The radio plays old Van Morison tunes as I sing along in the car with my eyes peeled on the Chain of Craters Road wondering what I will encounter next. The Big Island’s main attraction is volcanoes; it is the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. There are 6 volcanoes that have worked together over the last one million years to create the Big Island.
Even the radio station on the Big Island has the call letters – LAVA – I let out a little chuckle at the silliness of it all.
However the land in Volcanoes National Park, and specifically the Chain of Craters Road, is no laughing matter. It’s the site of destruction; the product of the volcano goddess Pele and her wrath against Mother Nature.
Even though I’m pretty sure they are cousins in the earth’s family tree, these women are in battle. Each one in their corner of the ring, and they are ready to rumble!
Be Prepared For All Kinds Of Weather
As I drive my rental car down the Chain of Craters Road I too am in an all out battle; not with Pele, but with Mother Nature. Wind and spitting rain are my nemesis for about ¼ mile and then abruptly I pop out into blue skies for a ½ mile, rejoicing quickly as I enter back into the rainy, gray muck; I’ve never experienced anything like it.
See the Lava Formations Up Close
The drive starts near the park visitor center and goes through dense rain forest, steam vents, and old tunnels formed from lava tubes. It didn’t take long to pop out of the rain forest into a barren lava land. I immediately pull the car over to observe this jagged land of lava formations closer. As soon as I open up the car door the wind whistles and howls past me like an angry beast. There is nothing to impede the vicious wind except for a few sad looking trees sparsely taking root. I walk around the lava rock carefully as the sharp edges threaten to poke through my soles of my sandals.
A Sign of Life Among the Craters
I continue the decline towards the coast on the two-lane road. I stop every time I see something surreal; which is quite often on this road where surreal seems to be the norm. I sort of feel as if I’m landing among the pages of a Dr. Seuss book as I stop to stare in awe of the bright orange plants surrounding dead tree limbs. It is as if the ground is on fire and the flames are dancing around the trees.
Learn About the Different Types of Lava
I stop at a pit crater and peer over the edge and notice how the lava seems to take on different forms; sometimes smooth (called Pahoehoe), and sometimes jagged (called A’a).
At that moment I hear a deep rumble. Shit – is Pele speaking to me? My instinct immediately tells me to run!
I hear it again and realize I have nothing to fear, it’s only my stomach announcing that it would like to eat the sandwich I bought prior to entering the park in the town of Volcano. Yes, the town is actually called Volcano; that town sounds like it’s asking for trouble if you ask me.
Picnic Among the Lava
I drive a little further down the road and I see it, the blue Pacific waters stretch out beneath me. I feel small and insignificant in this battleground of Pele and Mother Nature. But my stomach is calling the shots now so I find a perfect little picnic spot to look over the coast while I am perched on a mound of lava.
The Drive Down to the Ocean
My stomach satiated, I continue to drive down the hairpin turns and my ears pop. All of a sudden a lone tree catches my eye. It stands tall and proud among the lava that had engulfed it years ago; it is begging me to take its picture saying look at me – I survived…sort of. Yet I have a sinking feeling that Pele will not stand for that arrogance much longer.
Back in the car I drive further down towards the coast where the lava rock has an almost chocolaty color. It glistens in the sun as if it was a giant pan of chocolate brownies baking in a pan. Maybe this is Pele’s peace offering to Mother Nature. A girl can never resist chocolate!
The End of the Chain of Craters Road
I open up the windows and let the sea breeze enter the car. The air is thick and smells of the ocean. The LAVA rock station is now playing old Jefferson Airplane; life is good. I think to myself they should have a song called Lava is a Battlefield; that would be fitting for this place. Lost in my thoughts, I abruptly hit it – the end of the road.
Really, this is where the road ends; not because of the coastline, but because of Pele and her lava. In 1988 lava flow engulfed the road and flowed right into the ocean and ultimately grew the Big Island bit by bit. It’s as if Pele provides sacrificial land to Mother Nature.
You can still see the road in spots, which provides an eerie feeling of destruction. I walk onto the mound of lava which goes on for as far as my eyes can see and notice the last sign standing. The Road Closed sign stands defiantly among the lava depicting the battle of man-made verses nature. It appears to be a standoff.
At the End of the Rainbow…There’s Lava Of Course
I walk around on the lava formation a bit longer thinking about what it would have been like to be here in 1988 to witness Pele’s spectacle. Then as if Mother Nature can read my mind, she makes her presence known. She provides me a colorful rainbow above Pele’s wrath.
The battle continues on the Big Island.
How Long Does it Take You to Drive Chain of Craters Road?
It honestly took me most of the day. It’s not actually that far, but there’s so much to see and so many places to stop and walk around! I was pretty slow and stopped for a picnic too.
The drive is 19 miles, and it probably takes most people 3 hours.
Don’t Want to Drive it Yourself? Take a Tour!
You can also tour the entire Volcanoes park with a guide, including the Chain of Craters Road. I spent another day touring the park and surrounding area learning even more about volcanoes, lava, and Pele!
By 50+ and on the Run December 1, 2011 - 8:30 am
Wow, this is the best post yet from Hawaii! Fantastic photos, just amazing. Thanks for posting.
By Nancy & Shawn Power... Inspiring YOU To Travel! December 1, 2011 - 11:26 am
Damn girl, you are a great writer.
You took us back to our trip there not to long ago. It’s something special, isn’t it?
And you photos are incredible!
Thanks for sharing.
Nancy & Shawn
By Sherry December 1, 2011 - 8:51 pm
You make me weak in the knees when you say that! Thanks for the compliment. That drive in Volcanoes park really was profound to me – a great day.
By Barbara Weibel December 1, 2011 - 9:47 pm
Will you have a chance to walk across the crater? It’s really something you shouldn’t miss!
By Deb Schaffer December 2, 2011 - 6:39 pm
Volcanoes National Park is a great place to visit. We also took a “doors off” helicopter ride over the volcano. What a site!
By Mark H December 3, 2011 - 3:39 pm
Wow what wonderful photos that capture the power of nature so well. It is quirky that things like that signpost survive when a volcano appears to devastate all around it.
By Amanda December 3, 2011 - 3:54 pm
Wow! My favorite is the “road closed” photo. Great post!
By Ted K December 22, 2011 - 9:06 am
By Will - Gap Daemon January 4, 2012 - 9:43 am
Another world-beating Pele. Man that name is attaching itself to all kinds of trouble.
Fantastic photos and I’m sure I would have thoroughly enjoyed your Van Morison overtures too!
By Sherry January 6, 2012 - 10:36 am
Ohhh – I’m pretty horrible at singing…you’d only enjoy it if you were deaf! Thanks for reading!
By The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) April 2, 2012 - 8:43 pm
These photos are incredible! I love lava flows.
By Andrea April 3, 2012 - 5:20 pm
Haha – it does look like brownies! I’ve only been to Hawaii once and we stayed on Maui – I’d love to go back to do some of the volcanic experiences like this on other islands. We really enjoyed that kind of stuff in New Zealand.
By Russdawg February 15, 2016 - 6:53 am
I was there in 1988 [May 09- 15] and I witnessed the fury of the Goddess personally. The eastern edge of the flow was at an intersection and similar to you “road closed” photo, a stop sign [and some park rangers] indicated the end of your journey by auto mobile. On the south east corner of that intersection was a house that was still occupied. While waiting for my ride to take me back to Hilo, I noticed some of the occupants throwing belongings in the car and preparing to make a quick getaway. Hmmm. I wondered what that was about.
My question was answered later on the evening news as the story was reported the son had made disparaging remarks about the Goddess and the mother and sister were leaving before something untoward happened.
My next and last day on the island I decided to take a helicopter tour. After the pilot took us on the routine route I asked him could we fly over the edge of the lava on Chain of Craters Rd. I saw the same intersection where I stood the day before. We made a couple orbits over that landmark but something was missing. The tourists were there, the stop sign standing tall, the rangers in place as before but the house on the south east corner was gone! Only the burned out shell of a refrigerator, a washing machine and a lawn mower in the back yard remained. If this wasn’t surreal enough, from the air we could clearly see the active lava flow was headed southwest, but a spiny finger of lava had indeed come due south, crossed the road went through the house and turned west after consuming the lawn mower and joined the main flow!
I never doubted the powers of Pele again.
By B June 23, 2022 - 5:37 am
I wonder if they removed the “Road Closed” sign that is submerged in lava. I went down there and did not see it!
By Sherry June 27, 2022 - 6:24 am
That would be a shame if they did – it was so cool! My pic is from about 10 years ago so they may have.