A Rare Tour of Halema’uma’u Volcanic Crater within Mt. Kilauea’s caldera


Often when travelling, a wave of opportunity will come to you, and if you ride it with confidence, it is truly incredible where you can be washed ashore.

My first weekend in Hawaii was a shining example of this in action, and as we drove southbound on the Mamalahoa highway, I truly had no idea what I was in for. Not only would I see Devil’s Throat, a deceptively-massive pit crater, but I would also get the chance to see the raw, volcanic power of this island in a way that most locals never even get a chance to. I was about to visit Halemau’uma’u Crater, one of the most active volcanic areas on the planet, and all because I was in the right place at the right time (vis-à-vis couchsurfing).

Devil’s Throat

After having a relaxing picnic in a field surrounded by koa trees, we headed off to our first destination, a pit crater which is so young that it lacks a Hawaiian name. Our guide (a friend of my new Couchsurfing friend) had worked for the USGS in the past and led us deep within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

We carefully made our way down gravel paths until a massive hole in the earth appeared ahead. This was Devil’s Throat.

Devil's Throat (young pit crater)

When it was first discovered in the early 1900s, it was so small that riders would often jump the small opening with their horses, never knowing that it was over 30 meters deep and growing wider with depth. Today, the size of Devil’s Throat is much more obvious, and according to the USGS, probably the best example of a collapsed volcanic crater in the world.

We rested there for a while, playing a logic game with rocks and seeing if we could decide which of ten rocks was different by only using an imaginary scale three times. It wasn’t easy, and if anyone is curious how to play, I can outline the rules in greater detail in a future article.

Halema’uma’u Crater: Home of Pélé

We returned to my friend’s cabin to retrieve the 3M gas masks that were required for the trek. In years past, access to the crater required no special protection, but recent activity within Mount Kilauea had been spewing out Sulfur Dioxide gas into the air around the crater. Without filtration, a simple change of the wind could result in us choking and vomiting from the volcanic gas.

We parked at a nondescript parking lot and began the long hike over to the crater. Thankfully, the path was shockingly level, and soon the ominous red glow of the crater was obvious.

Once the rock became rougher, our guide told us to look down to the volcanic glass, known as Pélé’s hair, that covered parts of the ground, arranged in weblike structures of natural glass that felt prickly to the touch. Our guide warned us to be careful as they could be sharp.

Carefully, we were led up to the edge of the crater. Closer and closer. Soon we would see the raw power of the Earth. Soon we would see Halema’uma’u, home to Pélé, the Goddess of Hawaiian Volcanoes. To many living on Hawaii, Pélé’s existence isn’t merely a legend — it’s a reality. For thousands of years, Pélé has been honored by the Hawaiians as a powerful being that is meant to be respected, and as we hobbled over to the edge of the rough path, the sight we beheld clearly illustrated why.

Lava roiling in Halemaumau Crater (from side)

Below us was a football-field-sized lake of terribly magnificent fire. The lava lake roiled in unspeakable patterns which slowly changed as new cracks in the surface formed. We were hundreds of meters away, but even from a distance I could clearly hear the quiet roaring of the lava as it seethed within the crater. Never before had I seen an earthbound phenomena so positively mesmerizing, and in that moment I knew that the spirit of Pélé must be real.

Aftermath

We stood there for some time, marveling at the destructive beauty of one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. Thankfully, the winds were in our favor that evening, and after some coaxing, I removed my gas mask as the others had done earlier. Now, I could feel the faint warmth on my skin, the warmth of distant lava.

It almost felt like the sun.

Someone had brought wine, and in the midst of great gratitude toward my friend and our guide, we toasted to Pélé on the edge of the world.

Lava in Halemaumau Crater (zoom)





3 bits on A Rare Tour of Halema’uma’u Volcanic Crater within Mt. Kilauea’s caldera

  1. The next major eruption occurred in 1924. Halemaumau Crater, a fully formed pit crater after the 1919 event and the site of a sizable lava lake , first drained, then quickly began sinking into the ground, deepening to nearly 210 m (689 ft) beneath a thick cloud of volcanic ash . Explosive activity began on May 10 of that year, blowing rock chunks weighing as much as 45 kg (99 lb) 60 m (197 ft) out, and smaller fragments weighing about 9 kg (20 lb) out as far as 270 m (886 ft), and, after a brief reprieve, intensified through a major blast on May 18, when an enormous explosive event caused the eruption’s only fatality. The eruption continued and formed numerous eruption columns up to and beyond 9 km (6 mi) in height, before slowly petering down and ending by May 28.

  2. Wow! What an amazing experience that must have been. Thanks for sharing the great pictures. I can’t wait to see and hear more.
    Jim

  3. I am so jealous. I love Hawaii and have been to Kilauea several times, but not so close to the caldera. Now I have a new mission in life. Thanks for sharing.