The Big Island is Hawaii's largest, twice the size of all other Hawaiian Islands combined, but is still expanding. Kilauea volcano is the world's most active and, in 1990, an eruption destroyed the community of Kalapana, leaving a lava field which still attracts visitors such as these seen here. The volcano also destroyed Royal Gardens in 1987 and the towns of Koae and Kapoho in 1960.

Hawaii – Been There

Like fingers on a typewriter: T-h-i-s i-s s-u-b-l-i-m-e

Photo by Steve & Donna O'Meara

Hawaii – Been There

Like fingers on a typewriter: T-h-i-s i-s s-u-b-l-i-m-e

Up around the summit, the native forest and volcanoscapes on Kīlauea, Hawaii, are just plain weird – full of ferns, flowering plants, insects and birds that exist only in Hawaii, or only on this island, or even only in a certain lava tube on the flank of Kīlauea.

Bill Harby
Bill Harby Writer

Some of these I can see along my favorite trail in the park. The Kīlauea Iki crater trail loops through the forest above the rim and then down across the hardened lava lake that is the crater floor.

The forest part of the trail takes is defined by ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees. These gnarly trees with black bark, waxy leaves and delicate red bottlebrush blossoms have actually evolved over the millennia to close their cells’ pores when they detect sulfur dioxide seeping from a volcanic eruption – they have developed their own gas mask. Also along the trail we have our native mint, except it has no mint flavor or aroma because that energy-consuming defense against insects wasn’t needed on this isolated island, so it slowly disappeared, leaving a mint-less mint. Likewise, we have mamaki, our nettle-less nettle. The thorns on its cousins in other parts of the world weren’t needed here where there were no wild grazing mammals, so they slowly atrophied to nothing.

As I walk the forest part of the trail, my boots crunch into the volcanic cinders. It sounds like walking on old frozen snow, but the air is balmy. Up in the branches I hear the jazzy arpeggios of our native forest birds – the scarlet ‘apapane and the lime-green amakihi. Both are endemic honeycreeper finches, related species that are their own remarkable evolutionary story. Halfway along the Kīlauea Iki trail, I descend a short switchback to the open crater floor. On a fine day with clear, lapis-blue skies, the crater is pretty dazzling – sun-heated steam rises from the black cinder surface as lava-heated steam rises from small white and yellow fissures in the crater floor. But when luminescent clouds roll in it gets even better – a fine mist soon tickles my face, then grows to a light rain tapping on the hood of my rainsuit like fingers on a typewriter: T-h-i-s i-s s-u-b-l-i-m-e.

I watch the rain falling in the fluttering fingers of hula dancers near the crater’s edge. The fiery birthing and destructive forces of the volcano have long held a profound influence upon the ancient Hawaiian dance of hula, which is still very much alive today, celebrated each year at the world’s largest and most prestigious hula competition, the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo town, downhill by the ocean. Before the festival, dance groups make their pilgrimage to Halema‘uma‘u. After gathering native ferns and flowers with which they adorn themselves, they chant and dance and give ho‘okipu (gifts). They are like midwives to the ongoing birth of this island.

Earn money by using your travel knowledge to help your friends, family, and other travelers book the best hotels. Learn more about becoming a TRVL Agent here!

TRVL Favorites in Hawaii

Other stories about Hawaii