Witnessing glowing red vents, steaming seas, and billowing volcanic clouds have to be the most thrilling reasons to visit Hawaii. Recent eruptions have caught the world’s attention but Kilauea’s lava flows have been going on continuously for over thirty years! They impact less than 15% of the Big Island of Hawaii, the southernmost and largest of the island archipelago. I once climbed over rough lava fields to watch a ribbon of red run into a boiling ocean. It continues today but you’ll have to postpone that hike until the current conditions calm down. After reading through this post, you’ll know how to answer when friends and family ask “Why visit Hawaii now?”

One of the first separate maps of the Hawaiian Islands by the engraver Kalama.

This is the first separate map of the Hawaiian Islands. Today, the westernmost tip of the Big Island is the only area with an active volcano in the archipelago. The map was engraved and drawn by Kalama, one of the foremost student engravers at the Lahainaluna Mission School on Maui in 1837. Kalama went on to become one of the best surveyors in the islands. 

Explore an interactive map showing the small area affected by the recent volcanic activity

In conversations recently friends and family are still enjoying the best of all Hawaii offers. I wish I were with them – savoring sunset views, delicious food, slowing to the graceful rhythms of island life, and immersing my senses in tropical beauty. There are rare opportunities now too. Connecting to nature runs deep through the island’s culture and reverence for the Hawaiian Goddess of Creation, Pele, is especially strong now. In Hawaiian mythology, Pele is revered as a passionate and powerful force who created the islands and lives at the summit of Kilauea. Her fierce temperament creates and destroys. Many see her force behind the newest volcanic disruptions but locals take it in stride.

Lei offered to Pele at the rim of Kilauea.

Lei offered to Pele at the rim of Kilauea. Wiki-commons

Despite the occasional violence of relatively minor lava flows, Pele holds a special place in Hawaiian hearts. In a recent story from Hawaiian News Now, Dr. Jonathan Osorio, Dean of the University of Hawaii’s School of Hawaiian Knowledge put it this way: She’s “Been here before any of us. You respect and aloha this life essence.” Hawaiians accept that Pele can be destructive and a part of nature that is not to be disturbed. A Hawaiian National Park Service sign at the rim of Kilauea Iki notes: “E malama i kela aina” (Care for this land) with your utmost respect by not leaving, taking, or burning items. There are many stories about unwise visitors carrying away pebbles or worse, offerings, the ho’okupu, left for Pele. Stones and artifacts often arrive back at Hawaiian Park Service offices with notes about the misfortune and bad luck that followed after removing them!
Wide angle view of Kilauea Iki, with Mauna Loa in background By Michael Szoenyi, Wiki Commons

Wide angle view of Kilauea Iki, with Mauna Loa in the background. By Michael Szoenyi, Wiki Commons

Family hike across the lava bed of Kilauea Iki. One of the reasons to go to Hawaii

Family hike across the lava bed of Kilauea Iki on the Big Island of Hawaii. Note the tiny humans in the distance.

Visit Hawaii now and watch out for Pele’s playfulness

A few years ago, I connected with Pele in a mysterious way while hiking Kilauea Iki, the cooled, little crater near the summit of Kilauea.
We took a quick walk through the short Thurston Lava tube before tackling the Crater walk. It was marked as a challenging 4.2-mile round-trip hike. The trail was moist and cool through the forest along the rim. It was sobering to see the devastation remaining from the 1959 eruption and look down to the trail traversing the black lava four-hundred feet below. I was certain it would be a scalding hike. However, after we passed immense volcanic boulders and entered the crater base, I was surprised to discover a cooling breeze. The welcome gusts kept us company as we crossed the odd landscape. Unfortunately, they abandoned us on the switchback trail up to the visitor center. As the family climbed ahead of me I spied an old set of wooden steps going up into the shade. Possessed by the idea of an easier, cooler ascent, I yelled to the group that I would meet them later and was taking the stairs. They never heard me and I disappeared into the overgrowth.
Kilauea Iki trail through the cooled caldera in 2011.

Kilauea Iki trail through the cooled caldera in 2011. (Note the tiny humans in the lower right!)

The stairs were clearly part of an abandoned trail but I was committed to the adventure. For the next half hour, I struggled up the ever steeper path, buoyed only by my resolve and evidence of other footprints in the mud. Tree roots became handholds and I kept climbing. I refused to look down or retreat. The image of emerging triumphant onto the trail at any moment pushed me on.

It was not to be. Looking up at one point I realized my folly and somehow found the energy to climb up a vertical wall of ooze. If not for roots and trunks I would’ve slid back down in defeat. Finally, I pulled up through the brush onto a plateau and discovered there was no clear path ahead. There was no way to know which direction to go and I remembered warnings about fragile, underground caves hidden by growth. Stepping on branches, I moved forward slowly and stopped to listen for voices, for any sign of civilization. The crater was somewhere behind.

Which way to go now?

Standing in the jungle with all my senses on alert, I heard a car engine. The road was nearby! I cut through the brush, stopping every minute or so until another car passed by and set course for the sound. There was nothing else to use for direction. Finally, I emerged from the dense green to stand grim and dirty on the rim road. A bicyclist came by and I shouted, “Which way to the Thurston Lava Tubes?”

Determined plants sprouting between slabs of cooled lava

Determined plants sprouting between slabs of cooled lava

He turned me around to begin the last part of my journey. I walked about a mile to the parking lot and there, relieved and more than a little angry, was my family. I apologized and teared up realizing the worry my impetuous climb had caused.

It was a foolish and dangerous move, very out of character for me. I can only say that Pele somehow got to me! I saw an opportunity and climbed, scrambled, held on for dear life, somehow found the strength in that humid undergrowth to keep going until I found my way out. Today I sit at home and wonder what possessed me? The next time a dangerous idea grabs my will, I’ll make a little offering to the spirit inspiring me and back away.

Pele painting in a Kailauea Restaurant.

Photo of Pele -Painting in a Kilauea Restaurant.

Why visit Hawaii now? It’s easier than Mark Twain’s experience.

Today, we think of visiting Hawaii as a luxury and vacation get-away. In the early days of the US involvement with the islands, a young journalist convinced his employer to send him to Hawaii for stories about the eruptions in 1866. That intrepid writer was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who later gained fame as the author Mark Twain. The journey was long before air travel was available and his schooner set anchor at the largest of the wild Sandwich Islands (which were later named Hawaii, the 5oth State.) A two-day horseback ride took Clemens to the crater.

This passage from History.net describes his experience:

“Toward sunset on the second day, we reached an elevation of some 4,000 feet above sea level, and as we picked our careful way through billowy wastes of lava long generations ago stricken dead and cold in the climax of its tossing fury, we began to come upon signs of the near presence of the volcano,” he wrote, “signs in the nature of ragged fissures that discharged jets of sulphurous vapor into the air, hot from the molten ocean down in the bowels of the mountain.” On the pages that follow, Twain describes the “scene of wild beauty” he witnessed later that evening from a lookout house perched on the crater’s rim and his perilous trek the next day to the fiery floor of the caldera.

Had Pele taken offense at Twain’s nerve we never would have Tom Sawyer, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or his many other novels! Why visit Hawaii today? It’s a much safer, easier experience and each of the islands has so much to offer visitors.

Volcano National Park closures May 2018

Volcano National Park closures May 2018

Why visit Hawaii now? The National Park Service will show you

Many of the places that I’ve described are closed at the time I write this due to recent seismic activity but this is just one small area in the entire Big Island and the other islands remain open with clear skies, beautiful resorts, and activities. If you want to experience more of Pele’s magnificence, check out the National Park Service closure information.

Why visit Hawaii now? I hope you have a better idea of the opportunities and enduring beauty of the islands. For divers like myself, hearing whale song and watching the immense creatures sky-hop is always a lure. But the recent eruptions on the Big Island are rare and more pressing reasons. Time will tell how long the disruptions will last but when things cool down, I hope to encounter Pele’s magic again.

Read more about my first Hawaiian crater encounter. 

Thank you for reading. Leave a comment and me know if you agree about why visit Hawaii now.

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