Inside the Kīlauea Iki crater.

Day 4: Lava

When I tell people, now that we have returned, that we honeymooned on the Big Island of Hawai’i, the majority of immediate reactions involve mention of volcanoes. This is, of course, understandable: while all the Hawaiian islands were born as the result of volcanic eruptions, the presence of active, flowing volcanoes on the Big Island is unique and remarkable.

It is sobering to think, as you sit having macadamia nut pie for breakfast at a coffee shack perched on the steep cliffs of the island, that the ground beneath you is essentially lava, hardened over thousands of years into rock and sand and soil. In between the breaks of our breakfast conversation, my mind wandered upon this fascinating geological history; half a million years ago, this cliff did not exist, and instead, submarine volcanoes were erupting to create the island that we now know as Hawai’i. Our ability to eat breakfast and stare out at the ocean was predicated on thousands of years of eruptions and explosions, of lava oozing and hardening and becoming this beautiful island.

The Big Island of Hawaiʻi was built from five separate volcanoes that erupted almost sequentially; of those five, only one is extinct, and one (Mauna Kea) is dormant. The other three are active, and it was those active volcanoes that were the target of our exploration on the fourth day of our trip.

Black sand at Punalu’u.

The drive to Volcanoes National Park took us around the southern edge of the island, and we made a mid-drive stop at Punalu’u Beach to stretch out our legs and enjoy the sights. Punalu’u is impressive for many reasons, but two of them are paramount: first, it is a common resting and sunbathing place for the honu, the majestic green sea turtles that frolic in the mighty surf around the island. The second reason Punalu’u stands out is that it is a black sand beach — there are a few of them on the island, but this one is large and mostly pristine — and the black sand is a striking reminder of the volcanic legacy of Hawai’i.

It was lava, of course, that created the black sand, just like it created the rest of the island. As the flowing lava hit the ocean and cooled, the ensuing miniature explosions create basalt, and it is upon that basalt black sand that the honu enjoy their sunbathing. We saw a few, resting, and after snapping a few photos of them, we decided to continue on our journey to find the source of this pervasive lava.

Green sea turtles on Punalu’u Beach.

One of the other fascinating facets of the Big Island and its unique volcanic history is that, because of its geology and topography, the weather fluctuates wildly across the relatively-small land mass. By the time we reached Volcanoes National Park, any sign of sunshine had been replaced by a driving rain that didn’t show any sign of relenting. This did not deter our plans, and we pulled on some ponchos and made our way to the Kīlauea Iki trail, ready to hike into the volcanic crater.

Our four-mile hike into Kīlauea Iki, a lava crater created by an eruption in 1959, was made immediately better by our timing: we arrived at the entrance of the trail just as Charlene Meyers, a volunteer guide from the Parks Service, was about to begin the three-hour tour.

Walking inside the lava crater.

I don’t know much about Mrs. Meyers, other than the fact that she is often called ‘Miss Kīlauea Iki’ because of her knowledge, passion for, and care of the crater and the surrounding flora and fauna. She was the perfect guide to have as we descended down the trail into the crater of hardened (but not entirely cooled) lava, sharing scientific facts and personal anecdotes as we explored a landscape that looked almost like an alien wasteland.

The crater was calm and quiet — perhaps the rain had chased away most visitors — but it was easy to notice recent fissures in the rock where the cooling lava had cracked and broken. While we felt safe inside the crater, in the back of our minds we knew that, many feet below us, magma flowed through tunnels and tubes, waiting to ooze out again, occasionally creating cracks in the surface to remind us that it had not gone away. As we approached the lowest point of the volcanic crater, the clouds broke and the sun reappeared, just for a few minutes, revealing a stunning rainbow bringing a burst of color to the black and red lava rock around us.

Sunshine in the Kīlauea Iki crater on a rainy day.

We emerged from the crater after our four-mile hike completely soaked and covered in mud and ready to shed our ponchos for drier and cleaner clothing, but not before we took one more look at the immense tubes that carried the lava beneath us, in a network that ran under the entire island. The Nāhuku (Thurston) Lava Tube was now empty, a tube that was no longer a carrier of that hot lava, so we were able walk inside and see the marks that the scalding liquid had made along the rock walls. The enormity of it all was, at times, overwhelming.

Our muddy and wet clothes were replaced with more respectable clothing — L thankfully had the foresight to encourage us to pack some extra, nicer clothes that morning — at Volcano House, a hotel overlooking the Kīlauea active volcano. We had dinner at the Rim Restaurant that evening, watching the red, glowing embers of lava smolder in the caldera opening, and the smoke and fire rise up like a bright cloud in the dark night sky.

That night, as we drove back across to the other side of the island, I couldn’t help but look around me in awe and wonder at the land around me, at this glorious island built by lava over hundreds of thousands of years.

A rainbow greets us in the Kīlauea Iki crater.