Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

National Park Number: 13 of 59

My thoughts on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were largely influenced by two books that we read while staying on the big island. The first was a book I’d picked up a while ago on the history of Hawaii’s colonization called “Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell. Vowell is a big NPR contributor and writes some of the most interesting, funny, and readable history books I’ve encountered. Her books focus on American history; they’re thoughtful, well-researched, fascinating, and not too long—I highly recommend her, and if you’re going to Hawaii or have been, I especially recommend “Unfamiliar Fishes.”

The other book was “The Lorax”, which I’d ordered earlier for the kids and which David’s family brought to us with our mail when we met them on the big island. This book was missing from our library, and I figured it was a pretty crucial one for teaching our kids to be good little Earth Stewards.

The history of Hawaii is fascinating and also a little upsetting, and Hawaii Volcanoes NP is a perfect microcosm of what has happened to the islands more broadly, both in ecological terms and anthropological ones. The island chain was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions originating from a “hot spot” in the Pacific; that hot spot now lies under the newest island in the chain, the island of Hawaii, where flows of magma continue to increase the land area of the island every year, forming the newest land on Earth. Enormously cool stuff.

Because the islands were formed by volcanic eruptions, their land started as barren flows of lava, cooled over time, and inhabited by . . . basically nothing—that is until wind, water, and birds carried seeds, insects, plants, and snails over the ocean to the newly formed islands. Very few of the species that started this journey actually made it to the islands and even fewer survived, which means this process of population was extremely slow. I’m going to quote from the park’s pamphlet here, because I think this is incredible: “Over a span of 32 million years, plants and animals colonized the Hawaiian island chain at a rate of one insect every 68,000 years, one plant every 98,000 years, and one bird every one million years.” Bonkers, right?

These organisms slowly adapted to island life, creating new species that only exist in Hawaii. In fact, about 90% of Hawaii’s flora exists nowhere else on Earth. And most of the plants and animals endemic to Hawaii eventually lost their defense mechanisms as they evolved, since there were few predators or competitors around. When Polynesians arrived on the scene, they brought only the bare essentials—not loads of new crops and species to compete with the native flora and fauna—and their culture emphasized stewardship of natural resources, so that Native Hawaiians—and native species—were able to thrive in the landscape for thousands of years.

Enter the white man, and if you know anything about world history, you can guess what happened next. European explorers arrived, closely followed by American missionaries, bringing with them invasive species, contagious disease, new cultural traditions, predatory animals, and—perhaps most threatening to the native way of life—the idea that Native Hawaiians were savages who didn’t know how to manage land, whose religion was satanic, practices barbaric, and traditions folly. 

At this point, the islands were governed by a tribal system, each tribe overseeing a district, all governed by the monarch who, in a super bloody, horrific war, had “united” the islands under his rule; this was King Kamehameha. 

I won’t get into the details of how Christian missionaries from New England influenced Kamehameha’s rule and that of the kings and queens who followed; the upshot is that over time, the natives were, on the positive side, introduced to the concept of written language, which they were able to develop for the Hawaiian language very quickly, and taught to read and write (the literacy rate among native Hawaiians went from essentially zero to between 91 and 95% in a span of 14 years.) Observing the female missionaries’ behavior also led the Queen to abolish some super oppressive parts of the Hawaiian kapu law, like the one where men and women couldn’t eat in the same room, or the one where women were forbidden from eating bananas and coconut, etc. On the negative end of things, white settlers took ownership of lands by creating and manipulating new land lease laws, took over the agricultural system by replacing the Hawaiian’s most vital crop, taro, with sugar cane, brought diseases that wiped out 84% of the native population by 1840 (from Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778), and eventually convinced the king to give control of the islands to the U.S., which overthrew a healthy, functioning government to ensure American business interests and to establish a stronger naval presence in the Pacific—all this as part of the U.S. imperial spree of 1898. 

(Side note: this last bit was largely the doing of Teddy Roosevelt and his best friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, who got really into this book, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History”, the message of which was basically “the hand that rocks the Navy rules the world” and made a bunch of speeches to Congress about how if we didn’t take over Hawaii and Puerto Rico and the Philippines and Guam and Cuba and such, we would all die. I feel very conflicted about Roosevelt, because obviously he was instrumental in the formation of the National Park System and the idea of conservation and he did some other very cool and progressive things, but he also sounds like a bully and kind of a know-it-all jerk, and a huge proponent of Manifest Destiny, the concept that I believe has directly contributed to every immoral action taken by the U.S.A. from its founding. I appreciate Teddy, but I don’t necessarily like him.)

So, what does this all have to do with the national park? Well, Hawaii Volcanoes was created in an effort to preserve both the volcanic landscape and the special plants native to Hawaii that have been able to bring life to barren lava flows. The way plants begin to repopulate an area after it has been decimated by an eruption is incredibly fascinating and inspiring, and that process is on full display in a variety of stages throughout the park. There are seven distinct ecological zones, from rainforest and sea coast to woodland and alpine; the variety is stunning and a visit to the park is a pretty singular experience.

As we explored the park, hiking through lava tubes and over old lava flows, watching magma pour into the ocean and create, before our eyes, the freshest land on Earth, and seeing the progression of plants bringing new life to different areas of the park—ohi’a bushes pushing up through cracks in 50-year-old flows or hapu’o’pulo trees providing water stores to understory plants in the rainforest—I thought a lot about what this place has to teach us. We’d been reading “The Lorax” a lot over the previous few days and it was making me wonder—how do we get ourselves out of this spiral of bad environmental habits, our tradition of exploiting land, of being poor stewards? Our lifestyles, our agriculture, our production are unsustainable—science has proven this conclusively—and the effects of this poor land management are catching up to us: not in 50 or 100 years, but right now. Our climate is changing quickly, our soils are depleted or eroding, our water tables are drying up, and our dependence on fossil fuels is creating ecological destabilization, not to mention war and horrific suffering. What do we do? At this point, is there even time left for action? 

I’m not sure. What I do know is that walking in Hawaii Volcanoes gave me hope. All around me I saw examples of tenacious life, witnesses that after great destruction, there are still ways for life to flourish.

An example: the hapu’u tree. Because the land is made of lava, it’s extremely pourous; the east side of the big island gets 200 inches of rain per year, but never floods—the water drains too quickly. This makes it difficult for most plants to grow and for the rainforest to form an understory.

The hapu’u tree, though, is able to store water in its young, hairy shoots, called pulu, and other plants, like ferns, can draw out this water and use it for their own growth.

What I hope is that we humans can become, in a way, the hapu’u tree of our new ecosystem—the one that is developing as a result of the ecological and climate changes of the past hundred years. I hope we can find new ways to support and make space for the species around us, that our relationships can change from exploitative ones to symbiotic ones, and that we can finally begin to exhibit—on a global level, as an ethical commitment by individuals and corporations and governments alike—the wisdom and discipline that responsible stewardship requires. 

Anyway, that was very long, and if you’ve made it to this point you are a hero. Here’s some more about what we actually did! Because we were staying in Kona, on the opposite side of the island, we didn’t get to spend as many days or as long of days as we normally do at other parks, but we loved the time we did spend. This place is absolutely incredible.

We started our first day with a ranger walk to the overlook of Kilauea Iki crater, then went back to the visitor center for a delightfully retro video about volcanoes. Turns out watching lava flows is enormously relaxing and we all started dozing off, so we woke ourselves up with a drive to the Jagger Museum for another view of the crater and lava lake. Then we drove on to do some short hikes along Devastation Trail (the site of a 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki) and the Thurston Lava Tube.

 This lava lake opened in 2008 and is the largest in the world!
This lava lake opened in 2008 and is the largest in the world!

 The view from Jagger Museum.
The view from Jagger Museum.

 Devastation Trail.
Devastation Trail.

 Thurston Lava Tube
Thurston Lava Tube

On our second day, we drove the full length of Chain of Craters road to the Holei Sea Arch, where the road ends because a lava flow covered it in 2003. From the visitor center, the road winds through increasingly lush forest, past the sites of several 20th century lava flows, until it leaves the forest and opens up to a breathtaking ocean vista. The road descends over 3000 feet at this point and the land around the road looks like the moon—it is an incredible view.

We walked out for a look at the arch, stopped at the ranger station for Graham to be sworn in as a Hawaii Volcanoes Jr. Ranger, and made our way back up to hike out to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. The petroglyphs are an awesome peek into native Hawaiian culture. The holes (puka) were carved to hold the umbilical cord of each child born within the tribe. They hoped that the spiritual energy of the sacred hill would bless the children and root them to the land.

 Mullet in the wind.
Mullet in the wind.

From the petroglyphs, we raced back to Hilo for a helicopter ride over the lava flows. We’d previously reached out to Paradise Helicopters to ask if they’d be interested in partnering with us in exchange for some marketing work from David. They took us up on our offer, and took us up in the air.

We opted for the doors-off tour, which was a little terrifying—the helicopter was small and we were sitting 3 in a row, which meant I was riiiight at the edge and felt like I actually was outside. After a few minutes, the terror wore off and I decided it was the coolest feeling ever, like Superman flying (except in a seated position and very securely buckled.)

Our flight took us over the macadamia fields of Hilo to the site of the most recent lava flows—aka, the newest land on the planet. We saw red magma pouring into the ocean, a bubbling lake of lava, loads of fumaroles, and some waterfalls to boot. It was EPIC.

 All the sibs. You might think this photo is blurry, but we actually just flew so fast in the helicopter that we were all physically smeared for some time afterward.
All the sibs. You might think this photo is blurry, but we actually just flew so fast in the helicopter that we were all physically smeared for some time afterward.
 While we went up in the
While we went up in the ‘copter, Graham and Margi stayed behind (no kids allowed in a doors-off helicopter!) with their wonderful grandparents, who took them to the macadamia farm. Graham brought me this shelled mac nut, explaining, “I just thought you would really love to see it with its shell on, Mama!” It takes 300 pounds of pressure per square inch to crack a macadamia nut; it takes one comment like this from Graham to crack me.

It was well into the afternoon by the time we landed, but David and I wanted to go back to see more of the park from the ground, so we split up from the rest of his family and made our way back to the park. We really wanted to hike down into the Kilauea Iki crater and check out the cooled flow from the ground. It was late afternoon when we started and we figured we’d be hiking up in the dark, but decided to go for it anyway.

I’m so glad we did. The crater floor itself is fascinating—plants push through where the lava has cracked, active fumaroles spout steam, and parts of the ground sounded hollow as we walked over them, the result of different cooling rates that formed different kinds of air pockets. As we were exploring, the sun began to set and cast a pink glow on the whole scene. Graham ran around getting footage with the GoPro and narrating, Margi and I examined the rocks, and David took a million pictures of this ridiculously beautiful place. We hiked back in the dark feeling plain giddy.

On our way out, we stopped at the Jagger Museum again to catch a nighttime view of the lava lake. We hadn’t been able to see much activity in the day, but night was a different story—the lake glowed and around the edges, we could intermittently see lava spurting above the rim. The night was dark and the stars were showing off and the whole scene was perfect.

Other than exploring the park, we did a bunch of other stuff on the big island! Lots of lazing around the beach and playing Thunder Dome in the ocean, making donuts since we actually had an oven in our rental house (huzzah! We made a pomegranate mint kind and topped it with mascarpone and it was SERIOUSLY GOOD), and exploring a few parts of the island. One of our favorite things was driving to the top of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset and do some stargazing. It was chilly, so the kids and I stayed in the rental jeep, popped the top off, and had an incredible view; it was the night of the new moon and the only light on the horizon came from the lava lake at Kilauea Iki—EPIC AGAIN. By the way, after driving around in a jeep for a week, I fully understand the hype; I’ve never given a lick about cars, but I want a jeep pretty badly now. They are FUN.

Another night we went diving with manta rays, which I had not previously known was A Thing, but is absolutely A Thing, and a very cool Thing at that. The deal is that the divers bring lights, the lights bring plankton, and the plankton bring the rays, ready for a feeding. We took a boat from Kona out to a rocky cove, got in the water around sunset, and watched the show. I was positioned at the end of the lit board our group was holding onto; I don’t know if it was my positioning or my delicious personality, but the rays that came around us headed straight toward me, mouths gaping gorgeously (but also a little frighteningly), before tilting slightly downward to swim just under my legs. I got brushed by manta wings several times, which made me very smelly afterward, but also it was glorious. On the boat ride back, the captain played the Moana soundtrack and I thought Margi was going to die of delight.

Hawaii is excellent, and the big island was particularly Best. I’m pretty intent on moving here now, starting a homestead, getting a goat, taking up surfing. I have a whole vision, and in the vision, I’m this cool, relaxed goddess of aloha, crap fully together, unafraid of jellyfish, boss of motherhood, driver of a neat jeep. Also in the vision, my hair is exactly like Moana’s. And I have unlimited skymiles to fly home for family and skiing. I’ve heard that if I just think about this enough, the universe will manifest it for me. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, so if you suddenly see me posting lots of pictures of surfing and, of course, our goat, you’ll know that The Secret stuff really works. Worth a shot.

 Me, longing.
Me, longing.
  1. Great descriptions of the island and your "volcanic" fantasies.
    Makes me feel like "I bin there, dun that."
    Thanks. However you say that in Hawaiian.

  2. So. You followed me on IG this morning (karisjoy). It’s now 10:41 and I am reading every single word you have written up to this post but it’s supposed to be bedtime. And I can’t stop lol. Having a visceral reaction to your words about Hawaii- but it’s been building since I realized that you are living my dream and it’s a dream that’s thisclose to being reality. My husband is teetering on the brink of falling into this idea of traveling with our four kids for a year… but I am literally dreaming of doing this and it’s so close it’s painful. I want it!! So, thank you for posting all of your travels. I have never told someone they are living my dream but you are 100% living my dream- messy behind the scenes and all. <3

    1. I know it’s been forever since you posted this, but just wanted to say thank you again for the kind words :).

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