Flying over an Active Volcano
Big Island, Hawaii, U.S.A.
The roiling red lava spurts out of a pitch-black lava tongue that extends from the volcano and into the ocean. As the molten liquid oozes into the water, steam rises into the air. While the beat of the helicopter’s rotors keep you from actually hearing any hissing sounds made as the lava quickly cools and hardens, you imagine that it sounds like some prehistoric animal spoiling for a fight. But this isn’t a long-ago era. You’re witnessing history in the making—literally new earth being formed. It’s a powerful, breathtaking experience, one you’ll never forget.
You’re flying over Kilauea, the focal point in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea has erupted almost continuously from its east rift zone since 1983, and the lava flows that creep into the ocean have enlarged the Big Island by more than 500 acres (202 hectares). When the helicopter pivots, you’re within sight of (but not too near) the ash-filled plume rising from a new crater within Halema`uma`u at Kilauea’s summit. Flying over this area in a helicopter you can see old houses that were hastily abandoned when Madam Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, volcanoes, and violence, expressed her fury in the past. Through the years, the lava flows have covered 83⁄4 miles (14km) of highway on Kilauea’s southern shore with lava as deep as 115 feet (35m).
By helicoptering over certain parts of the park’s 333,086 acres (134,795 hectares), which rise from sea level to 13,677 feet (4,103m), you can see there are actually two volcanoes. The second is Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984. Today, there’s an observatory near the top.
Volcanoes National Park has seven ecological zones where a variety of plant and animal communities—some endangered—thrive. Within the park are several archaeological sites and petroglyphs, reminders of the indigenous people who consider this region a sacred space. Seeing these ancient artifacts in person is a tremendous thrill. These are just a few of the reasons why Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is both a designated International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.
Several companies offer helicopter rides over Kilauea. Depending on the package you choose, your plans can include a flight above the volcano, a stop on the volcano, or an extended excursion that takes you over black sand beaches, cascading waterfalls, and the lush rainforests of the Hamakua Coast. No matter which option you choose, you learn a lot about the history and the culture of the Hawaiian Islands. When booking, be sure to ask about the type of helicopter, the size of the windows, and how many people can sit near the windows. The tour routes and sights visited are always dependent upon where eruptions are occurring and the weather conditions. If you’re staying on one of the other Hawaiian Islands, check at your lodge’s front desk or with the concierge to see if there’s a package that includes a flight to the Big Island and a helicopter tour.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website has a section that describes where the eruptions are currently occurring. Stop at the visitor center for information about ranger programs, hike and bike trails, and areas it’s safe to go the day you’re visiting.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (www.nps.gov/havo).
How to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters ( 800/786-2583 or 808/971-1107; www.bluehawaiian.com).
Paradise Helicopters ( 866/876-7422 or 808/969-7392; www.paradisecopters.com).
When to Go: Year-round.
Kona Airport (96 miles/155km).
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Hotels
$$ The Inn at Volcano, 19-4178 Wright Rd. ( 800/937-7786 or 808/967-7786; www.volcano-hawaii.com). $–$$ Kilauea Lodge & Restaurant, 1 block off Hwy. 11 on Old Volcano Rd. ( 808/967-7366; www.kilauealodge.com).