Welcome to the Big Island - Now let's see some (flat) volcanoes!

June 30, 2015  •  119 Comments

-by Edyta-

Welcome to the Big Island, our last stop on our world trip!

Before our first visit to Hawaii about five years ago, I asked my friend Moe - who had recently come back from her island-hopping honeymoon there - which was her favorite island. She told me she could not possibly pick because they were all different and each one had something unique to offer. Unaware, I thought to myself - how could it be? These island are so close together! How could they be so different?  

Fast forward to 2015, after having visited four of the 8 (main) Hawaiian islands, I find myself agreeing with my friend 100%. Each island is completely unique and amazing in its own way. Surprisingly, the variations among the islands are mostly due to the volcanic activity taking place over the last millions of years. So brace yourself for the last leg of our trip as we tour the Big Island, and all of its volcanic glory! 

But first, a little bit of background info on the Big Island itself. 

With an area of 4,028 square miles (10,430 km2) the Big Island is the largest of all the Hawaiian islands and bigger than all other island combined! It's approximately the same size as the state of Connecticut. So if you come visit, make sure you allow enough time for traveling and moving around the island. Interesting enough, the Big Island is also known as Hawai'i, however, to distinguish between the archipelago of islands people often refer to it as the Big Island or Hawaii Island. The origin of the name goes back to the 18th century when the islands were often at war with each other and it was not until around 1791 when King Kamehameha conquered Hawaii Island and went on to unify the Hawaiian Kingdom which later absorbed the name of Hawaii. 

The two main areas on the Big Islands are Hilo on the east and Kailua-Kona on the west side. Hilo can be rainy, and as a result, there are few hotels there. It has a more laid back feel and serves as a great location for exploring the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kailua-Kona on the other hand, benefits from being on the west side of the island with a lot of sunshine, and offers a wide assortment of accommodations from basic hotels to luxury condos, fine dining, shopping, and white sand beaches - present only on this side of the island. Overall, the whole island offers a variety of landscapes, ranging from volcanos, lava fields, black and green sand beaches to warm natural ponds, green valleys, tall waterfalls and lush tropical jungles. There is something here for everyone.

We landed in Hilo on March 25, 2015 ( I know, I'm late with this post) and left nine days later from Kailua-Kona. Renting a car in one city and returning in the other is actually quite common and it did not cost us anything extra. Here's the first part of our adventure:   Flight from Honolulu to Hilo takes less than one hour. The flight from Honolulu, Oahu to Hilo, Big Island was about 45 minutes. It's the southern most island of the Hawaiian archipelago. 

As New Yorkers, we were not disappointed by the delicious slices at Mike's New York Pizzeria on the Big Island. So far away from NY geographically but so close in taste. These guys really nailed it. New York Pizza on the Big Island. Mike's New York Pizza on the Big Island. Shortly after landing on the Big Island we found ourself in search of food. Luckily we came across Mike's New York Pizzeria in Pahoa and grabbed a pair of the last slices. We have to say it was great to taste some New York flavors so far away from home. 

As per usual, we rented a room through Airbnb in a house near Pahoa, about 20 miles south of Hilo. 

It was in a newly developed but very desolate community surrounded by lush and tropical flora.   The house was quite unusual as it was not completely finished and it had an outdoor kitchen. At first we thought it was weird but we quickly got used to it. It's no frills and feels like a more civilized way of camping. And we both like camping. :-)  And this was our room. It had large windows that overlooked lots of greenery in the garden. 

One of the main things on our itinerary was visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We knew we were in for a long day so a solid breakfast was our priority. Vlad indulged in a poke bowl while I opted for something slightly less alive. I am not sure if it's faux pas to eat poke so early in the morning but when you want raw fish you gotta get raw fish gosh darn it! lol 

Steam coming out of Kilauela Caldera. Too bad we did not see any lava here. Kilauela Caldera Our first stop at the Volcanoes National Park was Halema'uma'u pit crater, part of Kīlaue volcano which is one of two active volcanos (the other one being Mauna Loa). However, when we were there at the end of March, we could not really see lava flow out of there as the activity takes place in an open vent below the crater floor.  Nature is not always predictable. Even though we really wanted to see hot lava flowing from a crater there was no activity during our visit to Hawaii. Maybe next time. Spectators watching steam coming out of Kilauela Caldera. Had we gotten there a month later, we probably would would have seen some real red lava - as we heard that on on April 29, 2015 the lava started spilling over the rim of the Overlook Crater and into the floor of Halema'uma'u Crater. It has since retracted back to its usual place. Nature can be quite unpredictable. 

Big Island volcanos are not what you may expect. That is because they are shield volcanos. Why is this volcano flat? I know what you are thinking: why is this volcano so flat? Where is the cone? This doesn't look like what you've expected, right? That is because Hawaiian volcanoes including Mauna Loa and Kīlaue are shield volcanoes which are flat. They contain mobile magma that can travel further in distance and overtime create a characteristically low and broad profile. 

Right by the overlook is Jaggar Museum where visitors can learn more about the volcanoes as well as the geological history of the Hawaiian islands. As shown on this diagram, the hot spot which causes volcanic activity is currently located underneath the Big Island (Hawai'i Island). The islands were created when molten lava from the hot spot erupted through thin rigid tectonic plate crust onto the ocean floor and created a seamount. Hundreds of thousands of years and endless eruptions later the volcano rose above the sea level and created an island. Ni'ihau and Kaua'i were one of the first to get created followed by Oahu, and most "recently" Maui and the Big Island (aka Hawai'i). 

The age of the islands shows itself by the shape of their mountains. Kauaii and Oahu have majestic mountains with prominent and steep valleys created due to erosion and time, while those on Maui or the Big Island are a lot more "intact" and shield like. Eventually they will also become like those on Kauai but that will take millions of years. 

Fun Fact: Lo'ihi is a new island forming about 22 miles southeast from the coast Big Island. It is currently about 3,000 feet (950m) below the sea level and will make an appearance in the next 100,000 years. So don't plan your Lo'ihi vacation just yet ;-) 

Not So Fun Fact: Because there are two active volcanoes on the Big Island, many residential areas are often threatened by volcanic activity and need to be evacuated. 

For source & more info on Hawaiian volcanoes click here

Pele is a Hawaiian Godess of volcano and fire and the creator of Hawaiian Islands. During our visit to the Volcano National Park we were able to see many pieces of art portraying the beautiful and mysterious deity. At the Jaggar Museum you can even see thin and fragile strands of lava that are called Pele's hair. Pele - Hawaiian goddess of volcanos and fire.

Pele is Hawaiian goddess of volcanos and fire. The photo on the right is actually very thin strands of lava and is believed to represent Pele's hair. It sure does look like hair!  If you look closely you can see tiny people walking the Kilauela Iki Trail. Can you believe that less than 60 years ago this place was a green valley. Kilauela Iki Trail First glimpse at Kilauea Iki Trail which we hiked during our visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It's hard to believe than less than 60 years ago this place was a green valley. In 1959, lava shot about 1900 feet into the air and began covering the entire area.

This is what the area looked like when the volcano erupted.  For source click here Today visitors to the park can get up close and hike the lava field which is exactly what we did. The park offers free tours guided by volunteers that sometimes come from other states. In 1959 a huge volcano explosion covered this once green valley with lava. The sight is surreal. Looking at Kilauela Iki Trail, Big Island, Hawaii. Not too far into the hike we came across this viewing point of the lava covered valley. This place is so huge that people walking the trail are just tiny dots barely visible on this photo.  The Kilauea Iki trail in the Volcanoes National Park is one of the best activities on the Big Island. If you can do only one hike while there, do this one. It takes 2-3 hours. 2-3 hour hike.

The hike is a 4 mile loop and it takes about 2-3 hours to complete.   After hiking around this area we descended onto the lava field. It's really hard to tell the distance on a field like this but you can get the idea of how vast it is by spotting a few other hikers  It is really hard to tell the distance while hiking Kilauea Iki trail. The lava covered valley is a lot bigger than it may appear at first. Look for other hikers to judge the distance. How big is this valley? Lava covered field.   Walking the trail can be a bit challenging as the terrain is rough and sometimes slippery so bring proper shoes. Kilauea Iki Trail

Walking on lava fields makes a crunchy sound, kind of like walking on corn flakes and glass.  Lava rocks are pretty but it's better to admire them at the park and leave them there. Removal of lava rocks from Hawaii can cause years of bad luck. Better safe than sorry, right?Lava rock. This is what a piece of 60 year old lava looks like. Removal of lava stone is not only prohibited but it is said to bring bad luck. Many people who have collected lava rocks on their vacation actually returned them via mail after declaring they had enough of bad luck following them. You don't want to mess with Pele (Hawaiian goddess of volcanos and fire). Here's more information on this. 

Some lava will eventually break and give way to vegetation, a process called secondary succession.  Eventually plants break through lava cracks and take over the otherwise black and lifeless terrain. In wetter areas it can take as little as 150 years for a full forest to develop. Talk about natural restoration. Secondary succession on Kilauea Iki Trail. Vegetation can develop fairly quickly. In wet regions, it can take as little as 150 years for a new forest to develop.  It's best to stay away from the steam vents on Kilauea Iki trail as the air can be hot and cause injuries. Sometimes nature is best admired from afar. Steam vents at Kilauea Iki Trail. There are some cracks and steam vents along the way. It's best to keep a distance from them as the air coming out can be scolding hot.  Weather conditions at Kilauea Iki Trail can change quickly. Be prepared for some rain and wind. Walking through a lava covered valley (which only 60 years ago was lush with green vegetation) was incredible. Kilauea Iki Trail valley. Weather conditions can change drastically in the valley so be ready for some rain and winds. 

After finishing the Kīlauea Iki Trail hike we quickly explored Nahuku aka Thurston Lava Tube.  Nahuku aka Thurston Lava Tube dates back 500 years and is really fun to walk through. You don't even need a flash light. Thurston Lava Tube This 500 year old lava cave was formed when hot lava was flowing underneath hardened surface of lava and thus creating a tube.   Halema'uma'u glowing with beautiful red, yellow, and purple hues at night. It looks a lot more impressive after dark than during the day. Halema'uma'u crater at night. To wrap up our day at the park we went back to Halema'uma'u crater which looked a lot more impressive in the dark when the flow from the lava lake was clearly visible.  The scene was illuminated with red, purple, and yellow hues. Since the sun goes down fairly early most months in Hawaii, you don't have to wait too long to experience this sight. This photo was taken at around 6:30-7pm. By the way, the park is open 24/7. Wooop!!!! 


Stay tuned for more posts on the Big Island of Hawaii - as we wrap up our world tour, and say goodbye to nomadic life. 



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