Speed Tourism: Nine Hours on the Big Island of Hawaii

When I mentioned this trip to most people, they really thought I was crazy. The Big Island is called "big" for a reason. You need time to see and do everything. So I'm not saying that we saw one-hundredth of what we could have seen with more time. We were on Maui for a vacation, and I wanted to go to another island while we were there. My kids are both interested in geology, and boy, does the Big Island have geology and then some. Confession: long years ago, I lived on O'ahu. I used to fly to other islands, play golf, go out to eat, and fly back to O'ahu. So the one-day thing was not an issue for me. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm sad that I didn't have a week or more to spend on the Big Island, but I'm glad that I went for nine hours!

This trip took place in April of 2012. We flew from Kahului, Maui, to Hilo, Hawaii. Both small, easy-in, easy-out airports. We rented a car at the Hilo airport, stocked up on junk food at a drug store, and headed out. From Hilo, it's not that far to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park or to the Kalapana county lava observation area, and best of all, they are both straight shots. No twisty roads to Hana today, thank goodness! But, the first mistake I made was heading for Kalapana first. 11 south from Hilo, then 130 south and west all the way to Kalapana. After about thirty minutes of driving, I noticed that a sign along the highway mentioned that the viewing area opened at 2:00 p.m. Yeah, it was about 10 a.m. at that point, and yes, during the course of my research, I had written down the viewing times (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.), then promptly forgotten all about them. So, we had to backtrack to 11 and head to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. And we wasted probably 45 minutes, which impacted my schedule later on. During speed tourism, every minute doesn't count, but every 45 minutes counts a lot!

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park signAt the park, it was voggy and cool. Yes, vog (volcanic smog) is a word. My sister was there a year ago, and the vog was so bad, they had to leave. When we were there, you could smell it, but it wasn't bad. First stop was Kilauea Visitor Center. They have a short movie, a tiny gift shop, and a small museum with displays about the park's geology and biology. Small museums like that are the jackpot for us nine hour tourists! We looked at everything in half an hour (plus the movie), picked out where we needed to go (they have a display with a "top ten" type listing of what to see), and hit the road. Note that during our visit, Volcano House was being renovated, so it was closed. According to the website, they have local arts and crafts displayed there, and I'm sad I missed that. Plus Volcano House is the only food in the park, although you can get food right outside the park in Volcano Village. We didn't eat at the park or in Volcano Village.

We drove out along Crater Rim Drive and stopped first at the steam vents. You can't miss them. Steam rises from holes or cracks in the ground. It's just a short walk along a long sequence of vents. Nothing un-missable, but kinda cool, in a steamy kind of way. And back in the car.

Jaggar Museum and Halema'umu'u Overlook

Next, we stopped at the Jaggar Museum. This is another small one (yay!) devoted to the geology and the seismology of the area. Quick, informative, interesting. Perfect! Halema'umu'u craterOutside, there's an overlook of Halema'uma'u crater. It's a huge sunken area of old lava, volcanically active in certain spots. All we could see during the day was the steam and vog. At night, supposedly, you can see the red glow of lava through cracks at the spots where the vog and steam were rising. Being there after dark would have been cool!

Entrance to Thurston Lava TubeThurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube

Next stop, we backtracked to the Kilauea Visitor Center and headed the other way on Crater Rim Drive. The Thurston Lava Tube is just a tiny little hike through the forest, and then through a well-lit cave, formed by lava a long time ago. We could have done it two or three times. Quick and enjoyable.

Kilauea Iki Crater Overlook

Kilauea Iki crater looking towards Halema'umu'uFrom the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot, two of our party walked on the trail that led to the Kilauea Iki trailhead and overlook, while the other two took the car and met us there. It was a fifteen minute hike, very flat, with lots of overlooks down into the Kilauea Iki crater. From up there, the crater looks huge, but is much smaller than the Kilauea caldera and the Halema'uma'u crater. The Kilauea Iki trail goes down into (you guessed it) the Kilauea Iki crater. From up at the rim, the people down there looked like ants. It seemed like a long way down (and a long way back up!) but it would have been a fun hike. If we'd had the time and the weather was cool.

Plant growing in old lava

Kalapana Lava Viewing Area

That's all we did in the park. I know, not enough. We headed back on 11, all the way down to 130, and took 130 heading for Kalapana. We stopped in Pahoa and ate a combo meal of Subway and Burger King (both right along 130). (Yeah, I know. Speed tourism is the enemy of fine dining. I was handicapped by two things. We're vegetarians, and certain of us are picky eaters.) Then we continued to where 130 was overrun by lava. You drive along on a road, then it turns into a bad road, then you eventually get to where you park. Then you walk in, surrounded by a twenty year old lava flow, eventually arriving at a lava flow that's just a couple of years old. It's black, cracked desolation all around. Plants have sprouted in it, homes have been built (or re-built) on it, but most of it is just an expanse of black rock.

At the farthest spot that they'll let you walk, two people were there to answer questions, and they provided most of the factual information about the lava viewing area. Far Off Lava FlowThe actual flowing lava isn't close enough to see during the day (supposedly you can see a red glow after dark, so this is part two of "go at night"). You could see the steam rising from the flow, but it was a good distance away. If you're in the area, it's not a long drive, and we all enjoyed seeing the old lava around us, and the new lava, even from a distance. It was hot there, nothing unbearable, but nothing like the coolness of the park.

The plan was to go to Akaka Falls, which is north of Hilo, before heading for the airport. But, since I'd lost 45 valuable minutes heading for Kalapana and backtracking earlier in the day, we didn't have time. Of course, we were early for our flight, which means we had time to waste in the airport. Completely against all my speed tourism principles. I wish that I had researched Hilo and written down a bakery, an ice cream shop, a tourist attraction, somewhere cute and fun to kill a short amount of time, instead of being early for our flight. Live and learn.

What would I do on the Big Island if I had more than nine hours? A lot. However, another confession: I've been there several times, always spending a few days. (Well, except for the time I flew there for a solar eclipse and 18 holes of golf, then flew back to O'ahu.) But, my kids had never been there. I think that my kids had a great time, but there's so much more to do, that they'd love to go back. My top two: I would love to do the Pu'u O'o hike to see flowing lava from a closer distance, and I'd love to see the red glow of the lava at night.

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