At the Edge of the Abyss: Hawai’i’s Drive In Volcano

(Note: Like many other popular visitor centers around the world, Hawai’i has been impacted severely in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel to and within Hawai’i may be challenging and difficult with varied local restrictions. Lodging, restaurants, and attractions such as national parks may be closed, restricted or otherwise unavailable. Check with online travel resources and others to get the latest updates and information on travel to Hawai’i in general. Previous versions of this story have appeared in various print and online media outlets. )

by John Penisten

Volcano, Hawai`i

The  eerie scene conjures  up images  of a Neanderthal world of cavemen and roaring  dinosaurs. Heat and smells of sulfur, scorched earth, and burning vegetation fill the air.  Acrid smoke from the melted  asphalt of a lava‑covered ‘highway wafts away on gentle seabreezes.  It gives the illusion  of being present at the beginning of life on this Earth.

The heat and stench of the lava chokes and  makes breathing  difficult.  It brings to mind the words of that intrepid early traveler to the islands,  Mark Twain, on his visit to the volcano in 1866, “…the smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.” 

Sinner or not, when one comes right up to Hawai`i’s lava flows and peers into the abyss of  surreal beauty and incredible power, one is duly humbled by Mother Nature’s machinations.

The awesome display of Mother Nature’s fireworks, or in this case, of Madame Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, has attracted thousands of visitors over time to Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.  The Big Island of Hawai`i is one of the few places in the world where an erupting volcano can be viewed in relative safety close up.   

If there is ongoing eruptive activity, visitors can usually drive to the end of Chain‑of‑Craters Road  in the national park and hike to the eruption site on the southeast coast of the Big Island.  Here, depending on the location of the activity, the creeping lava flows into the ocean creating huge billowing  steam clouds of volcanic haze, known as vog, over a stark landscape of raw new land. 

Hawai`i’s   Kilauea   Volcano has been in an on-again off-again active eruption phase for the last several years.  According to volcano scientists, this eruptive phase began in 1983 and is the  longest phase in the volcano’s down slope rift zone in more than 600 years.

Scientists at Hawai`i Volcano Observatory also note that the  eruptive activity has slowed down recently in comparison  to earlier  stages.  Activity changes almost daily and is unpredictable at   Kilauea Volcano, one of the most active in the world.

The most recent eruptive activity in 2018 began with cracks in  the earth’s surface creating lava flows that increased in time.  The lava  ran several miles down slope in vast surface flows,  and  at other  times it reached the sea through underground lava tubes. 

Since the eruption began, millions of cubic meters of lava have  been ejected.  Lava flows several feet deep have covered many square miles of rain forest and desert land.  The eruption has also  created  hundreds of acres of new  land  along  Hawai`i’s southeast coast.

The eruption has claimed no lives but has had a serious impact on area residents.  It has devastated the quiet seaside village of Kalapana and other nearby residential subdivisions,  wiping out hundreds of  homes and other buildings while disrupting many lives. The 2018 eruption was particulary devastating for the residential subdivisions of Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and Vacationland Hawaii near the town of Pahoa. Some 13 square miles of land were covered by lava flows and 875 acres of new land were created on the ocean shoreline. In addition, 700 homes were destroyed by lava. Flows have covered beach parks, several miles of  roads  and  power  lines, archaeological and historical  sites,  a national park visitor’s  center, and destroyed rare plant and animal habitats.

Despite all the destruction, the  volcano  is  an amazing display.  No wonder thousands  of  visitors continue to  find their way to Hawai`i Volcanoes  National  Park, hoping for a glimpse of Mother Nature at her most spectacular.

Visitors will find the 20‑mile drive down the Chain of Craters  Road to the eruption site visually stunning.  The  fern  and ohia lehua forest open to vast stretches of lava  flows reaching  several miles down to the distant coastline.

Roadside markers note the various eruptions, lava flows and still‑steaming cinder cones bearing melodious Hawaiian names.  The strong  winds carry  wisps  of  clouds down slope and out to  sea  as  your  car carefully  winds  down  the  steep  pali  (cliff). Marked  trails across the lava fields lead to ancient  Hawaiian  petroglyphs, early rock etchings that record important events in the lives of people who  held this land sacred.

Arriving  at  the end of the road, visitors hike to the viewing site where the lava is entering the ocean.  Depending on the activity, this can be a short hike or a longer, more difficult hike of a couple of hours or more one way, over rough terrain.  Looking upslope,  the eye takes in the vast lava flows that have cleared wide swaths through the pristine Hawaiian forest on the way to the sea.

Visitors along the roadside are awestruck at  the  vast lava flows.  Others stand on the edge of what used to be a lovely black sand beach, now covered by cooling  but still  crackling and steaming lava. Clouds of  volcanic haze fill  the air. 

Some  visitors get as close as they can to the creeping tongues  of lava. The smooth pahoehoe lava flows like fresh  cake batter dumped from a bowl.  Some use sticks to poke in the  lava puddles in  an  effort  to snare a blob of  molten  rock  for  a souvenir.

On the beach, others are gathered near  the  spot where  the red‑orange lava is flowing into  the  crashing  surf.  As the cool seawater hits the flow, the lava splatters and hisses creating  great vents of steam.  Chunks of lava rock and  pumice, still sizzling, break off and float into the water, to be carried by  winds, tides and currents and deposited somewhere  along  the coast to begin building yet another black sand beach.

And  so  it goes, in an unending cycle.   The  volcano  both creates  and  destroys.  Visitors come away feeling fortunate to be among  those  who have  seen  one  of Mother Nature’s most  powerful and  colorful spectacles, an eruption in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

If You Go

Nighttime is best to view the lava but you need to be prepared.  Each person needs good hiking shoes, hat, jacket, water, food and a flashlight.  Check with park rangers on hiking hazards, stay on marked trails, and obey all posted signs. 

For lodging at Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, check out the rustic Volcano House Hotel {} or 808-967-7321; Email: Backpackers can opt for simple A-frame cabins at Namakani Paio Campground in the national park.  Campground reservations are also made through Volcano House Hotel.

Another good choice is the upscale bed & breakfast Kilauea Lodge, 19-3948 Old Volcano Road,  Volcano Village, HI 96785;  {} or 808-967-7366; Email:  For more information on other accommodations in the national park area, check the Big Island Visitors Bureau: {}.

While  visiting the national park, also take in  Crater  Rim Drive and Halemaumau Crater, Bird Park nature walk, Thurston Lava Tube  and  be  on the lookout for the endangered Hawaiian  nene  goose, the state bird.

For   more  information on the national park,  contact:  Superintendent,   Hawai`i Volcanoes  National  Park, P.O. Box 52, Volcano, Hawai`i  96718, Visitors Information telephone 808/985-6101, daily eruption update information 808/985-6000; {}.

The End


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