Master Plan (1975) - The Park and Its Resources

Mauna Loa with snow - looking through the fumes from Halemaumau on Kilauea
Mauna Loa's broad shield, as seen through the fumes from Halema'uma'u on Kilauea

NPS Photo by Norrie Judd

Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes are the dominant features of the park. Surrounded by recent lava flow materials and unique endemic plant communities, these are dynamic landforms where new lava flows can drastically change the landscape. Indeed, recent eruptions in the Mauna Ulu vicinity have covered many acres with lava up to 300 feet deep, created new land where flows enter the ocean, and built up a new mountain where none existed before.

Mauna Loa and Kilauea are the most studied and best understood volcanoes in the world. The favorable opportunities afforded by Hawaiian volcanoes for fundamental and detailed research are not duplicated or even approached in any other park of the world. The program of study is under the direction of U.S. Geological Survey scientists. And Kilauea is perhaps the most safe and accessible active volcano for people to see. This dual role makes the park extremely valuable for both research and sightseeing. Mauna Loa, above the temperature inversion level, has unusually clean air offering an exceptional opportunity for studies related to contamination trends of the earth's upper air envelope.

With the arrival of European civilization to the Island of Hawai'i two hundred years ago, the fragile native biota of the islands was disturbed. Some of these changes have been almost catastrophic with regard to certain plant and animal species; but to the uninitiated visitor these changes are not readily apparent, so that to them the park appears to be much the same today as it did when man first saw the magnificent displays of volcanism, the great fern forests and the superb views along the seacoast and up the palis (cliffs).

Pahoehoe lava breaks out of the crust and reveals its white hot interior
Pahoehoe lava breaks out of the crust along a flow margin

USGS Photo by Tim Orr


Park lands encompass the summit and part of the southeast flank of Mauna Loa Volcano and almost a third of Kilauea Volcano. These broad, flat volcanic domes rarely explode, but do send up fountains of molten rock hundreds of feet into the air. Eruptions generally occur in calderas (huge collapsed depressions in the summit) or along the rift zones on the flanks of the volcanoes. Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world; it achieved fame because of the almost coninuously active lake of liquid lava in Halemaumau during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. From 1952 to 1974 Kilauea has had 25 different eruptions originating from Halemaumau, the caldera floor, the east rift, and the southwest rift. All but two of these eruptions have been within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In recent years most of the activity has been on the upper east rift; and since 1969 Mauna Ulu, a newly formed shield, has been almost continuously active.

map of geologic features in the park
Geologic features in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park and surrounding areas. Click on the photo for a larger version

From 1975 Master Plan document

Throughout history, however, Halemaumau has been the principal place of volcanic activity. Kilauea's two main rift zones are defined by large pit craters, cracks, and cinder cones, and its seaward side is bounded by great fault scarps contrasting with its other gentle slopes.

Lava flows, devastated areas, and steam cracks show old and new activity. Steam issues from the ground at many places in and around Kilauea caldera and along the Chain of Craters.

Mauna Loa is a massive, flat-domed shield volcano built by layer upon layer of lava and is recognized as the best example of its type in the world. Extending from about 20,000 feet below sea level to 13,677 feet above, it is one of the world's greatest mountains. Its upper slopes, along its two principal rift zones, contain extensive, recent flows that are stark, picturesque, bare, and forbidding. Since man has watched it, Mauna Loa has been intermittently active, with periods of quiet ranging from a few months to more than 20 years. Many of its eruptions are confined to the caldera of Mokuaweoweo; others burst forth from fissures along one of the rift zones on the flanks of the mountain and feed lava flows that may reach the sea.

Both Kilauea and Mauna Loa are young volcanoes, for their growth keeps well ahead of erosion. Geologists calculate from its present growth that Mauna Loa could have been formed within the last million years.



Hawaiian flora is quite young in comparison to continental systems. Ant it is believed that endemics evolved with little competition, particularly since most plant communities possess numerous niches that were never filled by native species. The result is that Hawaiian vegetation was especially vulnerable to structural and composition change when highly competitive species were introduced.

With an elevation range from sea level to 13,677 feet and a precipitation spread from 15 to 100 inches of rain annually, there is within the park a wide range of 23 distinct vegetative types – from lush rain forest jungle to the sparse vegetation of the Kau Desert, a few miles to the southwest. Some native species are endemic only to a single valley or mountain slope.

Dense ohia and fern “rain forests” exist in areas of heavy rainfall. In drier areas, the forest opens into savannah containing mixtures of ohia and koa trees, and in the other areas there is only low scrub and open grasslands. The Kau Desert is nearly barren, as is much of the coast.

Some rarer plants, such as varieties of hibiscus (Hibiscadelphus), are found in kipukas (older areas that have been surrounded by more recent lava flows). They can be readily recognized as islands of denser vegetation in sparsely vegetated areas. Kipukas represent somewhat simplified ecosystems suitable for studying integral ecological relationships. Here isolation of small populations provides opportunities for evolutionary study. The park’s two best known kipukas, Kipuka Puaulu, popularly known as “Bird Park,” and nearby Kipuka Ki, contain unique and complex compositions of plant species and are judged to be “of great age.”

During the Polynesian colonization period, several non-native plants were released into the native vegetation. In a relatively short period, some of these became securely established. The appearance of Western man, near the close of the 18th century, marks the beginning of mass introduction of highly competitive and aggressive species (guava, tibouchina, lantana, haole koa and kiawe). Further, there was direct removal or alteration of the native forest for sugarcane, pineapple, and ranching activities, plus the introduction of feral goats, mongoose and pigs. Exotic plants, particularly grasses, have invaded all disturbed areas and ecological niches within the park. Sections of the Mauna Loa Strip were most obviously affected by domestic stock. This activity has stopped and the vegetation is now recovering. Even the completely natural phenomenon of volcanic activity has destroyed some native vegetation. Recent flows have almost completely wiped out Naulu Forest, a small enclave of rare native species along the Chain of Craters Road. Fortunately, significant large areas of original vegetation still remain intact and many individual rare native plants still exist within the park. The most important forest type is in the Olaa Forest tract, an area of almost 10,000 acres, which is probably the largest remaining tract of virgin ohia and fern forest in the Hawaiian Islands. This tract has been recognized by the Society of American Foresters as a “natural area,” the best example of its type.

At Bird Park, many rare native plants have been replanted in an effort to keep them from extinction, including one of the world’s rarest trees, the “hula Kuahiwi,” or Hibiscadelphus Giffardianus. At the Naulu Forest there were other species of rare native plants clustered in a small area.



Birds are the most important aspect of the park’s wildlife. Unfortunately, several endemic species have become extinct within the park and elsewhere on the island because of many practices which disturb native habitats. Further, introduced birds are especially detrimental to the highly specialized Hawaiian honeycreeper family (Drepaniidae), which are of special interest to ornithologists and evolutionists. Included in this group are the apapane and iiwi (common); amakihi (scarce); and creeper, akepa, ou, and akiapolaau (all recognized as endangered species). Besides the honeycreepers, other endemic birds which range throughout the park are pueo (owl), amao (thrush), and elepaio (flycatcher). Io (hawk) and nene (goose) are found within the park, and are also listed by U.S.D.I. as “endangered.”

The nene was once close to extinction but now appears to be out of immediate danger as the result of the efforts of many interested agencies and individuals. They once inhabited the lower coastal section of the park during their nesting period, but man’s hunting and ranching activities, the deadly predations of mongooses, cats,a nd dogs, and the disturbances of goats and pigs have eliminated nene populations below 5,000 feet.

There are six species of migrant sea birds including the endangered dark-rumped petrel, white-tailed tropic bird, American golden plover, ruddy turnstone, wandering tattler, and white-capped noddy. Exotic bird species are the CAlifornia quail, chukar, ring-nected pheasant, Japanese bule pheasant, spotted dove, barred dove, skylanrk, Chinese thrush, red-billed leiothrix, mynah, white-eye, ricebird, house sparrow, cardinal, and house finch. The Hawaiian bat is the only native land mammal.

Feral goats have, in the past, built up high populations in the open, drier coastal and high mountain sections of the park despite long-term reduction efforts. Recent feral goat populations in the 10,000 t0 20,000 range have been greatly reduced through vigorous annual reduction programs which have removed some 4,000 animals each year.

The pig was brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians during their early migrations. These, mixed with later European varieties, produced the strain of pigs that now inhabit the wetter forests and savannahs.

Feral goats, mongoose, and pigs have done great damage to the park vegetation and birdlife to an extent that cannot be accurately assessed without a continuing and extensive research program. Pigs have engendered the spread of exotic plants by carrying seed and scarifying the ground. Heavy goat browsing denudes the landscape of shrubs and prevents the regeneration of many native plant species.

No fish are found within the park, but there are excellent opportunities to view and study the colorful fish populations along the park’s 30-mile coastline. Coral reefs are limited to a small area near Halape where common reef fishes include the squirrel fish, butterfly fish, Moorish idol, surgeonfish, trigger fish, and several kinds of eel. Opihi, a species of limpet, found on the surf-washed lava cliffs, is an important local delicacy.



Land within the national park, especially the coastal region, is rich in remains left by the ancient Hawaiians – heiau ruins, house platforms, stone walls of canoe sheds, pens and corrals, graves, shelter caves, petroglyphs, paved trails, and agricultural areas. Many are within easy reach of the former Kalapana/Chain of Craters Road. Others are scattered along that section of coast accessible only by trail and to a lesser extent, inland. The people who lived here were mainly fishermen and farmers, and in the uplands shome were bird hunters. Habitation required special adaptation to severe environmental conditions and reveals the versatility and ingenuity of the Hawaiians.

Archeological surveys were undertaken in 19959 when the Bishop Museum, under the direction of Dr. Kenneth P. Emory, made the first extensive field survey. A second survey was made between 1963 and 1965, which continued the assessment of the park’s archeological resources and suggested avenues along which more detailed investigations might proceed. These surveys recorded 380 sites. Between 1962 and 1968, several small sites were salvaged as part of the Chain of Craters Road project.

There are within the park a variety of archeological resources, unique in several ways. Furthermore, there is evidence that many aspects of Hawaiian history can best be investigated in this particular complex of sites. Several deserving of special mention are discussed below.

Wahaula Heiau – Red Mouth Temple – is reported to have been established and constructed in 1275. Kailiili village, nearby, probably supported the temple. These are the most important archeological sites in the park. The heiau is one of the most significant in the Hawaiian Islands, as it is important in the story of Paao and the introduction of the heiau luakini and the ritual worship of the ritual worship of the major gods that characterized Hawaiian ceremonial worship. It is in remarkably fine condition and has an impressive appearance.

Site 911 is a small cave shelter west of Kailiili village near the coast which was used by the ancient Hawaiians as a shelter and an occasional overnight campsite.

Kamoamoa Village site represents an area where two periods of occupation appear to be superimposed. The ancient village appears to be farther back from the shore and the later (historic) development toward the ocean.

The Puu Loa petroglyph field, about 1/2 acre in extent, is the largest concentration of “rock carvings” in the park, and one of the three largest in the Hawaiian Islands. Many of the petroglyphs are ancient, as they have been almost completely obliterated by successive drawings and erosion. The forms are mainly dots with rings, human figures, sails, and circles with attached lines.

Kealakomo was perhaps the largest village on the Puna Coast in ancient times. It was also the hub of a number of trails: coastal and inland, ancient and post-European. Unfortunately this site was covered by fresh lava in 1972.

The aforementioned and numerous additional sites are a rich source of research material dealing with ancient Polynesian culture and the transition to modern times. Many scattered sites are located along the coast.

Captain James Cook, R.N., discovered Hawaii for the Western World in 1778 and died at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. His ship navigated offshore from what is now Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, trading with the Hawaiians of Puna, and Kau, exchanging nails, beads, and cloth for pigs, fruit, and salt.

The historic events that occurred within the park ara after Captain Cook first viewed the Puna/Kau coast are of value chiefly in their association with events that occurred elsewhere, and in the descriptions of the volcano and the coastal Hawaiian habitation recorded in the accounts of early travelers. An explosive eruption of Kilauea was a historic factor in the eventual rise of Kamehameha as ruler of all Hawaii. In 1790, while enroute through the Kau Desert to battle the forces of Kamehameha, a portion of Keoua’s army was destroyed by the volcano. Fossil footprints of some of the Hawaiian warriors remain today in the Kau Desert.

Vancouver’s naturalist, Archibald Menzies, was the first Westerner to penetrate inland to what is now the park. He ascended Mauna Loa in the winter of 1794, a climb not duplicated until Lt. Charles Wiles, U.S.N. and aides made the climb again in 1841.

In 1823, a band of Christian missionaries visited Kilauea and wrote such vivid and widely read descriptions that thereafter Kilauea was of prime scientific interest as well as a desired visitor destination. By the 1840’s, before Yosemite Valley had even been discovered, Kilauea Volcano had become a regular stop for tourists to Hawaii. They stayed in native-style huts until 1866, when the Volcano House was established on the caldera rim.

The records of Menzies and the Rev. William Ellis in 1823, and the officers of HMS Blonde in 1824 started a long list of amateur and professional observations of Hawaii’s volcanoes, which formed the basis of volcanic study which was formalized in 1912 with the founding of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Hawaiians held the Kilauea summit sacred, and made offerings to the Goddess of Volcanoes – Pele; and it was at Halemaumau, the principal vent of Kilauea, tat the image of Pele was weakened in 1824 by High Chieftess Kapiolani, a convert to Christianity, who ate ohelo berries without the traditional offering. Her action did much to weaken belief in the old gods and paved the way for a wider acceptance of Christianity.

Christian missionaries based in Hilo built churches and schools in the mid-1888’s along what is now the park’s seacoast. Cattle, goat, pulu (a fern product), and tourist enterprises changed the Hawaiian way of life as well as the structures of the villages. The now abandoned villages represent Western influences grfted onto the traditional Hawaiian culture. Only tourist activity and scientific investigation on Kilauea’s rim have survived.

Two relatively recent historic sites have been identified. One is the “Old Volcano house” of 1877, which still stands. The second is the Keauhou Landing Site which for a time in the middle 1800’s was a landing for tourists coming to the Kilauea volcano. The landing and village were virtually destroyed by the 1868tsunmi (tidal wave that destroyed whole villages along the Puna/Kau Coast). A few coconut trees and remains of the old wharf are all that is left of what was once a fairly large village and steamship port.

A third historic site of some significance, a pulu factory ruin, is located on the trail between Makaopuhi and Napau Craters.

Several properies within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are now on the National Register of Historic Places: the Wilkes Campsite and the old Ainapo Trail, the Puan/Kau Historic District, the footprints area, Kilauea Crater, Whitney Seismograph Vault, and the Old Volcano House. The Mauna Loa Trail is nominated and declared eligible for the National Register. These sites are noted on the map on page 24. The Puan/Kau Hisoric District includes previously described Wahaula Heiau, Kailiili Village, Site 911, Kamoamoa Village, Puu Loa petroglyph field, Kealakomo, pulu factory ruins, and Keauhou Landing Site.



The park encompasses a variety of terrain between sea level and 13,680 feet, with a wide range of climatic conditions. But few areas are suitable for activities such as hiking, riding, and nature study. Lava flows and other volcanic features cover a major part of the park, and there is no natural water source. The 30 miles of seacoast within the park are extremely rough with shore cliffs up to 100 feet, sparse vegetation, and a dry, windy climate. There are a half-dozen trail access points to the ocean along the entire park coast. The areas of heaviest rainfall ar covered with dense rain forest, are difficult of access, and contain important ecological values. These areas are sensitive to the disturbances caused by development and use.


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