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Exploring Paradise In Three Days

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The “fire hose” of molten rock pouring out of a cliff at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park will leave you spellbound/Rebecca Latson

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has, you could say, a personality disorder. There are few national parks that offer so many varied experiences — seacoast, rain forest, volcanism, even snowfields — as does Hawai’i Volcanoes.

I visited the park in October 2014 and again in February 2017. The thing that struck me both times was how humid and rainy it was on the Hilo side of the Big Island during that stretch of time — much like my neck of the woods in southeast Texas.

Driving into the higher elevation of the national park (about 4,000 feet), however, saw me largely replace the humidity with much cooler, drier weather.

If you choose to visit this national park during the fall or winter months, be prepared for this sort of diversity. Pack a light rain jacket and a long-sleeve T-shirt next to the tropical shirt and sunscreen. Don’t forget either beach sandals or a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots (lava is not kind to unprotected feet!).

Upon landing, it’s approximately 30 miles to the park from Hilo International Airport, or 90 miles from Kona International Airport if you choose to arrive on the drier side of the island. The speed limit varies from 35 mph to 55 mph, so don’t be in a rush; it’s Hawaii, after all. “Hang loose.”

The only brick-and-mortar lodging inside the park is the 33-room Volcano House. Reserve your room far ahead of your travel plans. A little more than 3 miles from the park entrance on the Hilo side, Volcano Village hosts several bed-and-breakfast options, and there are two drive-in campgrounds within the park: N’makanipaio Campground and Kulanaokuaiki Campground.

If your stay is short, say three days, you’ll want a fairly good outline of where you want to go, what you want to see, and even what you should photograph during your time in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Here’s a suggested itinerary for three days in the park.

As you walk through Thurston Lava Tube, try to imagine islanders doing the same three centuries ago/Rebecca Latson

Day 1: Hit the Road

Drive the Chain of Craters Road during the day, and then visit Jagger Museum in the evening.

As you navigate Chain of Craters Road, you’ll leave the higher elevation and lush rain forest behind to drive through wide, barren swaths of old lava flows, both ‘a’a and pahoehoe, as you head down to the coast. Stop at Thurston Lava Tube to wander through this 400-year-old, 600-foot long tunnel created from a rushing river of lava, just like the “fire hose” that streamed into the ocean from the Kamokuna lava delta earlier this year.

There are dim lights spaced throughout the tunnel, but the ground is uneven and the ceiling low in some places, so watch your step and your head. Arrive no later than 9 a.m. to have the tunnel to yourself before the tour buses appear.

Continue your drive along the road, where you’ll see pit craters, “golden” lava fields, and a beautiful sea arch cut from ancient lava at journey’s end.

Active lava flows can be artistic, as well as geologic / Rebecca Latson

Don’t be surprised if your ears plug up as you change elevation from 4,000 feet down to sea level. A trick to equalize the pressure is to hold your nose shut, keep your mouth shut, and blow hard. You’ll feel, as much as hear, your ears pop!

Find a place to pull the car over and spend a little time walking upon the Mauna Ulu flow — an expansive pahoehoe lava flow literally shimmering with a gold sheen as the sun reflects off the cooled pahoehoe’s surface layer of silica (glass).

If you walk among the pahoehoe flows, note how grippy the pillowed and ropy surface feels to your feet. Lean down to touch the surface and you’ll feel that sticky grip. Do use caution, though, over the uneven ground.

Stop at the overlooks along the road to take in the vast horizon of cooled lava and coastland beyond.

Photo Tip #1: The winds are extremely strong. If your tripod is not sturdy (i.e. weighty), your entire camera/tripod setup might blow over … like mine did when I was getting a selfie standing on this flow of gold. I now know what the interior configuration of a zoom lens looks like.

Upon your return, enjoy a meal in Volcano House’s restaurant or lounge, then drive up to Jaggar Museum around 4-4:30 p.m. before all the museum’s parking spaces are filled. Because the crowds increase the closer it gets to sunset, you might wish to stake out a good vantage point overlooking K’lauea caldera and Halema’uma’u, crater. Capture photos of the crater’s orange-red glow, which becomes brighter the lower the sun sinks.

Photo Tip #2: If you read my article regarding photographing lava, you’ll know to reduce contrast in-camera as much as possible; too much contrast hides the details in the lava. Have your camera on a tripod and make use of a graduated neutral density (grad ND) filter to keep the sky from blowing out as you set your exposure for the steaming crater during your sunset and evening photography.

Photo Tip #3: As night descends, you’ll need to switch from auto focus (AF) to manual focus (MF) for images of the glowing crater, since auto focus will be difficult the darker it gets. You’ll want to crank up the ISO anywhere from 3200-6400, open up your aperture and decrease your shutter speed to get some star and glowing crater shots. Experiment with exposure settings and try using your grad ND filter upside down to keep the orange glow from blowing out as you use lengthier shutter speeds to expose for the night sky.

Photo Tip #4: If you choose to eschew sunset shots because of the heavy crowds at the museum, return to the viewpoint sometime after 9 p.m. or even later to have the entire area to yourself and your camera. On a clear night, the glittering stars will look close enough to touch.

Day 2: Take a Hike

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park offers trails of both short and long distances to accommodate varying fitness levels and desired trail length. Each hike provides volcanic wonders on display.

For a nice short jaunt, try the paved trail across from the visitor center. You’ll follow the path through a forest teeming with ferns and the brilliant red, frilled `ōhi’a lehua blooms (Hawaii’s state flower) down to a strong-smelling field of sulfur, then onward to the less-noxious steam vents across the road.

While nighttime shots of the Kilauea crater are dramatic due to the crater’s glow, late afternoon shots can be rewarding, too/Rebecca Latson

Although much of Crater Rim Trail is closed due to higher levels of dangerous gas emissions, a good part remains open, with trailheads on either side of Volcano House. Make note of the orchids and ferns lining the trail and stop to photograph the active steam vents while feeling the warm, wet volcanic heat emanating from those vents. Enjoy the numerous viewpoints overlooking the steaming Kīlauea caldera from different angles.

Photo Tip #5: When photographing steam vents along the more-forested portion of Crater Rim Trail, experiment with increasing your camera’s ISO and/or open your aperture (f-stop) anywhere from 5.6 to 4 to capture the white, translucent steam as it floats out of the dark vent.

Photo Tip #6: The steam vents carry a wide array of particulate matter potentially damaging to your camera gear. Wipe camera and lens with a damp, clean cloth at the end of the day. Don’t take my word for it, though – just look at the rusty railings of the fences separating portions of the trail from the vents to see what can happen during prolonged exposure to volcanic steam.

A longer hike you might choose is the Mauna Ulu / Pu’u Huluhulu Trail, which is 2.5 miles round trip. You’ll hike next to an ‘a‘a lava field, a tephra field (ejecta from a volcanic eruption), walk over pahoehoe lava, and pass by lava tree molds. As you walk the trail, watch for the bright orange and red-spattered ōhelo ‘ai berries. It’s fine to pick them, but sample, don’t gorge. These berries are an important food source for the nēnē geese. Make sure you offer the first berry to Pele to thank her for her generosity.

Mauna Ulu shield cone will be on your right. Adhere to the warning signs and don’t climb up to the rim — the cooled lava covering is deceptive; it might look sturdy, but actually can be thin in places and could break through, causing ankle and leg injury. Follow the ahu (stacked rocks, aka cairns) to stay on the correct route. Do take the side trail zig-zagging up to the viewpoint next to Pu’u Huluhulu (hairy hill) cinder cone for an expansive view of Mauna Ulu.

The views along the Chain of Craters Road encourage frequent stops and photos/Rebecca Latson

My favorite hike is the 4-mile loop Kilauea Iki Trail (recommended route is counterclockwise, so take the trailhead to your right at the Kilauea Iki Overlook). This trail leads the hiker through a fern-filled rainforest down to ‘a’a and pahoehoe, then over the expanse of a cooled, smooth lava lake before making the trek back up into the rainforest.

Think about it for a moment: As you cross the flat plain from one side to the other, you are walking on what used to be a lake of glowing, roiling lava! You’ll pass an active steam vent and the huge cinder-andspatter cone Pu’u Pua’i (gushing hill). The reddish-brown coloration at the base of the cone was the main vent from which the lava erupted. Guiding you across the lava lake will be several ahu; the ones near the end of the lava plain are taller than I am (I’m 5’2”)!

Photo Tip 7: Lava is dark. Lava also has detail that you’ll want to capture. Keep your contrast as low as you can and use a grad ND filter for your landscape images to balance the light and dark parts of your composition (lava vs. a brighter horizon).

Trail Advice: During your hikes, you might be tempted to take a sample of pumice, ‘a’a, or pahoehoe back as a souvenir. Don’t do it. It is illegal to take any rock, mineral, or plant from the park. Besides that, it’s just plain bad luck. Believe it or not, there are numerous stories recounted by park rangers of receiving envelopes of lava rock returned to them in the mail.

Day 3: Take a Tour

Schedule a ride with a lava tour boat and/or a helicopter flight over active lava.

To really feel the power and splendor of this volcanicallydynamic national park, reserve a spot on one of the lava boat tours to view active lava flows spilling over into the ocean from the Kamokuna lava delta.

Take a boat ride or snag a spot on one of the helicopter tours that fly over the “fire hose” as well as other lava flows emanating from the active Pu’u O’o vent at the periphery of the park.

By taking either a boat (top of page photo) or aerial tour of the park you can get quite dynamic photographs. However, it’s not guaranteed that your trip will coincide with a “fire hose” display/Rebecca Latson

The experience of floating or flying close enough to feel the lava’s heat as you capture amazing photos will remain with you long after you return home.

If a boat tour or helicopter flight doesn’t appeal to you, then take it easy and visit the Volcano Art Center Gallery for lovely examples of local art. Go watch a video in the visitor center next door and check out their selection of books. Check to see if a hula demonstration is scheduled. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is as much about culture as it is scenery and geology.

Before you head back to the airport and your flight home, remember to say mahalo (thank you) to Pele, the Goddess of Fire, for granting such a wonderful time in this national park.

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