Glimpses of our National Parks
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Characteristics: Large volcanoes, one active, and the Kilauea Lake of Fire

THE Hawaiian Islands are a land of coral reefs, tropical palms and flowers, pineapples and sugar cane, midday siestas, rainbows, music, earthquakes and volcanic violence. They have a history which is a romance. Their very mention evokes visions of girls dancing under tropical stars to the ukelele. They possess the fourth largest volcanic crater in the world, the largest active volcano in the world, and a lake of turbulent sulphurous fire, which fills the beholder with awe.

It was not the gentle poetic aspects of the Hawaiian Islands which led Congress to create a national park there, though these form its romantic, contrasted setting. It was the extraordinary volcanic exhibit, that combination of thrilling spectacles of Nature's colossal power, which for years has drawn travelers from the four quarters of the earth. The Hawaii National Park includes the summits of three volcanoes of world celebrity—Haleakala, on the island of Maui, and Manna Loa and Kilauea, on the island of Hawaii.

There are 12 islands in all, 8 of which are hospitable enough for habitation. They rose from the ocean's bottom in a series of sub-marine eruptions. Coral growths have enlarged and enriched them since. Kauii was the first island to develop habitable conditions, and those to its southeast followed in order. Hawaii, the youngest, is still in the building. Dead Haleakala on the Island of Maui has been inactive for centuries.


The popular translation of the name Haleakala is "The House of the Sun"; literally the word means "The house built by the sun." The volcano is a monster of more than 10,000 feet, which bears upon its summit a crater of a size and beauty that makes it one of the world's show places. This crater is 7-1/2 miles long by 2-1/3 miles wide. Its surrounding walls rise 2,000 feet. Its broad, rolling, rainless, sandy floor is decorated with plants famous under the name of silver swords; yucca-like shrubs 3 or 4 feet high, whose drooping filaments of bloom gleam like polished stilettos. From this great gray floor within its lava rim rise, to a height of several hundred feet, 13 volcanic cones. "It must have been awe inspiring," writes Castle, "when its cones were spouting fire, and rivers of scarlet molten lava crawled along the floor." That the crater was left in all its beauty is due to the fact that enormous side vents drained the fires from below.

Sunrise and sunset are the magic hours when the immense bowl and its cratered cones catch a hundred fleeting tints to mingle with their silver. Midnight and moonlight parties climb the mountain to see the sunrise glories, or make the trip in the afternoon in order to have the additional enjoyment of the wonder of the sunset. Visitors return loquacious with the myriad charms of the islands, but silent about Haleakala's morning and evening splendor; it baffles speech. Sometimes at the sunset hour is seen the broken specter. The lowering sun throws upon the rising mists the shadow of the watcher upon the rim and encircles it with a rainbow frame.


Upon the island of Hawaii, across 60 miles of water from Maui, another section of the national park incloses Mauna Loa, greatest of living volcanoes, and Kilauea's celebrated lake of fire. These are different volcanoes, but so huge has grown Manna Loa, the greater and the younger, that Kilauea has been nearly absorbed in his spreading flank.

Mauna Loa soars 13,675 feet. Its snowy dome shares with Mauna Kea, which rises even higher, the summit honors of the islands. From Hilo, the principal port of the island of Hawaii, Mauna Loa suggests the back of a leviathan, its body hidden in the mists. The way up, through forests of ancient mahogany and tangles of giant tree fern, then up many miles of lava slopes, is one of the inspiring tours in the mountain world. The summit crater, Mokuaweoweo, three-quarters of a mile long by a quarter-mile wide, is as spectacular in action as that of Kilauea.

This enormous volcanic mass has grown of its own output in comparatively a short time. For many decades it has been extraordinarily frequent in eruption. Every five or ten years it gets into action with violence, sometimes at the summit, oftener of recent years since the central vent has lengthened, at weakened places on its sides. Few volcanoes have been so regularly and systematically studied.

Photograph by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory


The most spectacular exhibit of the Hawaii National Park is the lake of fire in the crater of Kilauea.

Kilauea is unusual among volcanoes. It follows few of the popular conceptions. Older than the towering Mauna Loa, its height is only 4,000 feet. Its lavas have found vents through its flanks, which they have broadened and flattened; doubtless its own lavas have helped Mauna Loa's to merge the two mountains into one. It is no longer explosive like the usual volcano; since 1790, when it destroyed a native army, it has ejected neither rocks nor ashes. Its crater is not bowl-shaped. From the middle of a broad flat plain, which really is what is left of the ancient great crater, drops a pit with vertical sides within which boil its lavas. This pit, the lake of fire, is Halemaumau, commonly translated "The House of Everlasting Fire."

Two miles and a little more from Halemaumau, on a part of the ancient crater wall, stands the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which is under the control of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One may approach the fiery pit through forests of mahogany, sandal wood, and giant tree fern; then across long stretches of hard lava congealed in ropes and ripples and strange contortions. Then the pit. The traveler reaches it suddenly. From its rim he looks perpendicularly down hundreds of feet into a cavity 1,000 by 1,200 feet in area. The spectacle is weird beyond description.

"The lake of fire," writes William R. Castle, "is a greenish yellow, cut with ragged cracks of red that look like pale streaks of stationary lightning across its surface. It is restless, breathing rapidly, bubbling up at one point and sinking down in another; throwing up sudden fountains of scarlet molten lava that play a few minutes and subside, leaving shimmering mounds which gradually settle to the level surface of the lake, turning brown and yellow as they sink."

It is an appalling spectacle at night.

One can descend the sides and approach surprisingly close to the flaming surface, the temperature of which, by the way, is 1,750° F.

Such is "The House of Everlasting Fire" to-day. But who can say what it will be a year or a decade hence? A clogging or a shifting of the vents 10,000 feet below sea level, and Kilauea's lake of fire may become again explosive. Who will deny that Kilauea may yet soar even above Mauna Loa? Stranger things have happened before this in the Islands of Surprise.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009