Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Risks and Rewards in the Big Island's Volcanoes and Valleys

In six months of living on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, I learned to do things that even growing up in a Midwestern farm town hadn't taught me. I hauled my own trash to the dump in the back of a sputtering 1980s Volvo. I paid for water delivery when our rainwater catchment system bottomed out. I stole eggs from the backyard chickens and picked ripe, soft papaya fruit right off the plant. The Big Island brought me about as close to the pie-eyed hippie dream of living off the land as I'm likely to get.

Kilauea Iki Overlook

But what I remember most about the Big Island is its raw, lunar-looking lava landscapes. I hiked across sun-baked lava fields in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park - and almost succumbed to heat exhaustion after my water ran out, frantically finding some last-ditch relief in the shadow of an ancient Hawaiian rock wall. After dark, I scampered across ropy pahoehoe lava to a viewpoint of fiery molten lava glowing hellishly red while it oozed downhill into the ocean, sending up billowing clouds of steam. As dawn broke, I drove partway up Mauna Kea's summit road, then continued to climb steeply uphill on foot, curving around rainbow-colored cinder cones and a prehistoric, frosty green lake at eye level with the clouds. Out of breath, I reached the top of Hawaii's highest volcano, dusted with snow and marked with a cold metal USGS elevation marker and a traditional Hawaiian altar humbly made of stone and wood.

After all of that fire and ice, the Big Island's lush amphitheater valleys were a refreshingly wet and temperate escape, where waterfalls leapt over cliffs and swollen streams ran headstrong into the Pacific. I tramped from Waipiʻo Valley up the Z-shaped switchbacks of the Muliwai Trail, then rock-hopped over streams, strode past emergency helipads and slipped over kukui nuts for the final mile downhill with nothing to hold onto but tangled hau trees. The rough trail ended in abandoned Waimanu Valley, where under the light of a full moon by a rising tide, I camped alone on an eerily deserted beach. It was too easy to hallucinate the sounds of Hawaii's night marchers - the ghosts of ancient warriors - pounding their feet on dirt and making tree branches creak and rocks crash as they slipped through the forest.

View from Mauna Kea's Summit Road

Getting to know the Big Island's volcanic landscapes and timeless valleys in depth requires taking serious risks, but it pays off with huge rewards. If this sounds like your kind of adventure, check out my guide to "Exploring the Big Island's Volcanoes and Valleys," published by Lonely Planet. It was just reprinted by CNN with a bewitching gallery of images, so you can see for yourself the drama that unfolds on Hawaii's youngest - and most wildly unpredictable - island.

Related links:
Volcanoes and Valleys on the Big Island [CNN]
Exploring the Big Island's Volcanoes and Valleys [Lonely Planet]
Kauaiʻs Coast & Mountains: A Hiker's Dream [Lonely Planet]

Photo credits: Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Waipiʻo Valley & Mauna Kea (Michael Connolly Jr.)

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