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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Since the latest eruption began in 1983, Kilauea Volcano has been adding new land to the Big Island more or less steadily—except when a big shelf of recently cooled lava rock suddenly breaks off and crashes into the sea. Meanwhile, molten lava continues to pour from outbreaks on the southeast flank of Kilauea, until it meets the ocean, cools, and solidifies into a new ragged, rugged stretch of coastline. It's fire, earth, and water: creation at its most elemental. And you can watch it happen. If you do nothing else on the Big Island, do the volcano.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sprawls over 520 square mi and encompasses Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the five volcanoes that formed the Big Island nearly half a million years ago.
Kilauea, the youngest and most rambunctious of the Hawaiian volcanoes, has erupted intermittently at its summit from the 19th century through the 1950s. Since then, the giant caldera at the volcano's summit has been more or less quiet, frequently bathed in the mists that nurture the surrounding rain forest. But Kilauea's eastern side has been percolating since January 3, 1983, often sending lava spilling into the ocean, primarily from the Puu oo Vent. The lava flows are generally steady and slow, appearing aboveground and disappearing into subterranean lava tubes. And the volcano doesn't only create, it destroys. In 1990, a lava flow engulfed and demolished the coastal town of Kalapana.
The caldera at the summit of Kilauea is a massive black pit (about 2 mi in diameter) that pushes out plumes of sulfuric steam. It is an eerie, awe-inspiring sight. Within and around the caldera are several smaller craters and hiking trails. Even if lava-viewing conditions aren't ideal, you can hike and camp amid wide expanses of aa (rough) and pahoehoe (smooth) lava, a fascinating experience.
Begin your visit to the park at the visitor center, where you'll find maps, books, and DVDs; information on trails, ranger-led walks, and special events; and current weather, road, and lava-viewing conditions. www.nps.gov/havo. COST: $10 per car for 7 days, $5 for pedestrians and bicyclists. OPEN: Daily, 24 hours. Kilauea Visitor Center daily 7:45-5.