It was a cloudy, cool, and drizzly kind of day, the kind of day you typically want to stay indoors and watch the rain running down the window pane. But we were in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, and the weather was no damper for us. We were on our way to hike down to the Kilauea Iki crater, a volcano crater that had last erupted in 1959, and still shows activity in the form of rising steam from many cracks on the crater floor. When Kilauea did erupt in 1959, it was quite a spectacular eruption, as has been described in great detail here.
Kilauea is a stuff of legends. In Hawaiian mythology, Kilauea is where most of the conflict between the volcano goddess Pele and the rain god Kamapua'a took place. Pele is revered all over Hawaii Big Island. Some lava formations are named after her, such as Pele's tears (small teardrop shaped lava droplets) and Pele's hair (thin, brittle strands of volcanic glass).
The trail begins at the Kilauea Iki overlook, up on the rim of the crater, some 500 feet above what was once a lava lake. Now, of course, after some fifty years, it is covered with a thick crust of solidified lava, perhaps a hundred feet thick. The lava is grey to black in color, and the appearance of the place is that of classic bleak post-apocalyptic landscape.
The rim of the crater has a lush rainforest. As you start on your way down to the base of the crater, you see some interesting plants, such as the fiddlehead fern. Its pleasant walk down to the crater base.
At the distance you can see the Halema'uma'u crater of Kilauea caldera, in all its sulfurous glory. Volcanic ash and sulfur dioxide has been spewing from that crater since its last eruption in 1983. Halema'uma'u crater is out-of-bounds for hikers, but the Kilauea Iki is considered safe enough for us to get up close and personal with steaming vents.
Down on the crater floor, its dark gray everywhere. Huge cracked chunks of solidified lava jut out all over. The appearance is one of complete and mindless destruction. You can see steam rising in the distance from what appears to be a stress zone on the crater floor. It's a desolate landscape, but there is sign of new life sprouting out of the lava! You see a some green plants sticking out of the gray lava, trying make their way into an inhospitable world. It was nice to see this process of regeneration.
We finally got close enough to feel the heat of the volcano, even if only mildly. There were steam vents all around near the center of the crater, and we checked them out. The steam coming out was pretty hot. Lucky none of us burned ourselves!
We reached the end of the crater floor finally. It was the time to look back and marvel at the enormity of all, and try to visualize what it must have been like when it was a boiling lava lake not so long ago. Makes you appreciate the vast scale of nature, and our relative insignificance.
We were at the edge of rainforest, and started up the trail to get to the top of the crater wall, which would take us to the Thurston Lava Tube. Then it was short walk along the rim to the Kilauea Iki parking.
As we reached the parking spot, some tourists who were watching the Kilauea Iki crater from the overlook, got talking to us. Some of them were old, and could not possibly hike down to the crater floor. One of them said, "You guys look like you were down there" ... perhaps it showed on our faces. :-) The excitement of walking on an active volcano crater floor is a memory I will cherish for a long time.
The next time Kilauea erupts, I hope I am around to see it.