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Originally published Friday, February 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Get close to earthquakes, volcanoes in Hawaii

It was just another morning in paradise. Sipping a second cup of coffee on the terrace of my Hawaii condo, I watched a dozen dolphins play...

Seattle Times travel staff

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — It was just another morning in paradise. Sipping a second cup of coffee on the terrace of my Hawaii condo, I watched a dozen dolphins play offshore, leaping and spinning above the waves. Palm trees rustled in the tropical breeze. Birds cooed.

It was picture-perfect until, with a shuddering jolt, the whole building shook. "Earthquake," I shrieked and ran out into the building's courtyard.

The late November quake, a 5.0, was over in a few seconds, but I huddled outside with a handful of other nervous tourists.

From their condos, a dozen bemused locals looked down on us. They had calmly continued to eat breakfast on their balconies, unmoved by the quake on the Kona coast of the island of Hawaii (also called the Big Island).

"That was a nice little one," said a sun-baked retiree, leaning over the railing and grinning as he munched his toast.

Lava land

Island residents get used to living with the raw power of the earth, from earthquakes to the long-erupting Kilauea volcano (although a 6.7 quake in October did rattle some nerves and damage some buildings). If you're a visitor, they're striking reminders that this is one of the most geologically lively areas in the world.

The Hawaiian islands are the tops of massive volcanoes, created over millions of years, that poke out of the sea. Some volcanoes are extinct, some dormant, and some, especially on the Big Island, are very much alive.

The massive mound of the 13,677-foot Mauna Loa volcano, which last erupted in 1984, dominates the island, covering half of it. The big-time volcanic action is at the much smaller Kilauea volcano, which looks like a smooth-sloped bulge on Mauna Loa's southeast flank.

The 4,009-foot Kilauea, which lies within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, has been erupting continuously since 1983 and is one of the earth's most active volcanoes.

As volcanic eruptions go, it's relatively gentle, not an explosive catastrophe such as Mount St. Helens. Kilauea's 2,000-degree lava squeezes out of what's called the Pu`u `O`o vent and flows slowly six miles down a slope to the Pacific Ocean. It slides, gleaming red-hot, into the sea amid billowing clouds of steam.

As the lava hardens and piles up in the ocean, it creates new land — more than 500 acres of stark, black benchlands since the eruption began. Yet as it creates, Kilauea also destroys. Over the years, the lava has oozed over the park's Chain of Craters road, destroyed a visitors center and wiped out almost 200 buildings, mostly homes, in small communities bordering the park (the buildings had been evacuated).

Kilauea not only is one of the world's most active volcanoes but also is one of the most accessible, thanks to its gentle slopes and the relatively predictable direction of its lava flows. Park roads and trails lead to and through Kilauea's craters and miles of (hardened) lava fields. Occasionally, depending on how the lava is flowing, visitors can walk almost right up to it. Called a pahoehoe lava flow, it oozes across the ground in a shallow, pillowing stream of molten rock.

Currently, however, it isn't that easy for visitors to see lava (although that can change suddenly). It's flowing within tubes created as the lava's surface crusts over, and emerges from the network of natural tunnels only at several spots on the ocean shore.

To see the lava spilling into the sea, park visitors must hike at least five miles round trip over rough, barren lava fields, a trek best done at night to see the molten streams. Yet hikers still must stay about a quarter-mile back since the newly formed sea cliffs can collapse or there can be boulder-flinging explosions as the fiery lava mixes with the cold sea.

"It may be frustrating to stay back, but life is worth more than a good view," said park ranger Mardie Lane. The park has sign-posted and roped-off areas to protect lava watchers, who hike out each night, flashlights in hand.

A crater walk

If you go


Kilauea

Where

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which includes Kilauea and the summit of Mauna Loa, is a 333,000-acre park on the southeast side of the Big Island near the town of Hilo. It's about 100 miles from Kailua-Kona, the island's main visitor community. The drive, on mostly two-lane roads, can take about 2-½ hours. Get park information at www.nps.gov/havo or phone 808-985-6000.

Seeing lava

• If you want to make a beeline for the lava, get updates on where it's flowing and how to see it safely at www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava.htm">www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava.htm. There's also a link to a Web cam at the volcano's Pu`u `O`o cinder cone where the lava first emerges from vents (Pu`u `O`o is closed to visitors because of volcanic hazards). Or phone the park for regular recorded lava-viewing updates; 808-985-6000 (press "1")

• Be aware that even if you make the five-mile round-trip hike to see the lava where it enters the ocean, you still must stay about a quarter-mile back since the newly created sea cliffs can collapse. Park staff have sign-posted and roped off areas for safety. There's also a more moderate half-mile hike to a steam-plume/lava viewing area, but it's more than two miles away from the ocean entry points, so the view varies; take binoculars.

• Other ways to see the lava are by helicopter tours or a new small-boat excursion, Lava Ocean Adventures (www.lavaocean.com), which departs from Hilo.

• For excellent background on all of Hawaii's volcanoes, plus daily updates on Kilauea, go to the U.S. Geological Survey/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory site, http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanoes/

Watch for "vog"

Kilauea's eruption can release hundreds of tons of gases daily, mostly sulfur dioxide, which creates "vog" or volcanic smog. The haze, which varies according to the trade winds, can obscure views and affect various parts of the island, including Kailua-Kona. People with asthma or other chronic respiratory conditions may be affected if the vog is severe. There is a state Department of Health Vog Index Hotline for the Kona area at 808-885-7143.

Staying near Kilauea

Kilauea merits at least a full day's visit. Two days are better, particularly if you want to hike at night to where the lava is entering the ocean. Consider staying in the town of Hilo or closer to the park in the small community of Volcano Village, just a 10-minute drive from the park entrance. Volcano offers small inns, cottages and B&Bs. Or stay within the park, right on the edge of its main crater, at the Volcano House hotel. Try to get a room facing the crater.

More information

For hotel information, sights and more, contact the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.gohawaii.com/big_island/or phone 800-464-2924. Or see the Big Island Visitors Bureau site, www.bigisland.org.

On an earlier visit to Kilauea, when the lava was flowing more visibly on the surface, I took a short hike to watch it creep in globular, fiery lobes across the ground. Later, on a Hawaii cruise, I stood on the ship's deck at midnight to watch it stream into the sea in incandescent sheets.

This visit, I took a different tack, hiking through Kilauea Iki, a small crater near the volcano's summit. In a four-mile loop, the trail showcases some of the park's best, from tranquil rainforest on the crater rim to the stark and barren floor of the crater, where steam wafts out of cracks in the crater floor and some rocks are hot to touch, signs of volcanic heat not far below.

This crater was the site of one of Kilauea's most dramatic eruptions in living memory. In 1959, fissures cracked open and spewed fountains of lava, filling the crater with a swirling, molten lake more than 300 feet deep. Much of the lava drained back into the earth through vents, leaving the now desolate, tranquil crater.

I tried to imagine that volcanic inferno as I trudged across the crater's several square miles. The voices of a few other hikers echoed eerily in the rocky emptiness. Steam drifted out of fissures in the floor, created by rainwater meeting volcanically heated rock below the surface.

I inched toward one of the fissures. Peering down, I could see only a jumble of dark boulders bathed in steam. Perhaps this was an entrance to the domain of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Little offerings to Pele left by other hikers lay at my feet — a homemade bracelet of nuts and seeds and a wilted flower.

Tradition has it that Pele will be angered, and take vengeance, if anyone takes a souvenir rock or otherwise interferes with the volcano. I took nothing but memories, not wanting to risk Pele's wrath. An earthquake during my visit had been quite enough action.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com

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