Photos by Stephen and Donna O’ Meara; © Tanguy de Saint Cyr-Fotolia.com
One of the most popular drives on Hawaii Island is the stretch of Highway 11 from the old sugar plantation town of Keaau to lovely Volcano Village on the outskirts of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. How many places on Earth can you drive right to the edge of a live, fiery, erupting volcano? Not many. But here on the Big Island of Hawaii, there are several spots where you can drive up and experience nature at its fieriest.
Experience the Big Island with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
Perhaps as a reflection of its popularity, more and more bed-and-breakfast operations have opened in the area, along the scenic drive known as the Volcano Heritage Corridor. Look for the brown and white signs along the highway, which indicate areas of historical interest.
Along the way, sights and points of interest include historic Keaau (with the modern conveniences of Keaau Village Market), an old coffee mill, a winery, nature preserves and several art venues featuring the marvelous creations of resident artists. For years, the mana (miraculous power) and legends of the Volcano region have been a source of inspiration for some of the Islands’ finest artists, including painters, woodblock printers, photographers and sculptors. You, too, may be inspired by the Heritage Corridor, one of several on this big, Big Island.
The entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is just off of Highway 11, located 26 miles from Hilo, a 45-minute to one-hour drive. The admission fee is $10 for each private vehicle, which is good for seven days (not transferrable). Just beyond the park’s entrance, spend time at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where an introductory film and displays provide an excellent introduction to region. Current eruption news is also available here.
Visitors with limited time head straight for the Crater Rim Drive around the impressive Kilauea Caldera, which has been erupting almost continuously since 1983. Currently, the caldera is spewing giant clouds of sulfur dioxide, so the southern flank has been closed indefinitely. Still, several hours can be devoted to exploring all the sights along the northern portion of the road, including short hikes to Thurston Lava Tube, Devastation Trail and the Halemaumau Crater Lookout. Also save time to visit the fascinating Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, featuring excellent information about volcanology. The museum is also a good spot from which to view Halemaumau’s fuming vent, especially after sunset when the massive pit glows red with fire.
For those with no time constraints, continue toward the coastline on the scenic Chain of Craters Road, which follows past lava flows from the heights of Kilauea down to the sea. At the point where the Chain of Craters Road begins to descend, there is a magnificent view of the coastline, and you can see plumes of steam whenever molten lava spills into the ocean. The road descends 3,700 feet in 20 miles, ending near the coastline where a lava flow cut off all access nearly 10 years ago. Except for restrooms and a shaded pavilion with picnic benches at the lookout on Chain of Craters Road, there are no other public facilities, so be sure you have adequate water, snacks and a full tank of gas.
Kilauea’s East Rift Zone eruption, which began in 1983, is the longest continuous rift-zone eruption in written history. Kilauea, which means “much sprewing,” is the world’s most active volcano. Volcanic activity, including oozing streams of magma spilling into the ocean, is always changing. Daily reports are posted at the visitor center for those who hope to view the dramatic nighttime sight of fiery lava meeting the sea, and the towering steam plumes it creates. Certain precautions must be taken for any hike into this area. The National Park Service has a four-minute video entitled, “Plan for Safe Viewing of Lava Flows.”
On your return to the park’s entrance, save time to visit the charming Volcano Art Center Gallery, which makes its home in the original Volcano House Hotel, built in 1877. Just outside the park, Kipuka Puaulu Bird Park is a lovely side trip, and it’s free. Take Mauna Loa Road to the park entrance, which is located a short drive off Highway 11. In this vast area of volcanic activity, the park features a forest of koa trees that have escaped centuries of eruptions, with a wealth of bird life that make this oasis its home.
For the latest updates on eruption news, call the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at 985-6000.
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