The state of Hawaii is made up of eight islands sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire. And it’s fire that gave rise to each island. Molten lava broke through the ocean floor to burst through the waves in the form of volcanoes, and it’s these volcanoes that created each isle.
Most of these island-creating volcanoes have been extinguished. The islands of Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Lanai, Molokai, and Kahoolawe now wait to be eroded back under the ocean waves like so many Hawaiian islands before them.
That leaves only Maui and the Big Island with active volcanoes, but Maui’s indomitable Haleakala volcano hasn’t erupted for centuries. The fire may very well be out on Maui, as well.
This is what makes the Big Island unique in a chain of incredibly unique islands. It’s still alive. It still grows. It’s home to five of the six still-active volcanoes in Hawaii, and one volcano, in particular, has been erupting non-stop for decades, and you can see its destructive path on the Chain of Craters Road.
The Big Island shares the name of the state -- Hawaii -- and it’s the state’s youngest island. You can see its youth right when you touchdown in Kona to step off the plane in the open-air airport. The air here is dry as an Arizona desert. It’s not tropically humid like the fragrant air at all the other Hawaiian airports.
Kona Airport is surrounded by glassy, sharp, reflective fields of hot volcanic rock. This used to be the flow zone for the still active Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. Molten rock poured down the sides of the 13,000-foot peaks towards the ocean, and, once it hit the cooling waters of the sea, it hardened to form new land.
But the new land is inhospitable. There is scant vegetation. It takes decades and even centuries for the land to soften enough to hold dirt, moisture, and plants. But eventually, the hardened landscape around Kona Airport on the western side of the Big Island will turn green and tropical like the oldest island of Kauai.
The Big Island’s many black sand beaches are also a sign of the island’s youth. The cooled and hardened lava rock is pounded by the waves into gritty little bits to make black “sand.” The sand can be abrasive underfoot, so black sand beaches are usually better to look at rather than to use recreationally.
The Big Island is home to five active volcanoes. The island’s twin towering peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are still active, and so is the smaller Hualalai volcano. There’s a rather active underwater volcano named Loihi just off the Big Island’s shores, but it’s the ever-erupting Kilauea volcano that is the big draw.
Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and Loihi erupt infrequently, but Kilauea has been flowing constantly ever since 1983. And its this constant eruption, with its ample opportunities for lava viewing, that inspired the creation of Volcanoes National Park on the southeast side of Hawaii. And you’ll find the incredible Chain of Craters Road inside the park.
It’s nearly impossible to predict volcanic activity, and that’s why the constant flow of Kilauea is such a big attraction. For decades, the volcanoes cauldrons and rivers of lava could be viewed safely inside the national park under the guide of park rangers. Unfortunately, an eruption in May of 2018 changed all of that.
The eruption changed the landscape inside the park. Seismic activity overflowed the park’s main attraction -- the lava lake -- forcing the park to close for safety reasons. The explosions continued into the summer, and, when all the dust settled, the rangers returned to the park to see that the lake and its flows had drained.
Rangers are confident that the lava will return to the lake, which was the largest lava lake on planet earth. Rangers point to the fact that the lake has drained in the past only to return. There’s still a viewing platform and the park is still open 24 hours a day to allow viewing at night, but there’s no lava inside the park as of publication.
This does not mean that Kilauea has stopped erupting. The volcanoes craters and lava flows have just changed locations, and the molten rock can still be seen pouring into the ocean on the southeast side of the island. You’ll have to brave the Lower East Rift Zone if you want to see Kilauea's current activity.
Volcanoes National Park is still a wonderful place to visit. You can spend time with rangers learning about Hawaii’s volcanic history at the park’s visitor’s center, visit underground lava tubes, and there’s a myriad of unique hikes with names like Devastation Trail. You can also cruise the park’s two scenic drives to see the destruction of volcanic eruptions past.
Most visitors take Crater Rim Drive to the now-drained Kilauea Caldera, but you can take the road less traveled to leave the crowds behind on the Chain of Craters Road.
The drive begins at over 4,000 feet of elevation inside the park’s older, lusher landscape. The curvy drive, which takes about 45 minutes one-way, will break through the vegetation and then descend into a myriad of landscapes.
You’ll begin to pass several old volcanic craters as you enter a lava field with the ocean sparkling off in the distance. Each of the craters is unique, and you can stop for pictures or continue the drive down towards the coast.
Just past mile marker 16, you can stop for a short hike to ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs. A boardwalk will take you over an old flow of lava to the largest collection of ancient Hawaiian rock carvings in the state. Make sure to stay on the boardwalk to preserve the carvings, and the 1.5-mile out-and-back hike takes about a half-hour.
At the very end of the road, just past mile marker 19, you’ll find a beautiful sea arch created by rapidly cooling lava. It’s just a short walk from the road, and the arch makes for a great social media pic. The road dead-ends just after the arch, so you’ll have to turn around to drive back up into the park.
The Chain of Craters Road was first paved back in 1923 and additional road was added during the 1960s. Then 1969’s Mauna Ulu eruption buried parts of the road, and it wasn’t reopened until 1979.
Kilauea has been predictable in one sense and completely unpredictable in another. It’s been constantly erupting for decades, but the direction of its lava flows cannot be forecast. Different eruptions have buried parts of the Chain of Craters Road over the years which has forced closures, repavings, and realignments of the road.
In fact, Kilauea's activity may close the road when you visit. You’ll have to check the road’s availability online before heading to the park, or you can simply ask the rangers at the visitors center if the road is open during the day you visit.