Destinations · Hawaii

Visiting Kilahuea Volcano on the Big Island

Steam rising from Kilahuea, Big Island

When I was doing some Hawaii trip planning, Cal looked over my shoulder and asked “Which is the last island we’re visiting?” To which I replied, “The Big Island.” “Oh,” he said, “and which one is that?” Well, it is a little confusing. The Big Island’s correct name is the Island of Hawai’i. But it is part of the State of Hawaii, equally confusing.

It rightly earns the nickname of Big Island. Our guide for the Road to Hana tour told us that all the other seven Hawaiian islands could fit into the Big Island.

Our AirBnb was located just outside of the tiny village of Volcano, just a stone’s throw from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. We have a National Park pass, so we were in and out of the park several times during the week we were there. In Volcano and its surroundings, we almost had the feel of being in another country. It was a little strange to see the familiar US National Park sign when we arrived for the first time.

I’ve seen several volcanoes, but I hadn’t yet hiked on a volcano crater rim, so that’s where we started. The trail took us through the beautiful rainforest, and soon the volcano crater was in view:

The steam was also coming up from natural vents near the trail, and the smell of sulphur was in the air:

The active volcano is below this crater

The correct name for the tree below is the ‘Ohi’a Lehua, usually shortened to just Ohia. It is one of the first plants to grow in a new lava field after an eruption, reaching its roots way down into the cracks. At that point it looks like a small shrub. I saw the Ohia everywhere at Volcanoes. It is the official Big Island flower.

An Ohia flower

On Volcano’s scenic drive, we received views of craters left behind by older eruptions. The steam from the current eruption can be seen just behind this crater:

We could walk right in to Thurston Lava Tube.

We drove past sprawling lava fields from eruptions that happened years ago, where the forest is only beginning to reclaim the land:

Delicate moss, and a tiny Ohia

And finally, the ocean, with a sea arch carved from the lava flow:

No sandy beaches here!

Sometimes Nature carved intricate patterns into the cooling lava:

Do you remember, in the summer of 2018, when a subdivision called Leilani Estates was completely covered by Kilahuea’s lava flow? The slow destruction was in the news every day. The eruption was touched off by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. 700 homes were destroyed and 2,000 people were displaced. On the plus side, the lava flow added 875 acres.

We drove over to Puna and saw what was left of Leilani Estates. In a testimony to man’s tenacity, new homes are being rebuilt, or at least structures to live in. I cannot begin to think how one would build a house over a lava bed.

There was once paved roads, trees, and a community of homes here

One evening we went out for a little night hike to see the current eruption. Kilahuea is temperamental, and no one can predict how much activity will happen each day. We were feeling a little grumbly about being out close to our bedtime, but were soon caught up in the wonder of our walk in the dark. It was just over a mile, and other people were out, so it felt like a party. The moon was bright and playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, and stars were in full view. The hike was mostly over a closed national park road.

It was not one of Kilahuea’s best nights for activity. But standing and watching for awhile, I could see how the eruption is constantly moving, ebbing and flowing. Pretty spectacular. My old phone did not do a great job of capturing the moment. I started chatting with a woman next to me, and she texted me her pictures, taken on her brand-new I-phone. What a difference!

Volcano eruption taken on my old Samsung
Volcano eruption from Lakita’s new I-Phone

So then, we had to hike back to see what it looked like by day. The first thing I was excited to see was a pair of nenes, the state bird of Hawaii.

Finally we see the whole Kilahuea Volcano – the deep black that you see in the middle is the lava lake

By day, we could see why the road was closed:

I’d suggest turning around if you’re ever driving on a road that starts cracking and splitting like this!

We had seen the volcano and its effects from every angle, except underground. You won’t find a glossy brochure about Kazamura Cave in any of the tourist information racks around Hawaii. It’s privately owned by Harry Shick; the cave sits on his land, and he gives the tours. He’s done extensive research in the cave and he’s written a book. We found out about the cave from our AirBnb host. I had to call to reserve a tour and then he e-mailed me directions. He only takes six people down at a time and once there, I had to pay in cash. It all seemed a little shady but later I found out that he just doesn’t want an excessive amount of people knowing where his property is.

Kazamura Cave is a lava tube cave with several different levels. It is the longest cave in Hawaii and at 42.5 miles surveyed, it is the longest known continuous lava cave in the world. This is not a tour cave with poured concrete floors, handrails, and lights. We had to climb up and down several ladders, wear hard hats and gloves, and strap flashlights on to belts. The tour size is small so Harry can keep an eye on everyone; he’s very protective of his cave, and rightly so.

Going up one of the many ladders in the cave
A lavafall

By Harry’s own definition, a lava tube is “a conduit which forms around flowing lava; it insulates the flow from the cooling effects of the air.” Many lava tubes and other formations make up a lava cave, left by an erupting volcano. This cave formed from an eruption that happened about 500 years ago. Everything above ground had grown back, of course. We walked through lush rainforest behind Harry’s house to get to the entrance.

Gypsum crystals

We were in the cave about two and a half hours. Harry’s knowledge and explanations, although technical, were informative. We learned about lava ropes and lava falls, the formation of the gypsum crystals, lavacicles, straws, and dribble spires.

Lavacicles

Harry documents every tiny creature that finds its way into the cave. A young man in our group, Wilson, was always falling behind and examining everything closely with fascination. Wilson had a great camera and gets the credit for some of the pictures I have posted here. He also found this plant hopper, which is no bigger than a grain of rice. Harry has a camera that takes microscopic pictures, and I took a picture of Harry’s picture.

This little plant hopper will only survive in the cave if it finds roots to feed on

We originally weren’t sure what we were getting into with this cave exploring venture, but it was a whole lot of fun! We learned a lot and this put a lot of the volcano activity that we had been seeing into perspective.

If the whole subject of lava caves truly interests you, you can find Harry’s book on Amazon.

Next time – a Hilo day on the Big Island

2 thoughts on “Visiting Kilahuea Volcano on the Big Island

  1. Our visit to the big island was in December 2018. So, all of the trails were closed at Volcanoes National Park. I appreciate your post as we did not get to see much – We did see the crater, but not much else. This and your adventure into the cave was a wonderful adventure for you. You have really seen Hawaii!

    Liked by 2 people

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