Beyond the Rim: Hiking Volcanoes National Park

Like all good national parks, this one provides an informative brochure with your $10 entry fee, and like a good tourist, you use its map to navigate the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive. You use the park’s well-marked signage to guide you through a circuit of overlooks, information centers and museums. You stop at Volcano House, Volcano Art Center Gallery and Sulphur Banks.

At the park’s Visitor Center, videos and ranger talks fill your brain with facts and fascination. You see the difference between the smooth and ropy pahoehoe lava and the jagged aa lava. You hear the story of Pele, goddess of the volcano, and how she visited all the other main Hawaiian Islands before arriving on the youngest, pounding her digging stick in the ground and declaring Kilauea her home.

You grasp the concept of plate tectonics—how all the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago—including Midway—once sat over the hot spot deep within the Earth’s mantle that continues to push Hawaii Island higher into the air. You learn that Kilauea and Mauna Loa are two of the world’ most active volcanoes and that Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth, rising 56,000 feet from its base on the seafloor. (That’s 27,000 feet higher than Mount Everest.)

And, at some point, you decide you want to experience the place.

Kilauea is like that. It engenders deeper exploration. So you may hike Kilauea Iki Trail, you may walk through Thurston Lava Tube, and you may even make the 36-mile round-trip drive down Chain of Craters Road at sunset to—hopefully—witness distant streams of surface lava flowing to the sea.

But then what?

Kilauea translates from Hawaiian to English as “spewing, much spreading.” That’s how Kilauea erupts—not in tall fountains of lava but oozing and flowing like a river and giving rise to the label, “shield volcano.” Think of the shape of a warrior’s shield.

For you, though, what is spreading is desire—a desire to get to know Kilauea even better. Pele has inspired desire in people for centuries. She herself possesses an insatiable appetite—engulfing forests and communities with her fires and consuming lovers with her passion.

warren costa of native guide hawaii
Warren Costa of Native Guide Hawaii

And, so, you may call Warren Costa. That’s what I did. I met Warren at the park’s Visitor Center at 9:00 a.m., and we headed for Napau Trail. Our destination: Mauna Ulu, elevation 3,200 feet.

Warren operates Native Guide Hawaii. Born and raised in Hilo, he holds a degree in archaeology and worked in Volcanoes National Park building fences, eradicating native species, conducting field surveys and excavating cultural artifacts and remains. He’s tramped these 333,000 acres many times. Five years ago, he started offering private guiding services.

Are you into rocks? Warren reads fields of lava like I read a road map. He points out the different kinds of lava—the sluggish flowing aa and the faster, more organized pahoehoe—in such a way that by the end of our six hours together, I can scan a lava field and identify its different lava flows. It’s the temperature and gas content that determines the type, he says. Whether aa or pahoehoe, lava in Hawaii is quite porous; it breaks down quickly. That’s why you won’t see rock climbers scaling rock faces here.

Are you into birds? Warren identifies a koae kea, white-tailed tropicbird, soaring inside the crater of Mauna Ulu, our hike’s destination. They like to nest on cliffside perches, Warren says.

Are you into culture? Warren points out a place near Jagger Museum that was said to be sacred to the shark god Kamohoalii, Pele’s brother.

Are you into flora? We aren’t on the mostly flat trail for five minutes before Warren stops and points out an ohelo bush, known as the Hawaiian blueberry. Then, an ohia tree—limbs gnarled like the arthritic hands of someone’s grandmother. Okupukupu and uluhe, two different kinds of fern. Hapuu, a tree fern. Uki, sedge.

That’s what I am here to learn: How life sprouts from rocks. I can’t get over how quickly plants take root in the crevices of cooled lava. And the variety.

We are 28 miles from the coast, along what’s known as the East Rift Zone. Lava last flowed on the surface here in 1974. Yet 20 to 30 feet below us, red-hot rivers of lava flow today, pooling at the Kilauea caldera and running east to the active Pu’u O’o vent. Think of lava flowing beneath your feet the way water moves through a house’s plumbing system. You can’t see it, but it’s there.

As we walk, lava crunches. Every step we take breaks down the rock into gravel, helping create a faint trail for others to follow.

Warren detours off the path to point out a grove of “lava trees,” hollow columns that once encased a tree. They look like sculptures to me—one a little, old lady; another a proud warrior.

Warren picks up a piece of “reticulite,” a delicate chunk of lava that reminds me of a steel wool scouring pad. He says reticulite forms under intense heat and spews out during a fountain eruption along a fissure.

The summit of Mauna Ulu simmers in the distance, the result of steam vents. As I look out over a field of lava, I see a pan of baked brownies, its surface thin and delicate.

In his hand, Warren holds a spent lehua blossom, its thread-like petals already dried and fallen off.

And here’s when I finally understand how it happens. How easily life erupts from rock.

All that remains of the flower is a collection of tiny cups or pods. Warren splits one open and a pinch of powder spills out in his palm. These are the seeds. They are so tiny, they look like dust. Warren blows them off his hand. The seeds float through the air and settle on the volcanic rock at our feet. Another breeze sifts them across the rock, and smaller pinches disappear into the tiny pinholes that make up the surface of lava in Hawaii. Each puka, hole, becomes a potential home for a new plant.

I get it. It takes a special kind of plant—those with airborne seeds or spores—and a special kind of rock—the porous variety—to foster life in such a seemingly inhospitable environment as the slopes of Volcanoes National Park. The plants that succeed are called “early colonizers,” and prove the indomitable spirit of nature.

Up ahead, our destination awaits. The summit of Mauna Ulu holds its own surprise: A deep crater. Unlike back on Crater Rim Drive, here, there are no signs to give this hidden gem away.

The name “Mauna Ulu” translates to “growing mountain,” Warren tells me. The cool wind whips my hair, and I zip up my jacket. Grey skies emit mist that mysteriously dries before it lands on my skin.

Now, how does that happen? I decide to save that question for my next outing with Warren. Because there will be a next time with Warren. He has a way of whetting your appetite for more. In that way, you could say he has a bit of Pele in him.  He spreads knowledge the way shield volcanoes produces lava—gently flowing with periodic bursts of insight.

(Originally published in OutriggerHawaii.)

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