Haleakala and Volcanoes National Parks - the Hawaiian Parks
After being catapulted 2,600 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a metal tube (aka 737), we find ourselves eating tasty sushi (1/2 price) while listening to karaoke at Sansei in Kihei. It’s 11pm Maui time; the place is packed with locals.
Somehow, it doesn't feel like the beginning of a National Park trip. This is my 11th trip to Hawaii; Tom’s 6th. We are here to visit Haleakala National Park on Maui and Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, on our quest to visit all 59 National Parks.
Day One - Maui
We awake to sunshine in Kihei. The day begins with an inaugural snorkel in the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve. A wonderful lunch follows at the gorgeous Grand Wailea. Sandy Makena Beach comes next for a swim. We return to the Worldmark (not recommended in HI) prior to heading into Lahaina, for a casual dinner at Kimos. It is fun to show Tom my old haunts and it's a perfect adjustment to Island time.
Day Two - Haleakala National Park
"Throw your stuff in a bag - let's go". That's what we say after seeing that the top of the volcano is clear. All too often it's clouded over. From sea level, Kihei, we drive east through sugar cane fields prior to beginning our ascent. A newly paved road winds upward among large Eucalyptus trees. As we rise above the clouds hanging in the valley, the vegetation turns to subalpine scrubland. It looks like the initial climb to 10,000 feet in an airplane as we follow the switchbacks upward. That's because it is; it's one of the few roads in the world where one climbs from sea level to 10,000 feet in nine miles.
As we arrive at the small visitor center (9,700 feet), it's still clear - lucky us. However, the air is certainly thinner. There is very little visible vegetation; the Silverswood, a cactus type plant in the sunflower family is it. I am very disappointed to learn that Haleakala Crater is not a "real" crater. This ancient volcano is a shield volcano. The crater is a depression formed by centuries of erosion, not an eruption. We walk up another 300 feet for an open air view into the "crater". Hoping to continue to beat the clouds, which form each day on the east side of the volcano, we drive down to the Halemau’u Trail for a short 2.2 mile hike out to another viewpoint. Luckily, no clouds yet.
We head down the 1 1/2 hour drive and grab some fish tacos at Ho’okipa Beach Park while marveling at the windsurfing and kiteboarding scene. After a sunset snorkel, the day ends with a superb meal in an incredible setting at Mama's Fish House, a real classic not to be missed.
Day Three, Four and Five – Hilo and the Puna District on Big Island
Breakfast on "our bench” overlooking Kihei Bay precedes a quick snorkel prior to the 30 minute scenic flight across the Alenuihaha Channel to Kona. As we land, I am struck by the lack of vegetation and old lava fields – kind of like landing on the moon. The Big Island is the newest of the Islands, thus the recent (in geological time) volcanic activity.
We drive over to Gisella’s, our Airbnb place, in Keaau just outside of Hilo, via the waterfall intensive Hamakua Coastline in our friend, Michael’s, extra van. As we enter the former plantation and ranch, five havalina run across the lawn in front of the magnificent large white Victorian house originally built by the Shipman’s, a historic Island family. Gisella walks us back to the beautifully renovated former Ranch Manager’s house (our home), complete with a wonderful porch and small saltwater swimming pool. The grounds are a jungle but the beautiful botanical garden variety. As the sun sets, noise intensifies (barking tree frogs) - all part of the charm.
This is the rainy side – really rainy, 140 inches per year! It’s lush but tough for outdoor activities. Hilo, a former sugar cane town, is not what I expect – houses are modest and many are in disrepair. No resorts over here.
The Wednesday farmer’s market is a perfect place to buy local fruits and vegetables as we settle in. Michael gives us the Puna District tour; just south of us. It’s known in November of 2014 for the lava flow approaching the little town of Pahoa. It’s also known for alternative 60’s hippy types, fondly called Punatics. We run into a few. Just as the sun gives a brief appearance, we get to snorkel at the Kapoho Tide Pools. The water is totally clear (lava versus sand) so snorkeling is awesome - especially with the plentiful, colorful fish who swim right up to your mask. (Another snorkeling highlight, while on this side of the island, is in Hilo at Richardson Beach – three turtles!)
Day Six – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
After another rainy night, we meet my friend Erin, our Geophysicist guide for the day, at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Visitor Center. We learn that the Big Island is bigger than all the other Islands combined. Mauna Kea (not in the Park) and dormant Mauna Loa rise to nearly 14,000 feet.
First stop is the Mauna Ulu lava shield, formed by a 1969-1974 eruption. Hiking through this massive lava flow is a unique experience; it’s something we would not have done without Erin. Ohi’a Lehua , the first plants to appear, are growing amid a pile of black cement it seems. 4 miles gets us up to and around this very new crater.
Second stop, after lunch, is Kilauea Ilki Crater. The 4 mile hike takes us around, into and across this shallow and older crater created in 1959. Initially the trail follows the forested rim spared during the eruption. At mile 2 the trail leads us down into the crater. We walk across the crater constantly declaring "wow" as we look around at all the lava formations. A short steep section back up to the road completes the loop. We are happy to hike the loop in 1 1/4 hours since we are racing against darkness; sunset is at 5:55pm.
We want to be in the Park amid darkness to view the glow of the Kilauea Caldera, a molten lava pool known for its red glow. Fog and rain move in so viewing isn't great. However, we enjoy our time in the big wicker chairs at the Volcano House gazing out to the caldera and would recommend it as well as the Jagger Museum at the Kilauea Overlook.
Finally, we head partway down the hill to the town of Volcano for some great Thai food at Thai Thai. What an incredible day!
Day Seven, Eight and Nine - Kona
On the drive from Hilo back to Kona, we visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a lush 37 acre gulch bordering the rocky shores of Onomea Bay. It’s well worth the stop!
Once at our destination, the huge (1,250 rooms) Hilton at Waikoloa Village, I didn’t expect a train to pull into the lobby. One can either ride the train or take the boat (in a fake channel on a track) to your room. I’d describe the resort as a cross between Disneyland and Vegas, complete with captive Dolphins – ugh!
The highlight of our day exploring to the North lies at the end of the Akoni Pule Highway. We park and walk down a very steep and precarious trail to magnificent Pololu Valley Black Sand Beach. After taking in the coastal views further north, we really get our hearts pumping on the climb out.
The following day we rise at 5am; when else will we get to go paddling in outrigger canoes with locals? These skinny, traditional Hawaiian boats hold six. As we carry the boats into the water, we are told that once the guy in the front says “heave”, we say “ho” and start paddling on the other side in sync. What a fantastic way to see sunrise over Mona Kea. Thanks Michael!
The highlight of the afternoon is Two Step Beach (quite a drive to the south), a very rocky but fantastic snorkeling spot – coral and fish. Unfortunately, there are a few too many humans.
Our Kona days both end in the lounge chairs at Waikoloa Beach, one of the rare sandy beaches. Once the sun sets, we walk over to Lava Lava for a wonderful meal at the popular open air restaurant.
Day Ten – Heading home
As we take off, I gaze out over the lava fields one last time, realizing that it’s been quite an adventure – 27 Parks down, 32 to go. Next trip, I could use a little more beach time to re-charge and a little less lava. Oh dear, now the flight attendant keeps telling us that it’s 50 degrees cooler in Seattle. It will be a tough re-entry!
Check out other National Park visits on our way to reach our goal (now 61) below:
We like to give back to the National Parks through the National Park Foundation.