Touring the Big Island's Volcanoes

Very little in the world can offer a true perception of nature like standing in between a massive lava field and an endless ocean. It's majestic and overwhelming and incredibly humbling. But more on that later...

First, some background: The island of Hawaii has grown 600 square acres in the past 26 years thanks to the eruption of Kilauea. In 1983, Kilauea erupted for the 45th time that century—and has not stopped yet. (The volcano could fall dormant tomorrow or could continue spouting gas and magma for another hundred years, which it has done in the past.)

To get a closer look at some of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island, our group rose bright and early to go to the other side from the Waikoloa Beach Resort.

Our guide from Hawaii Forest & Trail, Danny, drove us clean across the island in between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Saddleback Road, which was once a military highway. As we rode, Danny told us about the ecologic history of the Hawaiian islands: Only 10 percent of the current plant life there is indigenous, evolved from seeds dropped by birds after the islands erupted from the sea. The rest were brought by either the Polynesian settlers who came from Tahiti more than a thousand years ago, or the European or American settlers who came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of the plants were able to overwhelm the delicate ecology of the islands, and now threaten to destroy the native plant life. As such, at our first stop in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Danny invited us to pull out some wild ginger (an invasive plant taking over the rainforest) by its roots, assuring us that we were helping the indigenous flora of the 'Ola'a Forest to thrive.

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We walked through the Thurston Lava Tube and drove to various spots around Kilauea's caldera, looking at lava fields from different eruptions over the years as Danny shared stories from the volcano's history.

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We eventually wound our way down the Chain of Craters Road to the sea, where we stood in between an ocean of frozen lava or at the Pacific Ocean. At the Holei Sea Arch, we could see in the distance the steam from where a current lava flow is meeting the ocean and expanding Hawaii's landmass. It is an indescribably humbling experience to stand in between these two powerful forces of nature and watch them meet to create new land. This, Danny reminded us, was how all of the Hawaiian islands were formed, and how new ones would be born thousands of years into the future. ("Make your reservations now," he quipped.)

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Danny then drove us around Hilo on Rt. 19, showing us spots from his childhood and giving us a local's view of Hawaii. As we drove, we watched the landscape change from nearly barren lava fields to lush forests to the grasslands of the enormous Parker Cattle Ranch, which sprawls out over approximately 135,000 acres. (Remember, the Big Island has 11 of the planet's 13 climates.) Danny recommended buying produce from Waimea, where lava has eroded into 50 feet of rich soil for prime planting. For dining, he recommended Merriman's Restaurant, where 90 percent of the food is locally grown.

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