Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Escape from the Northwest Winter: Hiking Kilauea Iki
Here’s my last “postcard” from the Big Island of Hawai’i. More Northwest adventures soon!
How many places on Earth can you walk across a smoking volcano crater and be home in time for dinner? Not many. In the Pacific Northwest, the closest I’ve come to an active volcano is hiking 4 hours up steep snowfields and peering down 1,500 feet into the gaping, open maw of Mt. Saint Helens from the crater rim. In Hawai’i, we drive and park less than 20 yards from the rim of Kilauea Iki crater in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park for an easy 4-mile hike down into the crater and back. And no snowfields here—although misty and cool today, it’s still the tropics.
We start out walking down a fern-fringed path through a profusion of tropical flora and fauna. Our soundtrack: the sweet, vibrant songs of many Hawaiian birds echoing through the rainforest.
Our sword ferns get pretty big in the Northwest, but nothing like the megaflora here in Hawaii.
After descending 400 feet and switchbacking down the trail for 20 minutes, we emerge from the forest to the edge of the "frozen" lava lake. In 1959 this was a roiling lake of incendiary liquid lava. A mist hovering in the crater heightens the dramatic transition from lush rainforest to desolate landscape.
Rock cairns mark the trail through the crater. Some of them look like carefully planned sculptures. Art is everywhere if you pay attention.
Out of this still steaming crater, ferns and other plants are taking seed and bursting up, bringing life back to this barren landscape.
About halfway across the crater floor, the relatively smooth surface gets more uneven and cracked and it becomes harder to follow the trail. Thank goodness for the cairns.
I pass a rise to my left that appears to be the throat of the ongoing crater activity. I'm not really nervous, but I'm a little anxious to pass by quickly since this vent is actively huffing and puffing in audible whooshes.
Looking around, I see steam escaping from numerous vents throughtout the crater. Signs tell us to stay on the trail to avoid potential dangers. Not that far beneath this hardened surface, molten magma still simmers.
As I near the other side of the crater, a beautiful ohi'a lehua plant brightens the gray surroundings. According to Hawaiian legend, this plant is the joining of two lovers in spite of the jealous goddess Pele. Ohi'a, the man, is the leaves and stems of the plant, and the vivid scarlet-orange flower is Lehua, the woman.
Finally we start climbing steep steps and switchbacks out of the crater and back into the lush forest. I'm glad to be back where birds sing and plants flourish.
And what's a hike without a little shopping on the way home, right? :)
After hiking, we stop at Volcano Garden Arts in the village of Volcano, less than 2 miles from Kilauea crater. Owner and artist Ira Ono has transformed this World Heritage site and historic home set in the cloud forest to an enchanting art gallery/garden center/guest cottage/cafe.
Note the print of the ohi'a lehua plant on display, next to one of Ira's ceramic masks. I almost took that one home.
On our way out, we stroll through the gardens. With Ira's artistic eye and strong sense of place, he's created a magical, little bit mysterious landscape.
There's nothing mysterious, though, about Ira's cute and playful goat Earnest, who keeps the lawn in order. And rubs noses with Ira.