Be warned. Nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of Pele, the Big Island's most powerful deity. Not the ash plumes in the distance as you jet over from Honolulu. Not the jagged black rivers of dried lava that the Kona airport covers.
After all, Pele (pronounced PAY-lay) is a ferocious spirit who challenges common sense: She makes rock burn and then flow like a river. She destroys things, houses and roads and thick twisting trees. And she creates the newest earth on Earth.
Even the drive into her hearth at first offers few clues to her nature. Just inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the southeastern flank of the Big Island, the road winds through green lawns bordered by ferns. Honey creepers, colorful tropical birds, fidget in the red-flowered 'ohi'a trees. How pastoral, you think.
But then you get out of your car at historic Volcano House Hotel, stroll over to a low wall of lava rock, and the world drops away. Before you yawns Kilauea Caldera: a breathtaking burnt-black depression 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 steam vents send silky columns skyward. On the slate-black caldera floor, steam whooshes from cracks and holes in bulging, or sunken, or shattered plates of hardened lava. This black-and-white effect increases in the cool mornings, when you can check it out over breakfast in Volcano House's Ka 'Ohelo dining room. Look down any time 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 lava featured on all those nature shows? It's right beneath your feet. Two miles down seethes an enormous magma reservoir, a holding tank for the molten rock that punches up through the planet's crust, making this park our most continuously shifting landscape. On and off for centuries, lurid-red lava has smashed up through the crater floor, glowered in jagged cracks, geysered out of boiling lakes.
An early Volcano House guest, Mark Twain, was so impressed by these pyrotechnics that he called Italy's Mount Vesuvius "a soup kettle" in comparison. He also noted that "the smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner."
In 1983 the lava in the reservoir found a new escape route or vent, called Pu'u 'O'o, a few miles to the east, and it continues to gush. As a result, Kilauea's partially molten floor cooled, hardened, cracked, and finally settled, though volcanologists know that it could break open any time. If so, it likely won't erupt disastrously, as Washington's Mount St. Helen's did in 1980. The lava that built the Hawaiian islands from the seafloor up tends to burble along like pancake batter, so experts say the subterranean pressure won't grow to potentially catastrophic levels.
This sense of safety helps make the park the most visited place among the islands and has scientists calling Kilauea "the drive-in volcano." Well-maintained Chain of Craters Road and its easily accessible hiking trails drop more than 3,000 feet in altitude, snaking down for 20 miles through huge lava fields and the shocking contrast 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 a porcelain bowl. After all, it was baked in the kiln of the superheated earth.
At Pu'u Huluhulu trail, a two-hour round-trip hike takes you across a 1974 lava flow and includes a 150-foot-high cinder cone you 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 over for a closer look. But for hikers, much eerier views await where dried lava renders impassable what was once a loop highway. At dusk, check in with park rangers in their mobile station (which has replaced a "permanent" structure torched by lava). Then, binoculars and flashlight in hand, take a short stroll. As darkness descends, you'll see long, orange-glowing rivers braiding down a distant ridge. 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 the Thurston Lava Tubes, not far from Volcano House. It's ironic that this rough, dripping tunnel should feel so dark and chilly-it once served as a conduit for an incandescent river of rock.
Another path takes you through the giant, gnarled trees of the Kipuka Puaulu, or Bird Park, a little way up Mauna Loa Road. This is one of the park's several kipukas, green islands that ancient surrounding lava flows somehow spared.
From this vantage point, you may see a strange haze along the rugged 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, whose summit and southeastern shoulders lie within park boundaries. It's the world's most massive mountain when measured from its base on the ocean floor. For hardy backpackers, a two- or three-day hike leads to the sometimes-snowy summit at 13,680 feet. But just a few minutes of uphill walking will provide stunning views of the Pacific.
Closer to Volcano House, don't miss the Jaggar Museum, attached to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the lip of Kilauea Caldera. The museum features some of the best eruption footage you'll ever see and an absorbing look into the world of volcanolozists. It's their job every day to read the pulse, blood pressure, and whims of the mysterious, mind-boggling Madame Pele.