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For our first big trip of 2012 we decided to visit one of the 2012 parks: Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

The parks featured for the year 2012 in the America the Beautiful series are a fairly diverse and expensive (travel) set. 2012 not only includes Hawaii, but also features Alaska and Puerto Rico. All three of those locales are the sort of place we like to spend a bit more time exploring since they likely cost a bit more in travel and lodging than our destinations in the lower 48.

For this trip we spent 10 days on the Big Island of Hawaii, making a large circle loop and spending several days each around Kona, Volcano and Hilo.

For the Volcano portion of our trip, we stayed at the Aloha Crater Lodge which was only a couple miles from the park entrance, perfect for our sunrise/sunset regime. In general, the closer we are to our desired destination, the more likely we are to actually wake up at sunrise.

Our first day in Volcano we couldn’t get up for sunrise because the car was out of gas and the gas stations in town weren’t open when we arrived the previous night (cue rant about Travis never getting gas until the car is practically empty). Alas, we had to sleep in until a reasonable hour and then drive around the park midday.

We drove down Chain of Craters road to the Holei Sea Arch, stopping at various craters and lookouts along the way. The sea arch was very cool, but even more amazing was just sitting on the rocks watching the huge waves crash tumultuously on the cliffs.

On our way back up the road, we stopped to walk to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs.

We decided to head back to the Kilauea Crater for sunset. We had stopped by in the morning on our initial tour of Crater Rim Drive, but we wanted to check it out in all its sunset splendor. The clouds were beautiful, wispy, cotton candy pink. The view over the mountains was pretty nice too.

We stayed until after sunset to capture the glow of the Kilauea Crater. After that, we headed back to the hotel, wondering what to do the following day.

Originally, we thought we would splurge and either take a boat or helicopter tour of the lava. However, during the weeks leading up to our trip we found that the lava wasn’t currently flowing anywhere near the ocean, ruling out the boat trip. After some research, we also decided that although a helicopter overlook would be cool, we wanted to get much closer to the action.

To complicate things, the lava flow was fairly inaccessible from the park itself. The best viewing area for the current flows were located in Kalapana, about an hour from our lodge in Volcano. Additionally, the residents of Kalapana had gotten tired of tourists invading their property to walk to the lava, so the only way to access it was through a tour group or guided tour with a local.

I got to work on the web, messaging a contact who had done a walking tour the previous year to get his guide’s contact information. I then called and left a message with the independent tour guide, uncertain as to whether he would get back to me since we were extremely last minute in our planning.

As it turned out, everything worked out perfectly. Our guide, Bo, called me to tell me that his previous weekend group had cancelled their tour at the last minute. He usually only took groups of at least 4 people, but in this scenario he was willing to take just my husband and I since he had been looking forward to checking out the recent lava flow. The downside, we now had plans (that I created at 9pm) to be in Kalapana the following morning at 4:45am. Travis was unenthusiastic, but I promised I would drive (a rarity) and I set alarms to wake up at o’dark thirty.

We left nice and early the following morning to make the hour drive to Kalapana and meet our guide in the darkness. We could see the glowing lava on the pali, but it was difficult to tell how far it was. We were leaving in the darkness to ensure we could complete the journey before the daytime sun was too harsh.

The beginning part of our journey was precarious, carefully navigating the bumpy lava rocks in the dark with flashlights. Bo was extremely knowledgeable, having lived in the area for several years. He shared interesting information on the recent lava flows in the area, as well as provided helpful tips on how to navigate the area.

I had been hoping to be able to get sunrise photos with the lava, but the active flows ended up being further than anyone anticipated. I did take a quick break from the hike to take some photos of the sunrise over the endless lava rocks and ocean.

We continued onwards, and what was originally anticipated to be a 2-ish mile journey (one way) ended up being over 4 miles. But, we found the lava!

It was an amazing, mesmerizing experience to finally catch the first views of the lava flowing down the pali.

Bo told us we could stand as close as we wanted, as long as we could withstand the heat. It turns out, the lava gets too close to stand next to before you’re actually in serious danger of being burned.

We got to work, exploring the area and scoping out the various lava flows. The area still had trees which had escaped previous flows. Bo told us a story of a resident named Jack, who continued to live in his house in the area despite the fact the rest of the subdivision had been previously destroyed by lava. We were sad to learn that only 2 weeks after our journey to Hawaii, the lava overran the house of this final resident of Royal Gardens.

We spent awhile exploring the lava, taking photos and video footage of the flows while narrowly avoiding the falling branches of some burning trees. Travis got to poke some lava with a stick. Travis also forgave me for forcing him to wake up ridiculously early to go on a hike. He actually got over that pretty quickly. I’m just glad I decided we were doing this since it was ultimately very rewarding.

As a sidenote, as I was writing this blog one year later, I was shocked and saddened to discover that our guide Bo had passed away in November 2012 in a motorcycle accident. I had been searching to link to his website to share my gratitude for his expertise and knowledge on our hike when I found out the sad news. We really enjoyed our lava hike with him and would have loved to visit him again or recommend him to others. We just wanted to share our condolences.

After our 8-mile hike to the active lava flows we made it back to the hotel and took a well-deserved nap. We had vague plans of going back to the park for sunset, but we also just wanted to sleep.

Luckily, we ended up waking up refreshed from our looong afternoon nap and decided to explore further. The Volcano Winery was still open until 5:30pm, so I decided we should first stop there to check Hawaii wine off our list before we visited the park.

We got to the park with a little time until sunset, and we decided to just try Kilauea Crater again from a different angle. We parked and started heading to the crater viewing area when it started to sprinkle and I saw a rainbow forming. Excitedly, I went running up the path and starting getting photos of the full rainbow forming over the fields near the Kilauea Crater.

After I was satisfied with the full rainbow photo, I headed over to the caldera where the rainbow looked to be stretching down into the canyon with steamy fog and golden afternoon light. I couldn’t have been happier that we woke up from our nap.

Our trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was beautiful and rewarding. I still hope to visit again someday when the lava is flowing into the ocean, but for a first trip, it was certainly memorable.

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