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Guide To The Volcanoes Of Hawaii

Updated on June 1, 2015
Mauna Kea Observatories, Hawaii
Mauna Kea Observatories, Hawaii

The Volcanoes Of Hawaii

The Big Island, the youngest Hawaiian Island, consists of 5 volcanoes, out of which 2 are extinct, 2 are dormant and 1 has been actively erupting since 1984. The 2 extinct volcanoes are Mauna Kea and Kohala, which is in the north of the island. They lastly erupted many thousand years ago and sank back into the earth’s crust. The Kohala volcano is only one mile high, while Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for "white mountain") rises to 14,000 feet, making it the tallest volcano in the world.

The two dormant volcanoes are Mauna Loa and the Hualalai. Hualalai is in the Kona District of Hawaii and erupted the last time in 1801. It measures 8,500 feet. Mauna Loa is with its 13,500 feet almost as high as Mauna Kea. "Loa" means long in Hawaiian and was created, because Mauna Loa’s lava was so extremely hot and thin, that its lava streams were up to 40 miles long. Mauna Loa’s last eruption was in 1790.

The active volcano is Kilauea. The volcano 's caldera is the center of the Volcanoes National Park. The most spectacular eruption was in 1959, when the fountain reached a height of 2000 feet and torched thousands of acres of tropical forest into a collection of dead trees within days. Two different kinds of lava flow from Hawaii's volcanoes. One is called ‘pahoehoe’ lava. This type of lava is smooth, or ropy. The other one is ‘aa’ lava, which appears rough and sharp. Pahoehoe lava is generally more rich in gases and said to be the hottest substance on earth.

As Hawaii's biggest attraction, the Kilauea volcano and the National Park are sure to be one of the highlights of any trip to this magnificent Island.

Volcano National Park

The Volcano National Park is by far the Big Island’s number one visitor attraction. The park was established in 1916 and covers 344 square miles and includes the upper world-part of Mauna Loa, the summit of Kilauea, Kilauea’s eastern and southern seacoast of Puna.

2,5 million visitors come to the Volcano National Park every year, many of them on narrated tours from Hilo or as part of a Circle Island tour. Some stay longer than a day and enjoy hiking and camping in the park. You can reach the park after about 35 miles drive from Hilo. The entrance fee is $ 10.00 , but allows you to return for 7 days. If you don't, offer your ticket to some other tourists, or leave it at your rental car company.

If you planning to go into the park for a few days straight to see all the sights, stay at the incomparable Michael's Cottages, the Lodge or at the Volcano House inside the Park.

Stop at the visitor center at the entrance and gather information about the eruption and hiking trails. The legendary volcano goddess, Madame Pele, took permanent residence in the craters of Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. In a big caldera, she mixes molten lava at 2000 degrees and pours it through lava tubes into the ocean. You can witness the spectacle of earth in the making on the southeast side of the Big Island. It is a land of awe, of mystery, legend and science. Here, the slowly shifting Hawaiian Archipelago is directly linked to the Pacific Plates’s source of magma.

From the planet’s core, the earth spits up at both Kilauea Volcano and the nearby underwater Loihi Seamount. Kilauea has been continuously spewing 100,000 cubic yards of lava daily since January 1983 and still is as of present time. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory say the current eruption shows no signs of ending. Since Kilauea’s eruptions have not been violent, so the crater received the name ‘drive through volcano'. To see it from above, take a helicopter tour and see the red lava from above.

From the visitor center you can take the 11 mile Crater Rim Road, which circles the Kilauea Caldera. The underground movement of magma allowed the summit of the great volcano to collapse as the internal, molten support for the mountain tops withdrew. The result is a caldera, which does not signal the extinction of the mountain. It is believed, that the Kilauea Caldera is a product of recent geologic time, formed shortly before the first Polynesians arrived on this land 13 centuries ago. The caldera is about three miles across and about 300 feet deep. At the bottom is the Halemaumau Firepit, about one half mile across and another 300 feet deep. The firepit is filled with molten lava, but it has a 20 foot crust on the top. The ever changing scenery lures many repeat visitors - Madame Pele's mood is unpredictable, and you will never know if the road you took during your last visit has not been devoured yet.

Volcano National Park History

According to legend the chief of the Big Island, Keoua, who was an enemy of King Kamehameha I, and his troops decided to rest close to the volcano in 1790. During their rest there were surprised by a sudden eruption, which killed most of his warriors. Consequently King Kamehameha had an easy battle against the few surviving men.

The first person, who saw commercial value in the land and petitioned to turn it into a public park was the publisher of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Lorrin Thurston. Joined by the new Director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Dr. Thomas Jaggar, he was finally successful in 1916, when a bill was approved by President Wilson. Over time more and more sights were discovered and so the park size kept increasing.


The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was founded in 1912 by Dr. Thomas Jaggar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It enjoys a world-wide reputation as a leader in the study of active volcanism. Due to their usually benign natures, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the most active volcanoes on the Island of Hawai`i, can be studied up close in relative safety.

The research center has been managed by the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association, the U.S. Weather Bureau, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Park Service. Volcanologists from all over the world have been studying the earth-making progress here, using the latest seimographic equipment. Some of these spectacular machines can be seen in the Jaggar Museum next door. One seismograph battery is almost constantly showing earth movements. Every year approximately 100,000 small vibrations are measured here. Their current work is focused on the subject areas gas geochemistry, geophysics, ground deformation, geology, and seismology

The observatory is closed for the public, but a lookout gives you an excellent view over the Halemaumau firepit and the rest of the caldera. The observatory and the museum are located at the highest point of the crater rim drive.

Chain Of Craters

According to legend the chief of the Big Island, Keoua, who was an enemy of King Kamehameha I, and his troops decided to rest close to the volcano in 1790. During their rest there were surprised by a sudden eruption, which killed most of his warriors. Consequently King Kamehameha had an easy battle against the few surviving men.

The first person, who saw commercial value in the land and petitioned to turn it into a public park was the publisher of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Lorrin Thurston. Joined by the new Director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Dr. Thomas Jaggar, he was finally successful in 1916, when a bill was approved by President Wilson. Over time more and more sights were discovered and so the park size kept increasing.


Hiking in an active volcano area is not the most usual thing to do. You have to be aware of some hazards and be prepared accordingly. The rangers in the visitor center are very helpful and can give you exact hiking maps, trail information, and weather and eruption updates.

The changes in climate and weather are abrupt and dangerous. It can be very cold, or humid on one side of the mountain, and very hot and dry on the other one. Lava fields bear a number of hazards. The floor is sharp like glass and the basalt adjusts to outside temperatures very rapidly. If you enter higher elevations, be sure to be well prepared. If you hiking in the park, stay at a B&B nearby or at the Volcano House inside the Park.

Crater Rim Trail - No permit required!

The trail is 11,6 miles long, and leads you along the Kilauea Caldera. It is a difficult and strenuous hike, because of the altitude and Hydrogen sulfide steams. The crater rim drive is very close to the trail, so can better drive along the rim.

Halemaumau Trail

This trail is only 3,2 miles short, but difficult. It crosses the Kilauea crater floor. Usually extreme weather conditions occur on the crater floor. It is either very hot and dry, or very rainy and chilly. You can combine this hike with the Byron Ledge Trail.

Byron Ledge Trail

The beginning of this trail is identical with the Halemaumau trail, but then the Halemaumau trail descends into the crater, and the Byron Ledge Trail continues on the rim of the crater. It is 2.5 miles long, and considered difficult.

Sandalwood and Sulfur Bands Trail

These combined hikes are only 1.5 miles long and easy to accomplish. The hike’s main attractions are the sulfur steams, and nice views over the crater.

Puu Huluhulu

This moderate hike is 2.5 miles long and takes you over some hills and through some dead tree forests. Good footwear is required.

Thurston Lava Tube

This walk leads you on a paved trail to the old lava tube. You will experience a fairy kingdom of flora, fauna and geology. The walk takes about 10 minutes. Easy, paved ground with lots of foot traffic.

Devastation Trail

Southeast of the Crater Rim Road you will find the entrance to the devastation trail. The walk leads you through the bizarre moon like landscape, which is the result of the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption. The fountains of this eruptions shot 1900 feet into the air. Great hike !

Mauna Loa Summit - Permit required !

The hike lasts about 4 to 5 days and you will reach an elevation of 13,677 feet at the summit. It is rated as one of the most difficult hikes in Hawaii. There are only 2 cabins on the trail. You have to stay overnight in the cabins, since there is nowhere else to camp. The first cabin is located 7 miles after the trail starts, and the next one is on the top. An unforgettable scenery will make your effort worth it. If you want to see Mauna Loa and not hike, there is only one way up.

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea ( Hawaiian for "white mountain") is the highest largest mountain of the Hawaiian Island chain, and on a clear day can easily be seen from neighboring Maui. Mauna Loa has greater volume, with about 10,000 cubic miles, but measures only 13,500 feet, compared to Mauna Kea’s impressive 13,700 feet.

Mauna Kea erupted the last time 4,500 years ago and is now in its postshield stage. It is, like all the other Hawaiian volcanoes, a shield volcano, but its eruptions were different. Usually shield volcanoes erupt smoothly and slowly, but Mauna Kea’s lava exploded in the air and caused a large ash deposits. Mauna Kea’s geologic history shows that 3 different glacial units covered the summit’s surface. The erupting lava came in contact with water and triggered off explosions.

Apart from being the only place in Hawaii with snow and the chance to ski during the winter, Mauna Kea has a lot more to offer. Mauna Kea is the only glaciated summit in the Pacific with up to 500 feet of ice covering the summit at times. The volcano is considered the best accessible site in the northern hemisphere for astronomical observatories, which makes it great for stargazing-tours.

Mauna Kea is also a place of many myths and legends. The goddess of lightening and snow, Poliahu, is supposed to live here, and is engaged in earth-shaking rivalries with Pele, who lives not far away inside the Kilauea caldera.

Saddle Road

The road to the summit was first scoured out in 1964, at the time, when environmental impact statements did not exist.

It is rumored that while building the road,more than one skeleton was found, which would explain the occurrence of some spooky incidents. The saddle road is the shortest connection between Hilo and Kona, but because of its dangerous conditions, and extreme altitude, rental car companies do not allow driving it. It is possible to rent 4 wheel drive jeeps in Hilo and Kona, or you can participate in one of the guided stargazing tours. The road leads you through lava deserts and several layers of clouds up to an elevation of 6,600 feet. From there a paved road takes you to the lower slopes of Mauna Kea to the Onizuka Center of International Astronomy (OCIA), where new scientists can acclimatize to the altitude and temperatures. The center is named after the Ellison Onizuka, an astronaut from the Big Island who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986.A visitor information center is open on the weekends or by appointment.

The distance from Hilo to the OCIA is 34 miles and the travel time is approximately 1.5 hours. The road from the ‘mid level’ center to the summit is unpaved, steep and rough. Only 4 wheel drives are allowed beyond this point, so don't get brave with your Geo Metro.The warning sign reads : Ice, rain, fog, storm and bad road conditions. Just what you wanted to find in Hawaii. Extreme conditions demand caution ! Occasionally the road is closed due to snow storms, high winds, or fog. You can inquire weather information (808) 969 3218.

The Observatories

The summit of majestic Mauna Kea is considered the best astronomic site on our planet. At an elevation of 13,796 feet, the sky is clear 325 days per year, which gives the scientists excellent conditions. In addition the atmosphere above Mauna Kea is extremely dry, which make very exact measurements possible. Because Mauna Kea is surrounded by mostly dark oceans and dark lava fields, no light reflections disturb the observations. From there scientists can study the faintest galaxies that lie on the edge of the observable Universe.If you want to spot some meteorites, join a stargazing tour.

The land above 12, 000 feet is leased by the University of Hawaii and covers about 11,200 acres. The area is called the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. The University of Hawaii operates a 88 inch telescope, but some $140 million were invested in Keck Telescopes, which are operated by the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The capacity and size of these instruments are beyond normal perception. The twin Keck Telescopes are the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes. Each telescope is 8 stories high and weighs 300 tons. One bears a mirror measuring a 10 meter diameter and is composed of 36 hexagonal segments. With the resolving power of another telescope you could sit in New York City and read a newspaper, which hangs at a kiosk in San Francisco.

If you are equipped with a 4*4 you can drive up to the Mauna Kea Summit . Daytime visitors are welcome and have the chance to visit the visitor galleries of the University of Hawaii 88-inch Telescope and the Keck I telescope. Since astronomers have to observe the sky during the night, car headlights would disturb their precise work, so it is recommended to reach the summit between sunrise and sunset.


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