Story and photograph by Jerry Ginsberg ©
Hawaii. Just saying the name conjures up visions of a tropical paradise–palm trees, trade winds, sunsets and hula dancers gyrating to the rhythms of the eight major islands that make up the archipelago. Our fiftieth state boasts two national parks. There’s mighty Haleakala on the island of Maui and, the subject of this article, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.
Did you know that all of the Hawaiian Islands were formed from volcanoes over millions of years? Molten lava bubbling up through vents of a well-known hot spot on the floor of the Pacific Ocean is responsible for their creation. As the entire archipelago moves northwest in conveyor belt fashion, Hawaii is presently the island directly over the hot spot.
In addition to being well-known for a string of luxury resort hotels, Hawaii is made up of no less than five giant volcanoes. Tallest among these is Mauna Kea at 13,789 feet, but with a total height of just over 33,000 feet from its base on the ocean floor to its summit. If all of this towering height were above water, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world, towering almost a mile over 29,029-foot Mt. Everest. Massive and still active, Mauna Loa, while just a shade less tall, is by far the world’s biggest volcano by volume.
When traveling to this area, with a little planning and some luck, you might get to see new land being formed. This is both an exciting and humbling experience. It’s a little like being a witness to the Earth’s creation.
The entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is right off Route 11, about 30 miles south of Hilo. The main attraction is the very powerful Kilauea Volcano which has been erupting almost continuously since 1983.
Most of the best scenic and photo spots are right along or very close to the two roads: Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road, both well-paved and fully accessible by car.
Among the not-to-be-missed features are a visit to the Jagger Museum and its terrace, a stroll through the Thurston lava tube, stops at surface vents such as Halema’uma’u and Kilauea Iki and, the spot at which the pavement ends, the stunning Holei Sea Arch. About two miles west of the arch is the small parking area at the head of the very easy three-quarter mile trail to unique Pu’u Loa petroglyphs.
All along Chain of Craters Road are interesting jet black lava forms and contrasting candy pink lehua blossoms (seasonal). Park at one of the pullouts and take a stroll. Be careful when walking around all of that braided lava, which is razor sharp and can slice through human skin in the blink of an eye. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
After a full day of fun driving all around this park, take some time to prepare for the late evening light show. If–and this is only an if–a vent somewhere along the East Coast of the island is currently shooting lava skyward, pack up your very longest lens, tripod, water bottle, a small umbrella, plenty of patience and head out a few hours before sunset for that spot. Since you will probably be walking over very broken ground, sturdy boots are a must. Park personnel or the local authorities are on hand to direct both cars and pedestrians. Be in position well before sunset in order to capture the flying red lava against the sky before it turns completely black.
For a very different view of Kilauea, consider taking a scenic helicopter tour from Hilo Airport.
If you have a yen to venture beyond the park, try Punalu’u black sand beach south of the park entrance, Rainbow Falls in Hilo and Akaka Falls a few miles north–just past quaint Honomu.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer and co-founder of Master Image Workshops. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks with medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.MasterImageWorkshops.com; his email is email@example.com.