Lava lakes, fountains, and molten flows aren’t the only sign that Pele the volcano goddess resides in Kilauea Caldera. Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can see some other dramatic evidence close to the Kilauea Visitor Center at Steam Vents, plus the nearby Steaming Bluff and Sulphur Banks.
Located on the north side of the caldera, the Steam Vents parking area is less than a mile to the west of the park visitor center. You can see some of the namesake features around the parking lot, while short and level walks from here show off even more impressive scenery.
Cracks, fractures, and faults around the caldera atop Kilauea Volcano provide a link between the inner heat of this “fire mountain” and the surface. Cracks extending to deep rocks heated by magma (molten rock) reservoirs of the volcano create steam vents. Here, rainwater and groundwater percolating downward flash to steam when they encounter that magma-heated rock. The steam then rises out back to the surface and out the entrance to the crack.
There are many steam vents around Kilauea Caldera. The Steam Vents parking area provides a safe look at some that are marked and enclosed for safety.
An easy quarter-mile path leads from Steam Vents to the north rim of the caldera. Here you’ll find quite a spectacular feature: Steaming Bluff, or Wahinekapu. Multiple steam vents here along the edge of the huge Kilauea Caldera billow steam, forming a mysterious, “smoking” brink.
Around the steam vents here, you’ll notice the forest of ohia and other trees thin out to ferns, grasses, and other groundcovers. Deeper-rooted trees and shrubs struggle around these vents given the heat near the surface.
If you have the time—and all you really need is an hour or so total—you can loop in the nearby Sulphur Banks with your Steam Vents/Steaming Bluff visit. Heading east from the Steaming Bluff on the Crater Rim trail soon brings you to the fork to Sulphur Banks, or Haakulananu. The vents here connect to deeper faults that release volcanic gases—namely hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide—along with steam. These more toxic emissions react to create deposits of the yellow mineral called sulfur around these vents. (The Hawaiian name for sulfur deposits is kukaepele, the “waste of Pele.”) This is a more odorous area than the shallower steam vents, given the rotten egg and struck-match stink of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, respectively.
Some words of caution are warranted. Stick to marked trails around the Steam Vents, Steaming Bluff, and Sulphur Banks. There are numerous cracks in this area, and unwary visitors have fallen in. The vented steam can scald and the volcanic gases can poison at close range. Walking to the Steaming Bluff, you also want to watch your footing near the caldera edge.
The Steam Vents offers a fascinating hint at what’s under your feet on a visit to the Kilauea summit area. Add on the short walk to Steaming Bluff and/or Sulphur Banks for an even more striking demonstration.
The Steam Vents and Steaming Bluff (Wahinekapu) are among the reliable expressions of Kilauea Volcano’s dynamic nature. Easily accessed near the Kilauea Visitor Center of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Steam Vents can be enjoyed right at a parking area. The remarkable Steaming Bluff on the Kilauea Caldera rim is a short, easy stroll away.