Marvel at Hawaii's volcanoes

Posted: 1:37 PM EDT May 23, 2011

For surfers, Hawaii means perfect, monster waves roling in off the Pacific Ocean.

But for geologists and volcanologists, the islands produce different waves: seismic. The islands are a hotbed of volcanic activity, and few places offer travelers a better view of the restless Earth's molten core than Kilauea, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. More than 2 million people visit the park every year.

In Hawaiian tradition, Kilauea is the home of Pele, the volcano goddess. It is among the world's most active volcanoes, and its current eruption is now in its 26th year.

The name "Kilauea" means "spewing" or "much spreading," in reference to the lava flows that it erupts, according to the United States Geological Survey. The famous crater is named Halema'uma'u in Hawaiian; "hale" is a house, "ma'uma'u" a type of fern.

Sitting on the southeastern flank of 13,677-feet high Mauna Loa volcano, the smaller Kilauea, at 4,091 feet, is the youngest and southeastern most volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Even though it is so close to the larger Mauna Loa, geologists have shown that it has its own magma-producing system extending to the surface from almost 40 miles deep in the earth.

Though most of the lava from Kilauea flows through hidden tubes, there are two hot spots where bright red rivers of molten rock meet the ocean. From afar, the dangerous cliff sides are scenic focal points on an already scenic coastline. Up close, they can produce hot rock falls and large waves.

USGS estimates that the current volcano is between 210-500 years old, and that Kilauea's very first eruption happened 300,000 to 600,000 years ago. The oldest rocks found in the crater to date are about 23,000 years old. It measures almost four square miles, and is about 180 yards deep.

Even if you only have a few hours, you can get close to this geologic spectacle using 11-mile long Crater Rim Drive, that circles the summit. (Call ahead: Sometimes volcanic activity forces the park service to close the road.)

Want to spend more time? The Chain of Craters Road descends 3,700 feet over 20 miles, ending where a 2003 lava flow crossed the road. Or, explore the park on foot using its miles of trails.

A third option: Take to the skies. A number of tour operators offer helicopter flights over the park, and the cliffs where the lava flows explode into the ocean.