A Walk in the Park

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park reopened to the public at the end of September. Reshaped by the eruptions the park has substantially changed since I was last there back in February. It was well past time I got myself out to the park to see the changes, it had been open almost two months!

Julian examines a lava mushroom near the 1969 fissure on the Mauna Ulu trail
I had resolved to go over the long holiday weekend. An additional idea occurred to me, if I was going, why not kidnap my young nephews along for the trip. We would leave the gals to whatever they will do, and go have an adventure.

Off we go.

It is a two hour drive around the south side of the island from the south Kona home of Julian and Kevin. We stop along the way at Whittington Beach Park, and enjoy the scenery along the road. We talk about volcanoes and lava flows while crossing the black Mauna Loa flows around HOVE.

Asking at the front gate I find that the park service will not give me any credit on my annual pass for the six months the park was closed. I had to ask.

We also do the obligatory stop at the visitor center where I give my nephews a basic overview of the volcano using the maps and models. This is Kevin and Julian’s first visit to the park, I need to do it right. After the visitor center we head for the Steam Vents overlook for a first view of the caldera after the collapse.

The changes to the main caldera are dramatic, one I was prepared for, but was still awed when I finally saw for myself. The once flat caldera floor is partly gone, replaced with a yawning chasm that is so large it is hard to comprehend. Trails, overlooks, roads, and parking lots I once wandered are gone, swallowed by the caldera collapse.

Kilauea Caldera
Looking into Kilauea Caldera after the collapse of 2018 from the Steam Vents overlook

It was not a single walk in the park, rather we did three walks… We walked the Sulphur Bank Trail, Devastation Trail, and the Mauna Ulu trail. Short walks, but a few of them, throw in stops at a few overlooks and we had a nice day at the park, sampling the parts of the main park that are open.

Disappointingly Thurston Lava Tube is not open to the public, with no word on when it may reopen. Likewise one of my favorite trails, Kilauea Iki remains closed due to unstable rock above the trail on the steep switchbacks down into the pit crater.

Steam Vents
Kevin and Julian experience the steam vents along the caldera rim
The real loss is the Jagger Museum. The foundation and structure of the building were badly damaged by the caldera collapse events through the summer. There is doubt about the stability of the entire bluff upon which the museum stands.

I recall so many great visits to the museum and the overlook in front of the building, watching the lava lake churn and froth below. The bluff still offers the best view of the caldera, I wonder if and when that part of the park will be open again.

Still, the park is open, and what there is to see is still great. The park service is striving to reopen sections of the park as repairs are made to trails, roads, and other facilities. Guests are returning to the volcano, on this day after Thanksgiving it was busy, finding parking spaces at the various overlooks and trail heads was often an issue.

Camera Lesson
Learning to use a camera with manual controls
I had with me a couple good cameras for the boys to use, a Canon G11 and G12. They had never had the chance to use a camera offering manual control.

Along the way I taught them how to use the cameras and some of the basics of composition like the rule of thirds. Over 400 photos and videos are on the memory cards. Julian took a lot of odd, blurry shots as expected from a ten year old, but some surprisingly good photos as well.

After eating a picnic lunch packed by mom, we walked out to Sulphur Bank from the visitor center. Many visitors miss this great short walk leading to steaming fumaroles in a cliff stained with minerals by the escaping gasses. Here you can look into the little cracks to see masses of bright yellow sulfur crystals forming. Julian let us know that the thick smell of sulfur was disgusting in very expressive terms.

After a short walk at Devastation Trail we went on the the Mauna Ulu trail. This is one of the best trails in the park, an excellent choice if you are only doing short day hikes. There are so many features left by this series of eruptions that began in 1969 and continued on to 1974.

If nothing else walk the couple hundred yards south of the Mauna Ulu trailhead to see the lava trees and fissure. This fissure is a great stand in for the fissures throughout Lelani estates, one you can visit without daring the county ban on visiting our newest eruption site.

We had our adventure, returning to Kona tired and satisfied. Mission accomplished, volcano explored, a few things learned along the way.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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