The Big Island On Foot


CONTINUING SOUTH ON THE belt road that circles the island, I passed lava flows that my map labeled as from the 1920s and the 1950s and then turned north on the western coast toward Kilauea and more recent flows. For all the recorded history of the island, this volcano has been its number one sightseeing attraction. In 1825 Lord George Byron, captain of the British ship Blonde and cousin of the famous poet, journeyed to Kilauea with his crew. Queen Kaahumanu sent along a chief and 100 natives to carry the travelers’ luggage and provisions and to set up camp for them as they walked the 30 miles from Hilo. When they reached the edge of the crater of the active volcano, they looked down into its “horrid gulf, not less than eight miles in circumference,” as one of the party reported, and felt cowed by the “hideous immensity” of the “various unnatural and fearful noises, the muttering and sighing, the groaning and blowing, the every agonized struggling of the mighty action within—as a whole, it is too horrible!” At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park headquarters, not far from the crater’s edge, a trail named “Byron’s Ledge” serves as a memento of that visit.

Mark Twain and his party landed at Kau, on the southern tip of the island, and then rode on horseback for two days over trails that climbed high into the mountains, picking their “careful way through billowy wastes of lava.” On encountering Kilauea, he wrote, “I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup-kettle, compared to this.”

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the caldera, the huge depression caused by the collapse of the volcano’s center, was filled with hot flowing lava. Today the action has moved to the east rift zone, and the caldera is calm.

There are 150 miles of trails in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. The 10mile Crater Rim Trail passes through rain forests where wild orchids grow in the trees and crosses a desert moonscape, meeting up now and then with plant and animal species that live nowhere else on the globe, including the nene, or Hawaiian goose, and the lava cricket. I headed for the Puu Loa petroglyphs, in part because to get there required a 20-mile drive down one of the world’s most spectacular ribbons of blacktop, the Chain of Craters Road. It was all sky, sweeping lava fields, vistas of the sea. and nothing else as I sailed down the slope, dropping 3,700 feet with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” full blast on the CD player.


The Puu Loa trail marker stands about a mile from where the road meets the sea. The trek is an easy mile and a third that ends in one of the island’s best petroglyph fields, alive with hundreds of dots, circles, and other mysterious symbols. Puu Loa means “long hill,” but it is little more than a small lava rise. Hawaiians translate it as “Hill of Long Life,” and the many holes indicate where umbilical stumps were buried to ensure longevity. I tried to imagine young parents coming here, carrying a memento of their baby’s birth, wanting to safeguard their newborn in the only way they knew.

It is a loving human emotion, one shared by parents from the beginning of time, and it is the kind of connection that makes walking these trails something more than a lesson in native Hawaiian history. On every trail I walked on the Big Island, I felt as if I were walking not just in their footsteps but in their time as well as in mine.