Before this trip, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) was one of the few national parks I had visited. Although I had come to HVNP many times before, I had never hiked here and there were parts of the park I literally had not seen in twenty years. Venturing here with Ryan felt, in some respects, both like a welcomed homecoming and an opportunity to get to know this park, and the Big Island a little better.
Beginning in the wee hours of the morning, our visit to HVNP started at Hallema'uma'u Crater, nestled inside the Kilauea caldera. Here we were greeted by the gentle twinkle of stars above and the fiery red glow of Pele (Hawaiian Goddess of Fire) churning up the Earth's soul below. Wow. I was and still am at a loss for words. This was probably the most awe-inspiring displays of nature's majestic power to create and destroy that I have ever seen. I highly recommend sacrificing a few hours of sleep to see this pre-dawn display. We arrived at the caldera about 20 minutes before daybreak and stayed for an equally dramatic display of night slipping into day. It was simply stunning.
Next we hiked the Kilauea Iki trail. This four-mile loop descends through lush rain forest into a caldera once filled with liquid hot magma from the 1959 lava flow. The lava has since cooled and traversing this feels like a tour of Dante's aftermath as hikers pass scalded, dead trees, a dormant cinder cone, and piles and piles of lava rock including small steam vents housing their own miniature gardens. But wait, the landscape is littered with young trees sprouting vibrantly red blossoms as if they are paying tribute to their once molten bed, while continuing the cycle of life. The stretch through the cooled caldera is exposed, so bring a hat lest you emerge on the other side with a snazzy sunglasses tan, aka "raccoon face" like yours truly.
One popular activity in the park is driving Chain of Craters Road, which passes through several different lava flows from over the generations, and is accented by multiple, shorter hikes. We stopped to hike Mauna Ulu, which in Hawaiian means "growing mountain." The trail is marked by cairns, or ahu in Hawaiian, and winds through terrain boasting lava formations so bizarre it feels like a volcanic Dali painting. The trail includes a spur to the mountain's official lookout and enables hikers to climb up the mountain itself and peer into its interior crater.
Other popular activities in the park include the Devastation Trail and Crater Rim Drive. These, unfortunately were closed during our visit due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide resultant from the ever bubbling volcano. Additionally, the famous Kilauea lava flow has delighted visitors near and far with its endless spewing into the Pacific Ocean; this however has since waned and was not on display during our visit. Similarly, the park's two campgrounds (Namakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki) were closed during our visit due to rain-heavy tropical depression Hilda, who passed to the south of Hawaii Island.
HVNP was wild and beautiful, as usual, and a fulfilling part of our time in Hawaii, and I feel privileged to have climbed deeper and explored further than ever before. But the hiking adventures did not stop there. If (and when) you come to the Big Island, there a few other trails I would recommend hiking to sample fully the diversity and beauty this magical place has to offer. And, I am certain that there are many more to explore!
Waipi'o Valley is a slice of Eden with cultural and historical significance in Hawaii. Kings once lived here and visitors must take care to respect it and its modern-day inhabitants. Hiking this valley begins with a steep decent from the parking lot - be prepared for an intense climb out, but it is worth every step! Once in the valley, you can turn left and wander along the county road for a view of idyllic Hi'ilawe Falls. To the right of the access road is a path that leads to a sprawling, mile-long black sand beach. The trail picks up on the opposite side of the valley and continues up and over the sheer wall for a longer, more challenging hike, or an overnight in the adjacent Waimanu Valley.
Pololu Valley attracts swarms of tourists to the lookout and the trail, so plan accordingly. The hike into the valley is just under one and one-half miles, but hikers can extend their visit by walking up the black sand beach (be on the lookout for washed-up jellyfish) and exploring the forest on the valley floor. We wandered up the shoreline dodging waves, photographing rock sculptures, and searching for the well-camouflaged rope swings - we found them! Thank you to Ivan, my CouchSurfing host for sharing this secret with me many moons ago. What fun!
Papakolea (Green Sand) Beach is a hike that I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember! This is a six-mile round trip hike that follows a higgledy piggledy network of dirt roads that lead to the beach so choose your own adventure, you'll get there eventually. The hike is easy, but completely exposed so bring water, gatorade and, if you're like Ryan and me, beer; Green Sand Beach was the perfect, surreal setting for a recent Hiker's Happy Hour as we perched on the Dr. Seuss-like rock formations sheltering this geological masterpiece surrounded by strikingly turquoise waters of the Pacific ocean. Also, this hike is very near the southernmost point in the United States.
If all of that hiking has made you thirsty and hungry, check out the Big Island Brewhaus & Tako Taqueria in whimsical Waimea. It is a burrito joint and a brewery (brilliant) and you must try the Starshine Gingerbier. If you're in Hilo, visit the Mehana/Hawaii Nui Brewing Company. The tasting room is open to the public and offers free samples of its dozen-or-so resident brews. It is definitely worth stopping by, and I particularly liked the Volcano Red Ale. The popular Kona Brewing Company, located in Kailua-Kona has an extensive menu of food and beers infused with local flavors. Specifically, we recommend trying the Wailua Wheat, Lemongrass Luau and/or the Pipeline Porter to wash down a slice of sweet potato haupia pie. Okole maluna!
As you may have guessed, I love the Big Island. Our time here was short, but it was full of exploration and discovery as we hiked, climbed and relaxed in the company of serene tropical valleys, scraggly lava rocks, and the Pacific Ocean's rhythmic tide - we even got to swim with sea turtles! I feel so lucky to have visited this special place with Ryan. We look forward to many more adventures hiking farther, climbing higher, and breathing deeper on this unique island.