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Demystifying Hawaii Island’s Hualalai Volcano

Posted on March 14, 2016

Story and photos by Derek Paiva

Collapsed crater on Hualalai (foreground), and view of the volcano’s 8,271-foot elevation summit in the distance.

Up until recently, I’d never truly explored Hualalai volcano.

Had I been on Hualalai? Yes. Many times. But taking a day to wander and investigate its little-seen untrammeled wilderness up close … no.

Whether aware of it or not, nearly everyone residing on or visiting Hawaii Island spends some time on Hualalai. For much of my childhood on the island I fell into the “or not” category. Years later, as I began writing about my home islands, I finally figured out why.

Hualalai doesn’t really shout out or make obvious that you’re on its acreage. It’s a mountain patient to wait for you to discover its beauty. And if you never do, so be it.

To be in the realms of Maunakea, Maunaloa, Kilauea and Kohala – Hualalai’s four sister volcanic mountains on Hawaii Island – is to always be absolutely aware of that fact. Each displays its individual uniqueness clearly and immediately. From Kilauea’s mix of emerald fern forests and still-growing lava landscapes, to Route 250’s bucolic path across Kohala’s rolling green hills, to Maunakea’s and Maunaloa’s majestic heights and dominance of, respectively, the central and southern regions of Hawaii Island, I grew up always aware of my entrance and departure from each. Hualalai? Not so much. And that mystery was long part of the mountain’s allure for me.

As a kid, I’d often traveled the stretch of Old Mamalahoa Highway traversing the scrublands and forests of Hualalai’s middle elevations before its winding descent into Kailua-Kona. I’d visited the family coffee farms of Hualalai’s steep southwest-facing slopes and the charming Kona coffee town of Holualoa as a teenager. As an adult, I’d stood on the jagged black lava of the volcano’s most recent flow – an 1801 low-elevation eruption that sent lava into the ocean where Keahole International Airport now stands. All of this, while barely aware I was on Hualalai.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Kailua-Kona, you’ve stood on Hualalai volcano’s sea level footprint. Likely, without even knowing it.

More than 300,000 years after it first breached the ocean surface, Hualalai is age-wise the middle child of the five volcanoes that form modern-day Hawaii Island – older than Kilauea and Maunaloa, younger than Maunakea and Kohala. It is the third tallest mountain on the island, with acreage comprising roughly 7 percent of Hawaii Island. Though two centuries have passed since its last eruption, Hualalai is still considered active, with more than 80 percent of its surface area comprised of lava flows less than 5,000 years old, according to the United States Geological Survey. Its seismic activity has been fairly quiet ever since a month-long swarm of earthquakes in 1929 signaled magma rising near its surface. But geologists expect Hualalai will erupt again. Someday.

Contrasting its relatively barren summit area, marked by the remains of multiple cinder and spatter cones from eruptive activity and several craters created by land collapses, much of the upper elevation areas surrounding Hualalai’s peak are covered by flora. These areas are home to a number of ecological reserves established to protect native forests, plant life and birdlife. They are also blissfully pristine.

By late last year, I’d still never visited the volcano’s 8,271-foot summit or upper elevations, still never hiked into its backcountry wilds. And I was anxious to finally rectify that.

The reason very few intrepid souls get to explore the bulk of the volcano’s ample beauty firsthand is pretty simple. Much of the land surrounding Hualalai’s summit is owned and managed largely as preserve land by two entities: the State of Hawaii and Kamehameha Schools. Permission must be granted to visit and is not easily obtained. So when I learned this past fall that Hawaii Island outdoor activity company Hawaii Forest and Trail offered a tour of some of Hualalai’s upper elevation acreage, I immediately signed up.

The seven-hour tour did not include a visit to Hualalai’s actual summit — though we were able to see it somewhat from the highest elevation the tour did attain, about 6,000-plus feet above sea level (see photo, top) — I left satisfied that Hualalai had revealed at least some of its mystery to me. And, yes, I was sated. For now.

The following are my photo recollections of my day on Hualalai.

This unnamed crater at the 6,000-foot elevation of Hualalai is one of several in a line marking collapses in the fissure of an 1800 eruption. Nearly 400-foot-deep, its vent (center) was one of several fissure sites that sent lava into the ocean 10 miles away.

Same crater, a minute later. This is how fast clouds roll into the upper elevations.

Five minutes later, at the edge of the same crater, we were engulfed in thick, dew-filled clouds.

Hiking a Hualalai cloud forest.

Ohia lehua tree blossoms.

Once the cloud layer settled at our elevation, it was there to stay. I didn’t mind.

Skylight from inside a Hualalai lava tube we explored.

There are countless tube systems where molten magma once flowed beneath the upper elevation forests of Hualalai.

Exiting the lava tube.

A forest road on Hualalai.

Standing a few feet from the edge of a collapsed pit crater. The cloud cover obscures the crater’s near-perfect circular shape and a 328-foot drop straight down. According to our guide, the crater is home to a flock of exotic parrots who require several spiral laps of flight to exit because of the crater’s shape and depth. No sight of them on my visit, though.

Clouds disappear slowly …

… then slightly faster to reveal the breadth of …

… Kaupulehu crater. Kaupulehu is a spatter cone first formed by a Hualalai eruption several thousand years ago. Over the course of the eruption, lava fountaining from a single vent built up around the vent forming a rising cone structure and crater.

In 1800, the Kaupulehu main vent pictured here erupted again, filling the crater to its rim and sending a small lava flow downslope. At eruption’s end, remaining lava drained back down into the vent. Over two centuries, vegetation has again filled the crater.

About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at derek.paiva@anthologygroup.com.


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