s geologic domain for the average traveler. Featured in the museum is a painting by famous Hawaiian artist Herb Kane. The painting, showing ancient Polynesians in a canoe approaching Hawaii, suggests the theme of discovery. Then the traveler goes forward, in the Museum, to make his or her own discoveries in the world of geological science and historic culture.

The Jaggar Museum is housed in the earlier geological observatory building, which was replaced by a new facility. Travelers see six working seismographs chart the internal activity of the two live volcanoes. If major eruptions are imminent or occurring, the traveler gets ongoing predictions or briefings.

One special pleasure of the Jaggar Museum is a video of eruptions that have occurred here within the video-making era. Video gives you a fairly complete picture of the eruptive history of the two volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea.

Pele is now better known in all her fiery power to many visitors who could only imagine her eruptions before the Museum existed. The quality of the exhibits makes the Museum a showpiece of the U.S. Geological Survey.


The volcanoes of Hawaii differ from volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The Hawaii volcanoes, it is said, are laid back and calm, like the people. An eruption amounts to an outflowing of lava. By contrast, the Cascade chain of volcanoes, such as Mt. St. Helens, and the active Alaska volcanoes, have explosive natures. Size of the lava flows in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park simply stuns the imagination. Various flows, which scientists can pinpoint as to year of origin, spew over hundreds of square miles of landscape, causing a rough, newly-created appearance.

Getting To and Around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Highway 11 to Volcanoes National Park passes through forested terrain. You can enter the 344-square-mile park either on this direct route. Highway 130 to the coast and then up to the volcanoes became impassable due to lava flows. The Park offers both a coastal and a highland aspect, with a road descending through the terrain from the near the Kilaueau Visitor Center.

The gateway to the Park is Hilo (See my separate article: “Visiting Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.”) Some visitors also stay in Kona-Kohala. (See my separate article: “Visiting The Kona-Kohala Coast in the Big Island of Hawaii.”)

Hilo is a 40-minute commuter flight from Honolulu. The air flights between Honolulu and Hilo resemble bus trips or commuter train trips more than airline flights. Commuter flights can also take you between Kona and Hilo. United flies non-stop from LAX to Hilo and back.

Once in Hilo, you may want to rent a car at the airport unless you plan a particularly sedentary vacation or have a tour company organized. When looking at maps and planning excursions to the Park and around the island, keep in mind that the roads are low-speed roads with plenty of twists and turns. Considering this, plus the pleasure of stopping to look at sites, allow plenty of time for excursion trips. One of the pleasures of driving around the Big Island, as the Island of Hawaii is called, is that there are no billboards to deface the landscape.

History of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The history of interest here is the natural history covering two of the most observed active volcanoes on earth, Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Mauna Loa is the taller of the two volcanoes and is said to be one of the world’s largest volcano. If you consider it as rising from the ocean floor, the mountain is fully 31,700 feet high. You can drive toward the summit of Mauna Loa on the Mauna Loa Strip Road and get spectacular views at the road’s end, a shelter at 6,662 feet. The hike to the summit is an arduous one, however, because of the altitude, plus potential for sun, wind, and frost exposure.

Mauna Loa’s various eruptions in recent decades, including a 22-day performance in 1984, are part of the video-tape record that you are able to see in the Jaggar Museum. So massive were the outflows of lava in a 1950 eruption, for example, that the volume of material is said to be capable of paving a four-lane highway 4.5 times around the earth. During the 19th century the volcano erupted on the average every 3.8 years.

Kilauea is the little sister volcano, at 4,090 feet, but Kilauea is active now. Certain pyrotechnic performances, including curtains of lava spewing out, have made Kilauea a marvel to behold. These recorded performances are all available for viewing at the Jaggar Museum. The caldera of Kilauea is a shallow pan about 2.5 miles across. The central part of the pan is called Halemaumau or “The Fire Pit.” Major recent eruptions occurred in 1952 and in 1955. During that eruption the village of Pahoa, outside the park, was buried and curtains of lava shot forth for 88 days. Further eruptions in 1969, 1983, and 1985 assure visitors that the area is indeed volcanically alive. It is easy to imagine why the ancient Hawaiians paid such attentive homage to their fire god Pele, who is said to reside in the volcanoes.

Main Attractions of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Make the Kilauea Visitor Center your first stop at Volcanoes National Park after the 30-mile drive from Hilo. There are many nuances about the Park disclosed here. For example, it is said that 95 percent of the life forms in the Park were unique to the Hawaiian islands when man first arrived. It is believed that the coconut palm was either deliberately introduced here by the Polynesians or else floated here by itself. Also, most of the orchids of Hawaii are introduced. There are only three native species of orchids on this Big Island of Hawaii, which is sometimes called The Orchid Island. Other orchids have been imported. As could be anticipated, with the extensive logging, grazing, and agriculture on the Island of Hawaii, many of the original life forms have been destroyed. Regrettably, 25 species of birds are now known to be extinct on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Adjacent to the Kilauea Visitor Center is the Volcano Art Center, a restored wooden house where local arts and crafts from the Big Island are displayed.

After the Kilauea Visitor Center, begin to explore the Park by driving to selected places and by hiking. The volcanoes are sometimes called “drive-in” volcanoes because you can circle Kilauea in your car and peer into the caldera.

One fascinating hike is at Bird Park, a kipuka or island of soil and vegetation surrounded by more recent lava flows. Because fresh lava has not inundated this particular area for hundreds of years, the vegetation is a mature tropical rain forest favorable to many species of birds. Bird Park offers an appealing mile walk through a lush environment. The jungles of Hawaii are also devoid of the mammals and reptiles that lurk dangerously in other jungle areas of the world. This absence of hazard is one aspect of Hawaii approximating a paradise. In Bird Park you can see phenomena such as tree molds, where lava wrapped around a living tree, killing the tree, which then rotted out to leave a hole where the trunk displaced the lava. Some of these tree trunk holes go down 30-50 feet, which indicates the height of the lava flow.

Then drive around the Kilauea Caldera on the 11-mile clockwise drive, Crater Rim Road, peering into the simmering volcano at selected overlooks. The Jaggar Museum is on the north side of the caldera. You get a good view of the caldera from Uwekahuna Bluff. The Kau Desert is a moonscape on the west side of the caldera that reminds a traveler forcefully how diverse the climate can be in only a few miles distance. Little rain falls in the Kau Desert, but Hilo is a tropical rain forest environment and Waimea on the north slope of the mountains is an upland cattle-grazing terrain. When you hike past the crater along the Halemaumau Trail, you may be surrounded by smoke and a sulfurous smell. You can make extensive hikes through the volcanic area, aided by maps available at the Kilauea Visitor Center or the Jaggar Museum.

An intriguing Chain of Craters Road leads from the Kilauea Visitor Center/Jaggar Museum area down to the ocean through a moonscape terrain of lava flows and craters. Drive down to the ocean and then return on this road.

Highlight stops include a 1974 lava flow, the Pauahi Crater, and a massive area of lava flow from 1979.

Within the park, one of the most instructive walks, on the caldera lip, is the Devastation Trail, where an ohia and tree-fern forest was burned in a lava and pumice barrage. Under the proper light, Devastation Trail presents a surreal aura.

Kilauea Caldera Hi Volcanoes Natl Park
Kilauea Caldera Hi Volcanoes Natl Park

Seeing the elemental force of the volcanoes can thrust a traveler’s mind back to the early Hawaii era, as the islands were “discovered.” King Kamehameha was born on and conquered this island first. He lived in a world where kukui nuts provided an oil for lamps. The nuts were strung into attractive necklaces. Shells were used as trumpets. Because there was no written language, the elders carried the accumulated wisdom of the people in their memories. The Hawaiians ate bananas, breadfruit, taro, sweet potato, gourds, sugarcane, and ti. They were clever fishermen, taking shells and forming them into lures, to which bone hooks were attached, enabling them to catch fish and octopus. For fine fiber string they used the olona plant. For rougher lashings they braided senna, coconut tree fiber. They clothed themselves and made their blankets from tapa cloth.

Hawaiians respected the volcanic fire god and other gods and had a system of kapus to enforce, lest the god be irritated. To incur the wrath of a god was the great fear, so a series of taboos were created, with human execution required. Volcanic eruption was taken as a sign that the gods were angry. Who had offended them? Illness was a sign that you had offended the gods. The gods were everywhere, as is evident from one of the refrains in a recorded ancient Hawaiian song, which said, “Can the gods all be counted? The gods cannot be counted.”

The first arrivals on this Big Island of Hawaii are thought to have been Polynesians, who sailed the incredible 2400-mile voyage here, perhaps about the year 750 A.D. (though dates are debated), in long outrigger canoes. This southernmost Island in the Hawaii chain was probably their first landing point. They would have needed to bring all of their food plants and domestic animals with them because the Island of Hawaii, while offering a hospitable climate and fresh water, provided few food plants or food animals on land. Fortunately, the sea bounty probably saved them from starvation. About 1200-1400 A.D. a second wave of conquering newcomers may have arrived from Tahiti.

The population of the Big Island divided into political sectors, somewhat parallel to the political scene today. Kohala in the north, Kona in the west, Hamakua in the east, Hilo and Puna in the southeast, and Kau in the south were among the established areas.

Nearby Trips from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Nearby trips in the Hilo region are discussed in my article “Visiting Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island.” All of those nearby trips are east of the volcanoes.

West of the volcanoes, an interesting drive can be made to South Point, an appealing and rustic area. Before leaving the Park, the road passes a point of interest where you can hike to see a poignant sign, the hurried footprints of warriors on an ancient footpath. These warriors were running along the trail in 1790 to escape an eruption of the mountain that probably killed them. This 1790 eruption and one in 1924 were the two times the volcanoes have produced cataclysmic steam and gas explosions rather than relatively gentle outflows. The marks in the cinders of the warrior footprints, some preserved today under a glass protector, tell the story. The Footprint Trail, as the poorly-signed trail is called, is a 1.6 mile walk that you should allow about 1.5 hours to make. The terrain is harsh, with little rain and some sulfuric fumes.

The road southwest from the volcano, the Hawaii Belt Road, crosses a wild upland area of tangled brush. This landscape gives way to cattle grazing uplands, then to macadamia nut orchards and small towns. After the town of Puu Haao, the road turns south and is called South Point Road. This is a farming and then cattle grazing land of high terraces above the ocean. Fences in the area are made of lava stone.

At one point you pass a high-tech reminder of modern Hawaii, wind turbines of the Kamaoa Wind Farm. The total output of the Wind Farm is 200,000 kilowatts or enough electricity for 3,000 families in this climate. The area has been tested and found to possess moderate winds in the steady amounts needed for successful wind turbine investment. This site is thought to be one of the best potential wind-generating places on the Island.

At the end of South Point Road you are at the southernmost edge of the U.S. Drive as far as you can and prepare to walk the final half mile to the edge of the land mass. Where you park there are several long winches going down to the sea for fishing vessels to unload their catch. A small marker alerts you, before you make the final walk, that this is the Kalalea Kapu Heiau, a National Historic Site. At the end of the walk you will find the small heiau, made from chunks of black volcanic rock. In this relatively primitive setting, as you gaze at the walled sacred structure, so important to the ancient Hawaiians, you can savor a private empathy with these humans. This heiau, located in a rustic setting, without any interpretation, approximates what the area must have looked like in earlier times. A visit to this heiau offers a special experience, especially at sundown, when you witness the waves, sun, and sky as many generations of Hawaiians have done.


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: If You Go

For further information, contact the Hawaiian Visitors Bureau at

See also the Park Service official website at



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