The 36-mile round-trip Chain of Craters Road that once linked the park with Kalapana village on the coast in the Puna district was severed by an enormous lava flow in 1995 and can now only be driven to where the flow crosses the road beyond the Holei Sea Arch. It’s pretty amazing when you get to the end of the road, though, where lava literally covers the pavement and you can see now-defunct street signs in the distance.
Remember that the volcanic activity in this area is unpredictable, and that the road can be closed at a moment’s notice. As you head down the road, every bend—and they are uncountable—offers a panoramic vista. There are numerous pull-offs; plaques provide geological information about past eruptions and lava flows. The grandeur, power, and immensity of the forces that have been creating the earth from the beginning of time are right before your eyes. Although the road starts off in the ‘ohi‘a forest, it opens to broader views and soon cuts diagonally across the pali to reach the littoral plain. Much of this section of the road was buried under lava flows from 1969 to 1974.
When the road almost reaches the coast, look for a roadside marker that indicates the Puna Coast Trail. Just across the road is the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyph Field trailhead. The lower part of the road is spectacular. Here, blacker-than-black sea cliffs, covered by a thin layer of green, abruptly stop at the sea. The surf rolls in, sending up spumes of seawater. In the distance, steam billows into the air where the lava flows into the sea. At road’s end you will find a barricade and an information hut staffed by park rangers throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Read the information and heed the warnings. The drive from atop the volcano to the end of the road takes about 45 minutes and drops 3,700 feet in elevation.
While hiking to the lava flow is not encouraged, park staff do not stop you from venturing out. They warn you of the dangers and the reality ahead. Many visitors do make the hike, but there is no trail. The way is over new and rough lava that tears at the bottom of your shoes. Many hike during the day, but if you go in the evening when the spectacle is more apparent, a flashlight with several extra batteries is absolutely necessary. To hike there and back could take three to four hours. If you decide to hike, bring plenty of water. There is no shade or water along the way, and the wind often blows along this coast. [highlight]Do not hike to or near the edge of the water, as sections of lava could break off without warning.[/highlight] Depending upon how the lava is flowing, it may or may not be worth the effort. When the lava is flowing, it is often possible to see the reddish glow at night from the end of the road, but you probably won’t see much that’s distinguishable unless you use high-power binoculars. When the lava is putting on a good show, there could be several hundred cars parked along the road, stretching back for over a mile, so expect a bit of a walk before you even get to the ranger station to start the hike over the lava. For a much closer walk, park at the lava-viewing area near Kalapana in Puna.
As you head down Chain of Craters Road you immediately pass a number of the depressions for which the road is named. First on the right side is Lua Manu Crater, a deep depression now lined with green vegetation. Farther is Puhimau Crater. Walk the few steps to the viewing stand at the crater edge for a look. Many people come here to hear the echo of their voices as they talk or sing into this pit. Next comes Ko‘oko‘olau Crater, then Hi‘iaka Crater and Pauahi Crater. Just beyond is a turnoff to the east, which follows a short section of the old road. This road ends at the lava flow, and from here a trail runs as far as Napau Crater.
The first mile or more of the Napau Trail takes you over lava from 1974, through forest kipuka, past lava tree molds, and up the treed slopes of Pu‘u Huluhulu. A kipuka is a piece of land that is surrounded by lava but has not been inundated by it, leaving the original vegetation and land contour intact. From this cone you have a view down on Mauna Ulu, from which the 1969-1974 lava flow disgorged, and east toward Pu‘u O‘o and the currently active volcanic vents, some seven miles distant. Due to the current volcanic activity farther along the rift zone, you will need a permit to day hike beyond Pu‘u Huluhulu; the trail itself may be closed depending upon where the volcanic activity is taking place. However, the trail does continue over the shoulder of Makaopuhi Crater to the primitive campsite at Napau Crater, passing more cones and pit craters, lava flows, and sections of rainforest.
For several miles, Chain of Craters Road traverses lava that was laid down about 40 years ago; remnants of the old road can still be seen in spots. There are long stretches of smooth pahoehoe lava interspersed with flows of the rough ‘a‘a. Here and there, green pokes through a crack in the rock, bringing new life to this stark landscape. Everywhere you look, you can see the wild “action” of these lava flows, stopped in all their magnificent forms. At one vantage point on the way is Kealakomo, a picnic overlook where you have unobstructed views of the coast. Stop and enjoy the sight before proceeding. Several other lookouts and pull-offs have been created along the road to call attention to one sight or another. Soon the road heads over the edge of the pali and diagonally down to the flats, passing sections of the old road not covered by lava. Stop and look back and realize that most of the old road has been covered by dozens of feet of lava, the darkest of the dark.
The last section of road runs close to the edge of the sea, where cliffs rise up from the pounding surf. Near the end of the road is the Holei Sea Arch, a spot where the wave action has undercut the rock to leave a bridge of stone. Enjoy the scene, but don’t lean too far out trying to get that perfect picture!
Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs
The walk out to Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs is delightful, highly educational, and takes less than one hour. As you walk along the trail (1.5 miles round-trip), note the ahu, traditional trail markers that are piles of stone shaped like little Christmas trees. Most of the lava field leading to the petroglyphs is undulating pahoehoe and looks like a frozen sea. You can climb bumps of lava, 8-10 feet high, to scout the immediate territory. Mountainside, the pali is quite visible and you can pick out the most recent lava flows—the blackest and least vegetated. As you approach the site, the lava changes dramatically and looks like long strands of braided rope.
The petroglyphs are in an area about the size of a soccer field. A wooden walkway encircles most of them and helps to ensure their protection. A common motif of the petroglyphs is a circle with a hole in the middle, like a doughnut; you’ll also see designs of men with triangular heads. Some rocks are entirely covered with designs, while others have only a symbolic scratch or two. These carvings are impressive more for their sheer number than the multiplicity of design. If you stand on the walkway and trek off at the two o’clock position, you’ll see a small hill. Go over and down it, and you will discover even better petroglyphs, including a sailing canoe about two feet high. At the back end of the walkway a sign proclaims that Pu‘u Loa meant Long Hill, which the Hawaiians turned into the metaphor “Long Life.” For countless generations, fathers would come here to place pieces of their infants’ umbilical cords into small holes as offerings to the gods to grant long life to their children. Concentric circles surrounded the holes that held the umbilical cords. The entire area, an obvious power spot, screams in utter silence, and the still-strong mana is easily felt.
The Big Island has the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the state, and this site holds its greatest number. One estimate puts the number at 28,000!