By Allen Rokach

For centuries, the Hawaiian goddess of fire has hopped across the Pacific, furiously building one island after another. Welcome to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the home of the legendary Madame Pele.

Be warned. Nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse ofPele, the Big Island's most powerful deity. Not the ash plumes inthe distance as you jet over from Honolulu. Not the jagged blackrivers of dried lava that the Kona airport covers.

After all, Pele (pronounced PAY-lay) is a ferocious spirit whochallenges common sense: She makes rock burn and then flow like ariver. She destroys things, houses and roads and thick twistingtrees. And she creates the newest earth on Earth.

Even the drive into her hearth at first offers few clues to hernature. Just inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on thesoutheastern flank of the Big Island, the road winds through greenlawns bordered by ferns. Honey creepers, colorful tropical birds,fidget in the red-flowered 'ohi'a trees. How pastoral, youthink.

But then you get out of your car at historic Volcano HouseHotel, stroll over to a low wall of lava rock, and the world dropsaway. Before you yawns Kilauea Caldera: a breathtaking burnt-blackdepression almost 2 miles across and hundreds of feet deep.Staggering size keeps it from being called a mere crater.

From its steep embankment fringed with ferns, dozens of steamvents send silky columns skyward. On the slate-black caldera floor,steam whooshes from cracks and holes in bulging, or sunken, orshattered plates of hardened lava. This black-and-white effectincreases in the cool mornings, when you can check it out overbreakfast in Volcano House's Ka 'Ohelo dining room. Look down anytime of day and you may spot hikers, ant-size in the distance,crossing the unworldly wreckage.

But where's the truly hot stuff, the spectacular, spurting lavafeatured on all those nature shows? It's right beneath your feet.Two miles down seethes an enormous magma reservoir, a holding tankfor the molten rock that punches up through the planet's crust,making this park our most continuously shifting landscape. On andoff for centuries, lurid-red lava has smashed up through the craterfloor, glowered in jagged cracks, geysered out of boilinglakes.

An early Volcano House guest, Mark Twain, was so impressed bythese pyrotechnics that he called Italy's Mount Vesuvius "a soupkettle" in comparison. He also noted that "the smell of sulphur isstrong, but not unpleasant to a sinner."

In 1983 the lava in the reservoir found a new escape route orvent, called Pu'u 'O'o, a few miles to the east, and it continuesto gush. As a result, Kilauea's partially molten floor cooled,hardened, cracked, and finally settled, though volcanologists knowthat it could break open any time. If so, it likely won't eruptdisastrously, as Washington's Mount St. Helen's did in 1980. Thelava that built the Hawaiian islands from the seafloor up tends toburble along like pancake batter, so experts say the subterraneanpressure won't grow to potentially catastrophic levels.

This sense of safety helps make the park the most visited placeamong the islands and has scientists calling Kilauea "the drive-involcano." Well-maintained Chain of Craters Road and its easilyaccessible hiking trails drop more than 3,000 feet in altitude,snaking down for 20 miles through huge lava fields and the shockingcontrast of tangled swatches of jungle.

If you decide to hike, put on boots, a sun hat, and sunblock,and carry plenty of water. As you carefully crunch over the lava,it clinks underfoot like broken pottery, and it shines like aporcelain bowl. After all, it was baked in the kiln of thesuperheated earth.

At Pu'u Huluhulu trail, a two-hour round-trip hike takes youacross a 1974 lava flow and includes a 150-foot-high cinder coneyou can climb to view smoking Pu'u 'O'o. Whenever the smoke clears,you can see a jagged black hole flickering from within.

Helicopter rides available outside the park can zoom you overfor a closer look. But for hikers, much eerier views await wheredried lava renders impassable what was once a loop highway. Atdusk, check in with park rangers in their mobile station (which hasreplaced a "permanent" structure torched by lava). Then, binocularsand flashlight in hand, take a short stroll. As darkness descends,you'll see long, orange-glowing rivers braiding down a distantridge. Now and then, something will flare up, most likely a tree,ignited by the touch of lava.

For a cooler outing, try the sunken, fern-choked trail to theThurston Lava Tubes, not far from Volcano House. It's ironic thatthis rough, dripping tunnel should feel so dark and chilly-it onceserved as a conduit for an incandescent river of rock.

Another path takes you through the giant, gnarled trees of theKipuka Puaulu, or Bird Park, a little way up Mauna Loa Road. Thisis one of the park's several kipukas, green islands that ancientsurrounding lava flows somehow spared.

From this vantage point, you may see a strange haze along therugged cliffs of the far-off coast. It's vog, or volcanic fog,formed from the boiling mixture of fire and sea.

Up the road, you'll find the trailhead to Mauna Loa, whosesummit and southeastern shoulders lie within park boundaries. It'sthe world's most massive mountain when measured from its base onthe ocean floor. For hardy backpackers, a two- or three-day hikeleads to the sometimes-snowy summit at 13,680 feet. But just a fewminutes of uphill walking will provide stunning views of thePacific.

Closer to Volcano House, don't miss the Jaggar Museum, attachedto the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the lip of Kilauea Caldera.The museum features some of the best eruption footage you'll eversee and an absorbing look into the world of volcanolozists. It'stheir job every day to read the pulse, blood pressure, and whims ofthe mysterious, mind-boggling Madame Pele.

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