Category Archives: travel

Chain of Craters

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After walking along Crater Rim Drive to see Halema‘uma‘u and before going to the Jagger Museum, we drove Chain of Craters Road to the Hōlei Sea Arch. We took our time, pulling over whenever we saw something interesting or if there was a pullout to go look at yet another crater. It’s a fun drive out toward the ocean through fresh lava fields. The nice thing about this drive is that each pullout explains the date of the field we would be standing in and describes each eruption, how it occurred, what parts of the road were covered, etc.

In most parts of the world, the geologic history of the land is hidden in the stratigraphy under the earth and only where the stratigraphy is exposed can you figure out what happened there. On Hawai‘i, the lava flows are visible everywhere and tell the story of how the island was built. Because the Chain of Craters road goes through the most-recent flows, it serves as a primer on looking at the landscape in general and allowed us to think about the other parts of the island we’d been to and put together how the lava flows had created and shaped the landscapes everywhere else too.

Our hotel in Hilo had a wonderful map on the wall which marked all the lava flows on the island and included the dates—or where they predated western contact with the islands, the Hawaiian names—of those flows. I’ve been trying, and failing, to find a copy of that map since the lava flows have become one of my most-vivid memories of this trip. It’s not the being on the flows either, it’s the driving along the highway and just seeing dark patches flowing down the mountain side* or noticing that the vegetation has gotten more sparse and recognizing that we were passing through a newer portion of the island and wondering when that flow occurred.

*This was the other thing besides the cinder cones that we kept seeing when we drove over Mauna Kea.

At the end of the road is the Hōlei Sea Arch and a parking lot for the trailhead to go look at the lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō as it flowed into the Pacific Ocean. It would’ve been an 8-mile round-trip walk to see the lava. Nothing too strenuous but it would go over rough lava and after having hiked Kīlauea Iki earlier, we were both wary of how sharp the lava could be.

The little kid in me who had always wanted to see volcanos wanted to take that walk. The grown-up part of me thought better of it. The grown-up part of me won.

We’d seen so many people being stupid already by walking close to the edge and trying to get a better view of the ocean that we didn’t want to see them be stupid around lava either. Having already seen Halema‘uma‘u breathe we knew we respected the volcano too much to be with a bunch of tourists messing around with it.

So we enjoyed looking at the ocean and seeing it crash into the lava cliffs. Then we turned around and went back up the ridge to go to the Jagger Museum. Do I still have some “what ifs” and “if onlys”? Absolutely. But I’m also perfectly satisfied with what I did see.

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Halema‘uma‘u

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My first real look at Halema‘uma‘u was walking a closed-to-cars portion of Crater Rim drive,* coming over a ridge, and seeing smoke just billowing out of the earth. It didn’t emerge in one continuous cloud like it does from a fire. Nor was it a small controlled emission like from a smokestack. Instead the earth was breathing and alive and awesome. Impossible to take my eyes off of it. Impossible to even really wrap my brain around it. And that was just seeing the smoke.

*Because it was erupting the road was closed to everyone in the down-wind section. The segment we walked had no good turnaround spot for cars.

We’d noticed clouds at the end of the Kīlauea Iki crater but hadn’t paid them much thought. It was only after driving and walking closer that we realized we’d been seeing evidence of the main vent the entire time. The portion of the road we walked on went through some even-more-recent lava flows and land which is still reeling from getting destroyed by volcanic activity.

We later drove around to the other side of the crater and saw much more of the main vent from the Jaggar Museum.* The photos don’t, can’t do it justice. It’s huge and feels even larger. It’s both compelling and intimidating. I want to go closer yet I can see how powerful it is and that it deserves as much respect as I can give it.** I could have stayed all day on the crater rim and just watched it breathe.

*I’ve not much to say about the museum itself beyond that it’s a good primer on how the islands were formed and how volcanos work.

**As a Californian who’s grown up with a healthy respect for the ocean this falls into the same category of an elemental which I refuse to take my eyes off of because it’s both amazing and dangerous.

We left before it got dark. It would’ve been fantastic to stay and see the smoke light up from the glow of the lava. It would’ve been much less fantastic to drive home in the dark. Plus it had been a long day of hiking so it was also time to go home and rest before it was too late.

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Kīlauea Iki

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We spent our first day in Hilo at Volcanos National Park. We left nice and early because we planned to do the Kīlauea Iki trail and wanted to finish it before it got hot. It’s a good hike, not too long at 4½ miles but long enough that we packed plenty of water. We chose to go around the edge of the crater before crossing the crater floor and it was nice to start through the cool forest of ferns and everything while we studied the hiking guide which told us the backstory of the Kīlauea Iki eruption.

By the time we’d descended into the crater we had a pretty good idea of what we were looking at. Which was good because being in the bottom of the crater is a completely different experience which causes you to lose a lot of perspective. First, while the trail is completely obvious from above it’s completely invisible on the surface. There are cairns which mark the path but you can’t see any of the grey stone that you can from up on the crater rim. The crater floor is also undulating and cracked. It looks like it should be flat but it’s a strange, surreal surface which reminds you with every step how it used to be liquid.

You can feel the weight of the lava and the stored heat of the earth here. This is new earth, new rock still fresh from its formation where plants are only beginning to take hold and there’s no topsoil yet. What little dirt there is collects in the natural channels of the surface as water and wind* deposits but there’s still not enough to sustain much life. I realized how used to walking on earth I was and how little padding was left in my shoes. The rock is hard and sharp. Where it’s cracked you have to be careful not to scrape or cut yourself.

*There was a wonderful breeze along the crater floor which made the hike very comfortable.

After climbing back to the ridge we took a quick walk through the Thurston Lava Tube before finishing the loop and getting back to our car. I don’t have much to say about the tube itself but we’d seen various lava tubes and caves all over the island already* so it was nice to actually walk into and through one.

*Many of which are right along the highway and cars and tourists will pull over to go exploring in a way which strikes me as wildly irresponsible.

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Mauna Kea

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After a quick walk around town after arriving in Hilo, we decided that since we’d been driving all day anyway we might as well head out to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. So it was out to the Saddle Road and then up the side of Mauna Kea. Our poor rental car had a tough time with the access road’s crazy grade* as it wound up to the Visitor Center at ~9000 feet.

*up to 20% at places.

Of all the places I planned to visit, Mauna Kea was the one I researched the most. A lot of this was weather/clothing related—we chose while packing for vacation not to go to the stargazing or up to the summit because we didn’t want to pack cold weather clothes just for one night—but I was also concerned about the Thirty-meter Telescope protests since I supported the protesters.

It’s tough. From a science point of view the Keck Telescope is an amazing scientific accomplishments which everyone on Earth benefits from and of course I understand why building a larger telescope on the site is appealing. At the same time, yeah. There’s a point at which more development ruins a place and there’s already a risk of the site being overrun. I was pleased and relieved to see that the protests had won and that construction vehicles would be removed from the site.

And that’s without even getting into the cultural aspect of the place. The visitor center, as expected, had a lot of stuff about astronomy,* but it was actually more focused on explaining Mauna Kea’s part in Hawaiian culture and spiritual practice. Some of this was in terms of the history of the mountain but to my surprise, much of it was actually about the current usage. It didn’t touch on the protests but, because the visitor center is also a trailhead for people who hike through the area, it was about respecting the site and not disturbing any of the altars, shrines, or offerings which are all over.

*Especially in the gift shop which was either astronomy-related or cold-weather clothing. It appears that many visitors don’t realize how cold it is at 9000 feet.

Just seeing how many of those altars and shrines are on the mountain confirmed my support of the protests. Mauna Kea is clearly obviously a sacred place and has been such a space for a long time.

Despite not going to the summit, being at the visitor center elevation is kind of an amazing experience in its own way. The mountain air is brisk and refreshing and feels like a different world than the air on the coasts. 9000 feet is high enough to be above the cloud level and get me a bit lightheaded.* The light is different—both more harsh and somewhat of a sparkle which reminds me a little of New Mexico.

*As with the Waipi‘o lookout and 1871 trail the rangers here were also super strict about letting people drive to the summit. You had to check in at the station and confirm you had a full tank of gas, 4-wheel drive, no heart conditions, and were over 18. Then you had to wait 30 minutes before starting your drive up.

The drive back down made me extra happy that we’d not stayed for stargazing. I don’t think I’d want to drive that road in the dark. The only benefit that darkness would’ve offered was keeping me from getting distracted by being able to see down into all the small cinder cones in the area. It was while descending Mauna Kea that we realized this is what all the hills in Kohala were. When you’re right up against those hills you can’t tell that they’re cones. Only if you have some distance, or if you’re above them, can you really tell what they are.

We drove over the Saddle Road on our way to the airport a couple of days later and saw many more small cinder cones once we climbed out of the rainforest and whatever you call the developing forest of trees which look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book. At the top of the saddle where the lava flows from Mauna Loa are still somewhat recent there’s not a lot of growth and instead you see the just the silhouette of the mountains on both sides of you. It’s an odd landscape where nothing’s really growing and no one’s really living. Only once we got to Hualālai and started to wind our way down to Kailua did the vegetation return.

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Hilo

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It was a short drive from Akaka Falls to Hilo, where we would spend our last couple nights on the island. Compared to Kailua, Hilo is a sleepy town which is way less touristy and feels like it’s become stuck in time. Building construction is all as-was with corrugated metal roofs. The streetlights are dim sodium or mercury vapor. Lots of small mom and pop stores. We enjoyed walking here and wandering around downtown.

After days of having to eat out at the resort food courts it was a relief to have a kitchenette and be able to buy food at the local grocery store. A loaf of Hawaiian bread, some fresh bananas,* and a package of kimchi sausage was in many ways more satisfying than yet another plate lunch or fish and chips combo. Although we still went to some local-favorite restaurants like Cafe 100.

*especially the apple bananas which I never find on the mainland.

We also checked out the Pacific Tsunami Museum which, while interesting in terms of learning about tsunami and tsunami preparedness, was a great resource for really understanding why current Hilo is the way it is. The Hilo waterfront is unlike any other waterfront I’ve seen and really confused me over the first couple of days in Hilo. There’s a highway running right along the beach, a large belt of grassy parkland between the highway and the frontage road, and only then on the other side of the frontage road do you have any retail buildings. Turns out that after two tsunami hit in close succession people weren’t inclined to rebuild in the peak flood zone.

Unlike other ocean-front developments, Hilo treats the water as a danger and has built its town accordingly. So instead of what was apparently the finest black sand surfing beach on the island, there’s a defensive breakwater, a sea wall, and a couple hundred feet of road and parkland between the town and the water. Meanwhile the rest of the buildings appear to be maintained under the principle that putting too much money into them will tempt another tsunami to come. The scars are still healing.

On our last day in Hilo on the way out to the Airport we swung past the Naha Stone for one last reminder of the Kamehameha myth and then stopped by Rainbow Falls. We saw no rainbows but the falls are pretty and it was good to walk through the lush tropical portion of the island before heading over the saddle back to the Kona side.

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Akaka Falls

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Before getting to Hilo on our drive we made one last detour to Akaka Falls. We were a bit concerned about leaving all our stuff in the car* but it was so crowded that we figured no one would consider trying anything.

*Another reason why we didn’t do either the Pololū or Waipi‘o hikes.

You can skip most of the walk and just see the falls but it’s actually a really nice short nature walk through the rainforest. After so many days on the lava where everything is dry and struggling to live it’s great to walk through almost the exact opposite climate and experience all the lush plants and flowers growing like weeds. The falls are indeed fantastic and it’s totally worth the $5 parking as well as the detour off the main road.

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Lookouts

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Once the conference ended we drove from Waikoloa to Hilo. I chose to take the long way by going up along the coast to the Pololū lookout, down through the Kohala mountains to Waimea, out to Hāmākua on the coast, back up the coast to the Waipi‘o lookout, then down along the coast—with a quick stop at Akaka Falls—to Hilo. Lots of driving. Lots of stops to get out and take a look and stretch our legs.

I’d driven the first portion of this drive the previous day as I had checked out the Pololū lookout after visiting Mo‘okini Heiau but before heading back to Pu‘ukoholā Heiau. Going there around lunchtime is nuts. Way too crowded and no place to park. Getting there first thing in the morning the next day meant we had the whole place to ourselves for a little while. We could hear the surf breaking down below and just enjoy the location.

If we weren’t driving all day we’d’ve considered doing the hike. As it was, we just admired the view and hiked up the road a bit to get a good view of the islands and the pali.

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Driving through Hawi and Kapa‘au reminded me a lot more of the Hawai‘i I remembered as a kid. Not just because of the wet verdant jungle nature of the windward side but because of the way the homes felt. Where Kāne‘ohe now has all the residential lots kind of overdeveloped and crowded, the small Kohala towns still have small houses—many of which are sort of on blocks and look temporary even though they’re not—with largish yards separated by cinderblock walls.

I felt a strong sense of home driving through here even while I recognized that the locals are out here to be away from the tourists. So all I did was snap a photo of the Kamehameha statue from the care as I drove past.

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Taking the Kohala Mountain Road down from Hawi took us through a completely different kind of landscape. This was ranch land and forest land. Open fields of grass. Thick trees which reached over the road. And all throughout were these wonderful green hills with sides that were steeper than seemed possible* so that the scattered trees which grew on them looked more like bushes because they couldn’t grow away from the hillside.

*We only realized later that these were volcanic cones.

The first time I drove it I should’ve pulled over and taken photos because the second time it was so foggy—I think we were actually driving through a cloud—that it wasn’t safe to stop the car.

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Waipio

As we continued through Waimea and headed out to the other side of the Island, the land got less ranch and forrest-like and instead became more tropical. Instead of going straight toward Hilo, we took a detour to go see the Waipi‘o lookout. Since we got there closer to mid-day the place was hopping. We, again, chose not to hike down and instead took the same photo of the view that everyone else does. It’s a hell of a view though as you can see the black sand beach and waterfalls on the cliff beyond.

We also watched all the cars queue for the drive down. There’s a ranger there to confirm that everyone has 4-wheel drive and make sure no one starts the drive unsafely.* There were lots of people in rental trucks taking the drive even though I’m pretty sure that the rental agreement explicitly forbids it.

*This reminded me of the ranger who made sure I had water and a map before letting me start the 1871 trail.

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Driving back out through Honoka‘a and then down around the coast on the Māmalahoa Highway took us through a few more climates. First, there were some more wonderful forests of densely-growing trees but no underbrush. Then as we got closer to Hilo things became more rainforest-like where everything was just covered in growth and as we found along the coast we could catch a glimpse mauka-side of some cascades peeking through the greenery whenever we went over a bridge.