Another half-a-mile west visitors come to Steaming Bluff. Sitting atop a thin spot in the crust, ground water hits extremely hot volcanic rocks below the surface sending clouds of steam into the air. The ground is so hot that trees cannot survive, and only tenacious grasses with thin roots cling to the hillside.
Driving another 7/10 of a mile west, you can take the turnoff that leads to the Kilauea Overlook. Most visitors pass by the overlook because it is marked as a picnic area. Not only is it a great place for a picnic, but the overlook also offers excellent views of the Kilauea Caldera and Halema'uma'u Crater to the south.
Drive 1.7 miles and you will come to the Jaggar Museum, arguably the most crowded place in the park. The museum offers outstanding displays, information, seismographs, theatre and a massive enclosed observatory of the Kilauea Caldera. Located next door, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory of the USGS is off limits to visitors.
Continuing down Crater Rim Drive it starts to head south into the Southwest Rift Area, a barren and foreboding region of deep fissures cracks and gullies downwind of the Halema'uma'u Crater. The Southwest Rift Zone stretches all the way to the Pacific Ocean and beyond as a part of the Great Crack. The Great Crack is a giant shelf, larger than the island of Manhattan, which has an ever-widening crack growing in it. There is growing concern that the land south of the Great Crack will fall into the Pacific Ocean all at once creating massive tidal waves across the Pacific Rim. The region isn't barren due to heat or recent lava flows, but from the massive amounts of sulfur dioxide emitted from the Halema'uma'u Crater. When the sulfur dioxide mixes with rainwater it creates sulfuric acid, killing anything that tries to grow in this region. As you drive through more recent lava flows will appear black while older ones will appear brown or red. The color difference is caused when the iron in the hardened lava oxidizes (rusts).
The Crater Rim Drive turns east and continues for a mile before stopping at the Halema'uma'u Crater Overlook. Visitors will have to hike a short distance on the Halema'uma'u Trail to reach the edge of the crater. Over 3,000 feet wide and 300 feet deep, the site is one of the most sacred to native Hawaiian's and is believed to be the home of Pele, Goddess of the Hawaiian Volcanoes. Visitors are urged not build cairns or in any other way disturb the area. It is considered extremely bad luck to remove anything from this region. The Park Service has even received packages of volcanic stone with letters from past visitors begging them to replace them at the site.
Driving another half-mile you will see evidence of a brief eruption in 1982 that buried about five hundred feet of Crater Rim Drive under pahoehoe lava (smooth, glassy surface). Another 3/4 of a mile and you will come to the Keanakako'i Crater. If you walk over to the overlook you can see the steaming fumaroles formed in the 1974 eruption. To the west, Mauna Loa towers on the horizon.
Less than a mile away Crater Rim Drive intersects with the Chain of Craters Road. To the north you can park at the Devastation Trail Trailhead for a number of hiking options. The 1/2 mile long Devastation Trail heads east and connects to the Pu'u Pua'I Overlook. The paved Devastation Trail is wheelchair accessible and walks through the cinder outfall formed by the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki before ending at the scenic vista. From the overlook you can see the cooled remains of a lava lake. The thin gray line running across the barren area is the Kilauea Iki Trail. You can also head north on the Byron Ledge Trail across the cinders slowing being reclaimed by lush plant life.
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