Mysterious Beauty on the Big Island of Hawaii
It was dark when Eddie and I arrived at Kilauea Military Camp, high in the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Early next morning, we walked across the road from our cabin and stared out across the vast caldera. Smoak billowed from the summit of Halema’uma’u crater, mingled with the clouds, and blocked the sun. We were on the crater’s rim, in awe of the mysterious beauty of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii – Fire Goddess Pele’s Home
Two active volcanoes, Kilauea (4,091 ft) and Mauna Loa (13,678 ft), make up Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.) The ranger station near the military camp is the first stop for finding information on the trails around the crater. Love Big Island is the go-to site for tracking lava flow, but no one guarantees what will happen next. The volcano’s activity is a mystery, but Hawaiians know that fire goddess Pele calls the shots.
According to one legend, Pele-honua-mea (Pele of the sacred land), the volcanic deity settled in the Halema’uma’u (pit crater) during ancient times. She controls volcanic fire, and Hawaiians honor her with beautiful hula dances and chants.
Hawaiians also honor Pele with annual cultural practices at the crater’s summit. This sacred place offers jaw-dropping views above the caldera.
Trails around the rim and into the volcano’s floor allow spectacular views from above and below. We were up before dawn each morning, hiking the trails. By the time the air turned cool in the evenings, we were back in our cabin, enjoying hot chocolate by a roaring fire.
Mark Twain spent four months in Hawaii in 1866 with an assignment from the Sacramento Union newspaper. Mark Twain in Hawaii is an engaging and humorous recount of his notebook entries. Twain’s vivid descriptions of the volcano are as relevant today as they were over one hundred and fifty years ago.
“I turned my eyes upon the volcano again. The “cellar” was tolerably well lighted up. For a mile and a half in front of us and half a mile on either side, the floor of the abyss was magnificently illuminated; beyond these limits the mists hung down their gauzy curtains and cast a deceptive gloom over all that made the twinkling fires in the remote corners of the crater seem countless leagues removed-made them seem like camp-fires of a great army far away.” ~ Mark Twain in Hawaii (1860s)
A 6.9 earthquake in 2018 caused Kilauea to spew lava near residential areas, causing devastating damage and even loss of life. Then, in Dec 2020 and May 2021, a lava lake 751 feet deep replaced water accumulated in the Halema’uma’u crater.
Since December last year, people have been able to view lava eruptions intermittently from the Kaunakakai Overlook. News of the latest lava flow was the topic of breakfast conversation at Crater Rim Cafe when we arrived. Since no one knows how long it will be visible or what it will do next, Eddie and I had a decision to consider. Should we get in line for prime rib at the Crater Rim Cafe or go and see the lava flow at dusk?
It doesn’t matter how we voted; we headed for the lava flow, two miles round trip, not once but twice! We saw it by day in the cold and misty rain. Then returning to the car, we decided to go back out and wait until dusk. The second time out was considerably more miserable than the first but well worth it.
Blowing rain turned the air cold. People coming and going on the road in their ponchos looked like ghosts in their cloaks.
We got our pictures at dusk, and fortunately, the Crater Rim Cafe had steaks for us when we finally got there.
The weather had a pattern. It was clear and cool in the mornings (50 -55 degrees), warm at mid-day (68-72 degrees), and cloudy with misty rain late afternoons and evenings. After breakfast in the mornings, we hit the trails.
Steam vents along Crater Rim Trail are rather large. A person’s body could be injured falling in, and the abyss of the crater is only a couple of steps away in some places. Signs along the way warn, “stay on the trail.” Gentle warmth and a hint of sulfur fumes greet visitors at the Steam Vents site.
Volcanoes National Park is a mind-boggling contrast of scenery. Descend a steep 1.6-mile trek to the volcano’s floor amid dense tropical foliage on the Halema’uma’u Trail.
Arrive at the crater’s floor to barren desert, a scene befitting a sci-fi movie. A well-worn path reflects its popularity.
Thurston Lava Tube is one of the most popular areas near the volcano. Ancient lava flows formed underground caves, now covered by lush tropical forest.
Punalu’u Beach (Black Sand Beach) was formed by early lava flows from Volcanoes National Park. Humans and giant green sea turtles coexist on the beach. Both bask in the sun and swim in the tidal pools. The turtles are an endangered species; the humans are not, at least not yet.
Kilauea Military Camp offers guided volcano and island tours. Along the way, we picked out shapes in the cold lava fields; Pele’s head and Abraham Lincoln are favorites. One passenger said that the lava looked like Medusa’s hair. I looked up the priestess to the Greek goddess Athena. The lava did indeed look like a head full of snakes!
Image by Eddie Goff
Once we were on Oahu, we went to the Bishop Museum to learn more about the rich history of Hawaii. Polynesians traveled vast distances by water, first from the Marquesas Islands in ad 400 and later from Tahiti in the 9th or 10th centuries. The official end of the old religious beliefs occurred in 1819, but Hawaiians continued to believe and pass their stories down from one generation to the next. The latest children’s books in the museum library seek to help “develop a more profound love and respect for ancient beliefs, such as the story of Pele.”
“Pele is one of our most beloved and revered deities in Hawai’i. Tales of her exploits are told across the islands, and every child is taught to respect the awesome power of Pele and her fire. Her story is a wonderful illustration of the importance of balance in Hawaiian culture: while she destroys, she also creates.” ~ Gabrielle Ahulii, Pele Finds a Home
How we got there.
After traveling for twenty hours from Columbia, S.C., we arrived at our cabin at Kilauea Military Camp, 4000 ft above sea level on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Crater Rim Cafe serves a great breakfast every day and dinner on Friday and Saturday. The Ten Pin Cafe inside the bowling alley serves grill food for lunch and in the evening. The camp also houses a workout center, playground, and activities center.
Driving around the Big Island of Hawaii, we found beautiful restaurants with scenic views. The Coffee Shack has spectacular views from any table. Menu items such as clam chowder, bread, and desserts are all homemade, great with excellent Kona coffee.
For another story about Hawaii, go to Immersion in Hawaiian Culture and History on a visit to Oahu.
Mark Twain stayed at Volcano House on the Big Island of Hawaii, a little more rustic when he was there. The upscale atmosphere includes a restaurant, The Rim at Volcano House. We enjoyed breakfast and lunch a few times there for spectacular views and great food. It’s within easy walking distance from Kilauea Military Camp. My favorite dessert was the sorbet, passion fruit, mango, pineapple, or other tropical fruits with a Li Hing Mui pineapple wedge.
Before we departed the Mysterious Big Island of Hawaii, we stopped for lunch at Ken’s Pancake House. It is conveniently located near Hilo International Airport. Boasting “American style 24-hour service with a Hawaiian twist; Jammin’ since 1971.” Owned by the family of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s a MUST STOP in Hilo for fantastic food and atmosphere.