The Sleeping Giants

The Big Island’s tallest volcano, Mauna Kea, is home to astronomical observatories. Credit: Gro Birkefeldt The Big Island’s tallest volcano, Mauna Kea, is home to astronomical observatories. Credit: Gro Birkefeldt

After you’ve gotten a taste of what Kilauea has to offer, consider taking the time to travel to the rest of the Big Island’s volcanoes.

Mauna Loa, the island’s second-youngest volcano, last erupted in 1984, and is likely to erupt again in the next 100 years, according to the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. With a summit at 4,170 meters above sea level, the massive volcano (the largest in the world if you include its base below sea level) offers a variety of challenging hikes. Technically within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the volcano also hosts cabins near its summit that are open to the public (just make sure you get a permit ahead of time).

Not far from Mauna Loa is Mauna Kea. At 4,205 meters, Mauna Kea is the island’s tallest volcano and is known more today for its must-see astronomy observatory than for its long volcanic history. The observatory is about an hour drive from Hilo or a two- to three-hour drive from Kona. Many tour companies offer trips that include a day drive to the summit where the observatory is located. Near sunset, descend down to the visitor’s center, where multiple telescopes are available for viewing the observatory’s “constellation tour.” If you get cold, venture inside the visitor’s center for some hot chocolate and interact with the sky above through the center’s computer stations.

The island’s remaining volcanoes, Hualalai and Kohala, are less accessible. Hualalai last erupted in 1801, but it’s still considered active. Climbing this volcano is discouraged because much of it is located on private land. The long-quiet Kohala, on the other hand, is frequently visited because of its spectacular lush greenery and amazing black sand beaches. 

Zahra Hirji

Hirji is a reporter for the online publication InsideClimate News and a former EARTH editorial intern. Last year, she earned a master’s in science writing from MIT; this article is based on her graduate thesis. Hirji volunteered as a Kilauea geologist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory during the summer of 2010.

Sunday, December 12, 2010 - 06:00