Big Island Volcanoes

Five volcanoes on the Big Island created the entire island, and they are some of its most popular tourist attractions. These Big Island volcanoes dominate the landscapes of the island, creating unique ecosystems and life forms, alternately sustaining and destroying, and providing the bases for numerous legends. Big Island volcanoes—as well as many volcanoes on the other islands—are integral to the birth and life of Hawaii.

Kohala volcano occupies the northern tip of the island and is the oldest of the five. It pushed up out of the ocean some 500,000 years ago and is in transition from its post-shield and erosion stage. In nonscientific terms, it is extinct and well on its way to becoming a just a hill in the landscape, with huge landslides (the last occurring about 250,000 to 300,000 years ago) continually reducing its size. Eruptions from its larger neighbors Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcano have buried its southern flanks. The Kohala Coast is one of the island's off-the-beaten-path destinations, with beautiful black sand beaches, the artist retreat towns of Holualoa to the south and Hawi at the far northern tip, and a scattering of resorts and vacation rentals.

Of all the volcanoes on the Big Island Mauna Kea is the largest. In fact, measure it from its base on the ocean floor to its summit above ground, and the Mauna Kea volcano is the highest mountain in the world. It takes up the northeastern part of the island, beginning at about Hilo and continuing north to the Kohala volcano southern flanks. Its Hawaiian name means White Mountain, bestowed on it because there is frequently snow, often several feet deep, on its summit. Mauna Kea volcano is considered dormant, meaning it is quite likely to erupt again. Its last eruption occurred about 4,500 years ago. It is considered one of the best places on earth to observe the heavens, and numerous observatories on the mountain were set up to do that. Many Big Island tours include a visit to the mountain to observe the sunsets and then do some stargazing.

Hualalai volcano occupies a piece of coastal land on the northwest part of the island, to the north of the Kona Coast. It experienced six major eruptions during the late eighteenth century, with lava flows twice reaching the coast and pouring dramatically into the sea. The Kona International Airport is built atop one of these lava flows. A swarm of intense earthquakes occurred under the mountain in 1929, an indication that Hualalai volcano is likely to erupt again sometime in the next 100 years or so.

The youngest and largest of the active volcanoes on the Big Island is Mauna Loa. It is actually the largest volcano in the world, covering half the area of the Big Island. It takes up all of the land in the southwest portion, the largest section of coastline and some of the island's best beaches, and reaches all the way to the east coast at Hilo. On its massive slopes is the largest section of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. On its southern slopes is the town of Naalehu, the southernmost town in the United States. Mauna Loa erupted at least once during every decade of Hawaiian history until 1950, when the pace of eruptions slowed slightly.

The fifth of the Big Island volcanoes is Kilauea volcano—the Mountain of Fire. It occupies a piece of the southeastern coastline south of Hilo and contains the western section of Volcanoes National Park. It is possibly the most active volcano in the world, and it was almost continuously active during the nineteenth century. Since 1952, there have been 34 eruptions, including the eruption that began in January 1983 and continues to this day. This eruption has added a total of 500 acres to the landmass of the Big Island, and in the process it has destroyed plantation fields, two entire towns, and the thirteenth-century Wahaula Temple, and most recently is responsible for the well-publicized decimation of the Royal Palms vacation community. Only a single person continued to live in this destroyed community, forced to walk for two hours over the lava flows to reach the nearest town to buy supplies.

Kilauea is called the drive-by volcano because visitors can take their car rentals on short road trips to view the spectacular sight of molten lava spewing hundreds of feet in the air and exploding into the sea. In Hawaiian legend, Kilauea volcano is the birthplace and home of Pele, the goddess of fire, violence, and volcanoes. Hawaiian legends say that misfortune will follow whoever removes a piece of lava from her home. While this urban legend may have been started by a park ranger trying to discourage visitors from taking artifacts, it is true that the park headquarters receives hundreds of pieces of lava mailed back from all corners of the globe by visitors claiming to have suffered bad luck after taking the lava away.

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