Note: There are several weekends throughout the year when the park is free—thanks to the Department of the Interior. Check the park’s website to see if your visit coincides with one of these times.
Continuously active since 1983, Kilauea dominates the heart of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Many of the park’s sights are arranged one after another along Crater Rim Drive, which circles Kilauea Caldera. Most of these sights are the “drive-up” variety, but plenty of major and minor trails lead off here and there.Expect to spend a full day atop Kilauea to take in all the sights, and never forget that you’re on a rumbling volcano.Expect to spend a full day atop Kilauea to take in all the sights, and never forget that you’re on a rumbling volcano. Kilauea Caldera, at 4,000 feet, is about 10°F cooler than the coast. It’s often overcast, and there can be showers. Wear walking shoes and bring a sweater or windbreaker. Binoculars, sunglasses, and a hat will also come in handy.
People with respiratory ailments, those with small children, and pregnant individuals should note that the fumes from the volcano can cause problems. That sour taste in your mouth is sulphur from the fumes. Stay away from directly inhaling from the sulphur vents and don’t overdo it, and you should be fine.
It’s a little discombobulating at times—you’re sweating in the hot lava fields of the park and in the background you see the snowcapped Mauna Loa. The largest mass of mountain to make up the Big Island at 13,680 feet, this magnificent mountain is a mere 116 feet shorter than its neighbor Mauna Kea, which is the tallest peak in the Pacific, and by some accounts, tallest in the world.
But still, Mauna Loa holds its own impressive statistics. It is the most massive mountain on earth, containing some 19,000 cubic miles of solid, iron-hard lava, and it’s estimated that this titan weighs more than California’s entire Sierra Nevada mountain range! In fact, Mauna Loa (Long Mountain), at 60 miles long and 30 miles wide, occupies the entire southern half of the Big Island. Unlike Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa has had some recent volcanic activity, spilling lava in 1949, 1950, 1975, and 1980. The top of this mountain is within the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park boundary.
The summit of Mauna Loa, with its mighty Moku‘aweoweo Caldera, is all within park boundaries. Mauna Loa’s oval Moku‘aweoweo Caldera is more than three miles long and 1.5 miles wide and has vertical walls towering 600 feet. At each end is a smaller round pit crater. From November to May, if there is snow, steam rises from the caldera. This mountaintop bastion is the least visited part of the park since this land is remote and still largely inaccessible.
Plans for future use of this area include opening up several hundred miles of trails and Jeep tracks to hiking and perhaps other activities as well as creating additional campsites and cabins; these uses will undoubtedly take years to facilitate. For now, it is possible to drive or bike the 10-mile Mauna Loa Road to the trailhead at over 6,600 feet, hike nearly 20 miles to the summit, and stay overnight at some true backcountry cabins before you head back down.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.