The main of many attractions in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is the Big Island’s fiery heart. This 4,090-foot shield volcano composes the southeastern portion of the island, though its topographic subtleness led scientists to believe it was just a satellite bump of the much larger Mauna Loa to the near northwest. Kilauea, however, boasts its own separate “plumbing” and is very much its own volcano.
Born roughly 250,000 years ago (and emerging above sea level maybe 150,000 years after that), Kilauea is the youngest of the exposed Hawaiian volcanoes. The Loihi Seamount offshore, more than 3,000 feet below the ocean, is more youthful yet. Kilauea and Loihi are the newest of the long lineup of shield volcanoes and seamounts (underwater mountains) representing the Hawaiian-Emperor Volcanic Chain.
Kilauea is about as active as any volcano on the Earth, alternating between relatively gentle lava emissions and more explosive eruptions. Upwards of 90 percent of the volcano’s surface is blanketed in recent (less than 1,000 years old) lava flows.
Kilauea was essentially continuously active from 1983 to 2018. After a brief pause, its eruptive restlessness resumed in 2020 and 2021. In between, in 2019, Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater, which commonly contains a lava lake, partly filled with water. That liquid lake was short-lived, though. The water boiled off when the 2020 eruption restored the lava lake.
Native Hawaiians know Halemaumau to be the home of the volcano goddess Pele. Tradition says Pele journeyed to the Hawaiian Islands from a far-off homeland called Kahiki, her trek not very different from the modern geologic explanation of the archipelago’s formation. (Geologists suggest the Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamounts represent volcanoes produced as the Pacific tectonic plate moved over a relatively stationary magmatic “hotspot.”)
Pele is both a goddess of creation and of destruction. This is very much reflective of Kilauea’s yin-yang personality, with lava flows producing fresh ground and steam explosions and caldera collapses dismantling old structures. (A caldera is the dropped-down roof of a volcano resulting from the emptying of its magma chamber. Smaller craters such as Halemaumau dot the Kilauea Caldera.)
Kilauea is amazing to gaze out upon at any time, but tourism really cranks up when the caldera is actively erupting to one degree or another. Views of the molten lake, spewing lava fountains, and steam plumes—which are certainly not always visible—are major draws. (Lava activity is especially dramatic at nightfall.)
Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can check out Volcano House, the Volcano Art Center, and other facilities set along the caldera rim. Volcanic activity, as you might imagine, may temporarily close access to the caldera and some of these structures. The 2018 eruption forced the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, the U.S. Geological Survey office that monitors Hawaii’s volcanoes, to move from its building on the Kilauea rim.
Multiple viewpoints accessed by the Crater Rim Drive and by hiking trail provide dazzling looks into Pele’s digs. You can keep tabs on what’s going on at the caldera by contacting the national park and/or checking its website, as well as that of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Whether or not Kilauea’s very active, the caldera is very much worth visiting. When you do, always bear in mind how significant this place is to the Hawaiian people, and treat Pele with respect!
-As another way to prepare for your visit to Kilauea, you can check out a live webcam of Kilauea on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website.
-Native Hawaiians often conduct ceremonies at Kilauea Caldera. It goes without saying you should treat these practitioners with respect and avoid disturbing them.