I’ve been to Hawai’i before. I’ve seen Kīlauea before. But even the most basic knowledge of geology and, therefore, a slightly deeper understanding of how this place came to be, made this visit to the crater so much more fascinating.
Right next to Halema‘uma‘u crater, the star of the most recent eruption, there’s the smaller Kīlauea Iki crater that last erupted in 1959. Before it was a flat plain of volcanic rock, Kīlauea Iki was a V-shaped crater filled with trees. Then, suddenly — boom. A long fissure opened in one violent event and started to spew lava. Several other vents opened and within 24 hours, joined their forces in one event.
Fountains of lava were visible from afar, the tallest one reaching 1,900 feet (source).
A new cinder cone, Puʻu Puaʻi, was formed, and when the surface of the lava lake that formed in the crater submerged the fissure, the fountains stopped. Eventually, the lake drained back into the vents, leaving behind its crust. Signs of the drainage can be beautifully seen all around the crater’s edges in the slabs of rock that lay on the sloping walls.
We hiked through the crater, guided by the ahu, or cairns — trail markers built from stacked rock. For the first half (okay, maybe only a quarter) of the hike, I managed to stay on or near the trail like any other normal person. (You’re allowed to go off-trail in the crater, as the surface is very durable, and not at all delicate like many other places.)
“Why is it orange?” I was asked by our group when we stopped near Puʻu Puaʻi displaying a big red-colored scar on its side.
“Oxidization,” I answered, and then the excitement of understanding overpowered me and I ended up running all around the crater, looking at features that wouldn’t make any sense and wouldn’t mean anything to me only a year ago. After all, what’s there to see besides a flat plain of black rock and a few mounds of more black rock?
A lot. I found a crack in the floor that was going to turn into a slab dipping under the “surface” in a few hundred years, a steam vent, a piece of a broken slab that displayed beautiful layers in which you could see how the surface of the lava lake cooled down, turning into rock,… I found a lot.
And it all meant something thanks to knowledge. In fact, it was beyond fascinating thanks to knowledge. And I only wish I knew even more, then the place would probably blow my mind even more.