Hilo is on the northern (or windward) coast of the Big Island. There aren’t many tourists in this area because the threat of rain is too high. Also, there aren’t any real beaches on this side of the island. As we learned during our morning walk, a "walk" on the beach is more like a rock climbing expedition. The rocks in this case are all volcanic boulders and with newer lava flows they are pieces of lava with ripples and swirls baked in just like the icing on the cake. OK, so it’s not fine white sand, but it’s just the kind of thing the kids love to explore.
As a place to stay, Hilo has two great advantages: it’s on the water AND within a 40 minute drive of Volcano National Park. For our purposes it’s the perfect mix and it’s a nice contrast to the highrises and thousands of tourists in Waikiki. Driving around in our white rented SUV and carrying cameras and backpacks it’s obvious that we’re tourists, but we like to imagine we fit in with the "locals" a bit better than the tour bus crowd.
We all enjoyed breakfast of cereal, eggs, and juice and prepared for our outing to the National Park. The drive to the park winds up route 11 ascending 4000 feet over 20 miles. The interesting thing is this volcano and caldera isn’t either of the highest peaks on Hawaii — the two REALLY big volcanoes (14,000 feet) are Moauna Koa and Moana Loa. They’ve both been active in the past 100 years, they’re not active at this time.
We reached the visitor station and took a short tour with a guide along the "earthquake trail". It’s the former road that people would drive on to view the crater, but it got crunched up in an earthquake in the early 80s. The first stop along the path was a geothermal vent. This was fascinating. Perhaps just because it’s the first "volcanic" thing we encountered, and perhaps because it was about 50 degrees and rainy at the time, we really enjoyed standing near the 140 degree steam as it emerged from a rocky hole in the ground.
We were prepared for the change in temperature thanks to the guidebooks. We all had sweatshirts and rain coats. Luckily the rain that started at the beginning of the tour stopped within about 10 minutes. The guide pointed out several types of plants and trees — some indigenous and some introduced by well-intentioned park rangers many years ago that are now dominating the local plants. After a slow walk down the road talking about trees and plants, we came to a place where we could get our first good view of the caldera. It was amazing. We initially thought we were seeing the ocean. It was dark and rippled looking on the surface. It’s very similar to the moon and has steam vents billowing up at various spots. It’s about two miles across, although it looked bigger from our viewpoint.
We finished up our tour and then did the 11 mile loop around the crater. We stopped at an area that had dozens of steam vents and steam that seemed to just come out of the woods and cliffs on the sides of the caldera. We felt like we were middle of a forest fire, but without any flames.
The next stop on our drive was a place where the stove-black lava seemed to be slathered across the side of the caldera. We walked out on the lava and made it back to the cliff at the edge of the caldera. We were closer at this point to a crater inside the caldera that emits sulfuric gas that smells like rotten eggs. We enjoyed throwing the light lava rocks into the wind at the cliff and watching them turn like paper airplanes back toward the edge or just stop in the air.
We finished our loop around the crater and ended up at the Thurston Lava tube. A lava tube is perfectly circular cave that is formed when the lava flows as a river and then the top cools and insulates the molten stream inside. Eventually the lava flows out and leaves a circular cave. The Thurston tube is lighted, over 10 feet high in most places so it was an easy walk. At the end we came to a gate the said the tube extends another 300 meters from that point and can be explored with flashlights. We brought our own flashlights but left them in the car. Just as we were about to turn around a nice family leaving the tube offered to give us their flashlights. So off we ventured deeper under the lush rain forest in drippy, dark lava tube. Because we had cheapo flashlights we got a bit nervous about having them turn off. We experimented turning off both lights and the sensation of being in total darkness — literally not a single source of light — was both very scary and cool. It was nice to have the "on" switch ready to click at any time (just to clarify, there were several other groups who came and went as we were exploring; it wasn’t like we’d be left for dead if our flashlights didn’t work).
From the lava tube we headed down "chain of craters" road to see the what we were most excited about — molten lava flowing down the hillside into the ocean. We thought it was a six mile drive but it turned out to be a 20 mile drive. When we got there we excitedly asked the ranger where we could see the molten lava and he said that he hadn’t been out to the flow yet that day. He said the best chance that we’d have of seeing anything would be a 6 mile hike through the lava fields but to be sure that we had three quarts of water per person. We had one 24 ounce bottle for the whole group. Down near the ocean the sun was shining and it was much warmer. We knew then that it was unlikely that we’d see the lava.
Nonetheless we hiked out along the access road — the former coastal route — that had been obliterated by the flow in 1990. Even though we had seen the lava fields up near the caldera, these were more impressive. The had the cake-like swirls and were dark black with a glass-like sheen on the surface. We climbed up on to the lava and jumped over cracks and repeatedly had to restrain Roby from jumping and climbing off the path. We followed plastic yellow markers out into the field in the hope that somehow we could see the hot lava flowing or maybe even make it to the lava flow. We could see the huge cloud of steam rising from the ocean off in the distance (in the far distance). We kept going just a bit further — even beyond the marked trail. We made it out about 1.5 maybe 2 miles and decided to turn back. The kids were REALLY disappointed but there wasn’t any indication that we were getting closer to our true objective – hot lava. The way back across the lava fields was filled with grumbles from the kids. Even though we told them it’s unlikely that we’d see molten lava, they saw the pictures in the tourbooks and the videos and imagined blobs of lava flowing by our feet.
By the time we got back to the access road we were all quite thirsty. Fortunately the ranger station had water for sale. We bought two large bottles plus three gatorades and drank them within minutes.
Still disappointed about our failure to see molten lava, we headed back to Hilo.
We stopped that store to get food to cook on the barbecue for dinner. Driving out of the store we happened to notice a pick up truck on the side of the road with a "fresh fish" sign. We did a u-turn to see what they were selling. It was a group of rough looking Hawaiians. But when I asked about their fish they opened a cooler to reveal a pile of 30 inch yellowfin tunas. We bought one fish for $10!
We took the fish back to our house and cleaned it down in the tide pools between the rocks — it was an amazing experience to be cleaning a fresh tuna while the waves crashed around us. The kids enjoyed throwing the left over pieces back into the surf. Ryan explored some of the pools and saw a small clear blob with blue edges. He thought it was something used in fishing but when he touched it stung like a bee. He rushed back to the house and cleaned it. We didn’t know what it was until we looked up some of the "hazards" of Hawaii and learned that it was a Portuguese Man-of-war. Luckily it was just small sting and Ryan felt better quickly.
We cooked the tuna steaks out by the pool while Roby and Cal practiced snorkeling.