Located on the southern coast of the big island of Hawaii, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses Kilauea (pronounced KILL-o-way-ah), the world's most active volcano, and Mauna Loa (pronounced Ma-know Low-ah) the world's second tallest mountain (honest, read on). The 207,643-acre park is in a state of constant change due to the continuous eruption of Kilauea and the endless battle fought between the volcanoes and the sea. Established in 1916, the park receives over 1.5 million visitors each year drawn to the regions varied topography from barren cinder deserts to lush rain forests.
The Hawaiian Islands are enormous. If you were to drain the Pacific Ocean, the big island of Hawaii would dwarf Mount Everest by almost 2,000 feet from the sea floor. As the ocean floor has moved west for over a hotspot for millennia, lava has bubbled up forming the eight main islands of the state of Hawaii, and at least two hundred smaller islands and reefs that stretch out for miles to the west. Today the center of this volcanic activity sits on the eastern side of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The park could easily be divided into four distinct regions. The Kilauea Caldera is a mixed region of cinder desert and lush rain forest at the center of the park about 3,500 feet above the sea floor. The area is heavily developed with a restaurant, hotel, an art center, numerous roads and hiking trails. The Ka'u Desert sits in the southwestern region of the park and stretches to the wilderness area between the Pacific and the Great Crack. In the northwest finger of the park, 13,677 feet high Mauna Loa towers over all of Hawaii. In the wintertime the snowcapped peak offers some moderately good telemark skiing down her mighty slopes. Finally, the southeastern part of the park is a mixed bag of rainforest and fresh scars from the ongoing volcanic activity of Kilauea. In recent times, Kilauea has claimed a Visitor Center at the park and a long stretch of the Chain of Craters Road.
Even if you have visited the park many times in the past, your first stop should be at the Kilauea Visitor Center to get maps, park conditions, and any trail or road closure information. While there be sure to see the outstanding topographical relief map of the park, visit the Volcano Art Center or stay a while and enjoy several short films.
Many park visitors start their tour by driving the eleven-mile long Crater Rim Drive. Even if your time is limited be sure to take a stroll down the Earthquake Trail. A magnitude 6.6 earthquake in 1983 shook the region dropping a section of Crater Rim Drive into the Caldera below. Starting at the Volcano House Hotel, which is across the street from the Visitor Center, the one-mile long paved trail crosses the remains of the road and offers an excellent view of the caldera as well as Mauna Loa to the west. The trail is ideally suited for handicapped access as well as strollers.
Three-tenths of a mile west of the Visitor Center you can take a short road to Sulfur Bank. Here volcanic gasses mix with ground water to form noxious steam rich in carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (that's the rotten eggs smell). As the steam condenses a variety of needle like crystal formations are left behind, stained red and brown from dissolving volcanic material.
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