I’ve heard people describe places as unlike any environment they’d ever experienced or as a place so unlike what they’ve known that it seems alien.
To be honest, I often wondered if those people lacked a better vocabulary. How hard could it be to describe somewhere? How different could a place be that it felt like you weren’t on Earth anymore?
While I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Volcanoes National Park didn’t feel like Earth, my visit there proved that some places can seem alien and can open your eyes to a whole new way of thinking about the places we live and visit.
The park was truly unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Not just in sights but in sounds and in the feelings the landscape evoked.
After Maui, we headed to the island of Hawaii – otherwise known as the Big Island to avoid confusion with the name of the state.
We only had a couple of days here and chose to stay on the Hilo side of the island because of its proximity to Volcanoes National Park. Our hotel, Chalet Kilauea, was a 5-minute drive from the park entrance.
The downside of staying here was the lack of dining options. The closest restaurant was just barely meh in terms of food quality and service. Heading into Hilo itself, we didn’t find too many options but we were only here for a couple of days so we made do.
But the park … the park made everything worthwhile. It is truly a place where photos don’t do it justice. In places you had lush rainforest, full of big-leaf trees and a rich, earthy smell. It was easy to stand amidst all the greens and imagine yourself in a time long ago. Dinosaurs were sure to be around the next corner.
Except around the next corner was silence and a barren landscape. Places where lava had flowed in years past, leaving behind black rock and little else.
Maybe we hit the park at low season but there were so many times when it looked like we were the only ones there. When we drove the Chain of Craters Road, we hardly passed other cars. We were the only ones at each pull-off, giving us the freedom to explore what we wanted.
The silence is what I remember. When the wind stopped, there was nothing. No bird song, no chittering insects. We were hesitant to talk because the sound of voices felt like it didn’t belong. When we explored the lava fields, the only noise was often rocks shifting underfoot.
Colors for the most part were shades of grey. The lava had lost its black sheen years ago. Here and there, plants sprang up, lending a shock of color against the grey rock and the bleached white tree branches.
It was unworldly. I hate the cliché, but the word fits.
There were no active lava flows when we were there. No streams of lava pouring into the ocean or running across the land. Several roads and trails were closed because of dangers posed by escaping gas. And the lava lake in the Halema’uma’u Crater was just below the highest levels achieved in the days prior to our visit.
The crater can be seen from the Jagger museum and several parking/trail areas around the Kilauea Caldera. The caldera encompasses much of the park and a sign reminds visitors: “You are standing inside one of the world’s most active volcanoes.” During the day, you can see steam rising from the crater. At night, you see the light of the lava lake reflected on the steam and fog. Truly amazing.