Posted on: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Watch the earth move at Kilauea

By Karin Stanton
Associated Press
Sightseers were settled in along the shoreline early on the Fourth of July morning to watch the lava flow.

Associated Press photos

The sun peeked through steam hissing up where hot lava met the ocean in a Hawaii Volcanoes National Park flow of July 2002.

Glowing lava pours into the ocean at dawn earlier this month at the park's shore.
VOLCANO, Hawai'i The most thrilling place to spend a few days of vacation might be right here in your home state. When the world's most active volcano is belching molten rock into the ocean, you've got to go see it, because who knows how long it will go on?

Kilauea's latest show began in early June, as lava reached the sea and slowly began adding more real estate to the Big Island.

I had visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park before, but it was time for another trip. Others apparently had the same idea visitor numbers in June averaged 2,000 a day, and peaked at 4,000 in one day, park spokeswoman Mardie Lane said, up from the typical 300 to 500 a day.

Established in 1916, the park now includes 333,000 acres, reaching from sea level to the top of Mauna Loa, at nearly 14,000 feet high. (The Kilauea volcano is not as high.)

Thick, heavy clouds of steam cover the entire shoreline, and each new lava flow adds to the island's land mass an additional 550 acres at last count. Sounds are whipped away by the wind, but when the wind dies momentarily, you can hear the lava snapping and popping a reminder that land is being created, right at your feet.

From the visitor center, Crater Rim Drive takes sightseers around the park past craters and through rain forests before the turn onto Chain of Craters Road. The 20-mile, two-lane road zigzags downhill through active and dormant lava flows and gives visitors panoramic views of the ever-changing coast.

The road was closed by flowing lava from 1969 to 1974. Those old flows can still be seen today in fat ribbons of cold brown, gray and black rock.

Nearby, young trees and shrubs bend with the wind and offer proof of new life.

Today, Chain of Craters Road dead-ends where lava began oozing across the asphalt in April 2003. Visitors park along one side of the road, then walk to a temporary ranger station and portable bathrooms. Everything this close to an active lava flow must be easily moved or easily replaced.

Conditions change continually, but on the day I visited, the hike to see the lava was about 2 miles round trip.

A gaggle of volcano-watchers stood within eyebrow-singe range of an oozing, sizzling, foot-wide finger of lava flowing from Kilauea to the sea. A wider glob moved at a snail's pace to the edge of a cliff and toppled off. The glowing frosting grayed as it cooled. The wind was scorching and relentless.

Park rangers mark the easiest route with fluorescent yellow plastic tags.

If you stay on the trail and take your time, it is not a rigorous journey. My mother, who is in her early 60s, accompanied me and had no problem picking her way across the lava field, but she found the hot wind a little uncomfortable.

Young children and those with respiratory ailments, however, may find the conditions too harsh. Rangers warn about the sulfur fumes, along with the risk that the benches of hardened lava might collapse if you walk or sit on them.

The "trail" visitors take to view the lava is not really a trail. It is layer upon ropey layer of cooled lava, mound upon dip, crack upon jagged edge. I watched where I put my feet every step of the way.

Mom, an artist, was looking for "good" lava formations. Mostly they were right under her feet. Several times, she stopped me with, "Oooh, look, can I have a picture, please?" I snapped close-ups of many grotesque and lively lava lumps. Eventually, I found it necessary to make sure the toes of my sneakers were in the frame.

You won't necessarily know when you get to the best place to view the lava. The sights below your feet are so absorbing, you may forget to look at what lies ahead.

Other places to visit in and near the park include the visitor center, where you can watch a film on volcanoes; the Jaggar Museum, with its bank of endlessly vibrating seismographs; the lookout over Halemaumau Crater, where I've left gifts of gin and flowers for the volcano goddess Pele; and the Volcano Art Center.

Strolling back to the ranger station, visitors compared their experiences.

"It was really impressive," said Serge Baillargean, of Montreal, Quebec. "It is something I will remember all my life."

The Johnson family from Dry Ridge, Ky., was equally dazzled.

"It felt like my shoes were melting and it felt like I was getting sunburn from the heat," said 12-year-old Jenny Johnson.

Her father, Mike, said he had visions of fountains of lava high on the volcano and streams racing down its flank.

"I guess that's just in cartoons," he said.

But he had not expected to get so close. "That," he said, "was absolutely awesome."