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This article provided by Anne M Russell from the Orange County Register

In a national park that draws 2.5 million visitors a year, I was surprised to find myself in absolute solitude. I hadn’t seen another hiker since I’d set out two hours earlier. I sat down on a boulder shaded by red-blossomed ohia trees and giant tree ferns to eat the lunch I’d brought and I heard nothing but birds singing as I looked out through the mist over the Kilauea Iki Crater.  Volcanoes National Park, a World Heritage Site that will celebrate its centennial in 2016, covers 333,000 acres on the southeastern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. No matter what you think a volcano is supposed to look like (and my sole reference was the faux one in front of Las Vegas’ Mirage hotel), you will find the park isn’t what you expected.  The terrain – from cloud-shrouded rain forest to arid coastal cliffs to stark black lava flows broken by vents where puffs of steam rise – ranges from beautiful and exhilarating to harsh and unnerving. The best way to experience it is step by step, so that you can absorb the drama of the landscape.  I had flown into Kona, which meant a three-hour drive on the Mamalahoa Highway along the coast and around South Point to the park. (The Big Island has two major airports: Kona, on the dry, leeward side of the island near the big resorts of Kohala and Waikoloa; and  Hilo, on the rainy, windward side. The smaller of the two airports, Hilo is less than an hour away.)

The tiny village of Volcano, which is at a 4,000-foot altitude, can be surprisingly chilly and is often overcast, sometimes with ordinary clouds and sometimes with “vog,” a mix of moist air and sulfate aerosols from the volcano.  I was grateful to have a small space heater and multiple quilts in my room at the Aloha Junction Bed & Breakfast and happy I had brought a fleece jacket. Volcano has a general store where you can pick up food and snacks to take on your hike, and a good casual restaurant, the Lava Rock Café, that serves three meals a day. Even if you’re not a guest at the 33-room Volcano House, you can eat at the Rim Restaurant there. The hotel underwent a $3 million renovation last year and has spectacular views of the caldera, so it’s definitely worth a stop.  Even the short, partially paved Sulfur Banks trail behind the neighboring visitor center is worth a walk, since it passes some spectacular vents that take little imagination to envision as an underworld beast’s panting mouth. In contrast, delicate white bamboo orchids grow among the grasses that line the walk.  The park entry fee is $10 for seven days, so you’re free to come and go as long as you show your receipt. There are 155 miles of marked hiking trails, including some coastal routes with shelters that are for multi-day hikes and one extremely challenging path that ascends to the 13,677-foot summit of Mauna Loa.

Hiking on lava

Although the park never closes, if you’re going to camp overnight, you need to check in with the rangers at the visitor center for a permit. Even if you’re not staying overnight, it pays to be prepared with hiking poles, especially for traversing the black “aa” lava – that’s the rough, sharp kind, as opposed to the silvery “pahoehoe” lava, which is elegantly rippled. Hiking shoes or boots are also a smart idea, as is a waterproof sun hat, sunglasses and a generous supply of water and sunblock. A rain jacket can be a lifesaver, since rain can come on suddenly.  When I visited, the lava wasn’t bubbling up at its current tourist-friendly location below the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum in the Halemaumau Crater. While the lava lake’s locale along Crater Rim Drive further secures Kilauea’s reputation as a “drive-by volcano,” it also means that the longtime drop of lava into the ocean, which caused enormous clouds of glowing orange steam to rise for a spectacular show after dark, has ceased for now.  It’s important to understand that the lava’s pathways are whimsical, so there is no guarantee as to what it will be doing when you get there. The Puu Oo vent has been producing continuously since 1983, but not always in locations that are easily accessible.

Right now, the fuming lava lake at the Halemaumau Crater in the Kilauea Caldera has put some of the most popular hiking trails off limits, including part of the 11.6-mile Crater Rim Trail that circumnavigates the entire caldera. Likewise, parts of the Byron Ledge and Halemaumau trails, which lead right into the boiling crater, are closed.  However, my favorite path, the Kilauea Iki Trail that traverses the “little” (iki, in Hawaiian) Kilauea Crater is open. The trail is a 4-mile loop, and while its hills, slippery footing and uneven lava mean it isn’t easy, it’s comfortable for an experienced hiker. At about the halfway point, you come to the Thurston Lava Tube and, equally important, bathrooms and drinking water, which are rare in the park’s outlying areas. The lava tube is an enormous cave formed as surface lava hardened and underground lava continued flowing. It’s worth detouring to see.

When I last visited, the lava was still making its way to the sea and demanded a long hike across fresh aa lava at the end of Chain of Craters Road. I had expected to feel joy as I got close to the active flow. After all, where else can you see the creation of new land?  Instead, I was overwhelmed with the destructive power of the 2,100-degree glowing lava.  Park Service signs warning of the potential for death if the sulfurous plume shifted direction did nothing to lighten my mood. On the most primal level, it was terrifying. Little wonder that the traditional Hawaiian religion includes much placating of the fire goddess Pele.

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