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The Geology, Biology And Culture Of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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A visit to the Big Island of Hawaii is incomplete without a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. On my first visit to the Island, I toured the park with Hawaii Outdoor Guides and loved it. My guide was able to show me lots of the key sights plus fill me in on some of the historical and geological points along the way. I’m back for a second visit, but this time I am exploring the park with the Park Rangers on more of a discover it at your own pace adventure. With their guidance, I’ll be discovering the Geology, Biology and Culture that makes Hawaii Volcanoes National Park so special. It offers more to see than erupting lava.


Geology is the easy part to discover in the park, it is everywhere and is what most people come for. On my first visit, I was sad because the big finale of the day’s tour was to be the Glow Show at the Thomas A Jagger Museum overlooking the Kilauea Caldera, and I had to miss it. This time around I am starting my volcano adventures with the Glow Show.

Thomas A Jagger Museum

Arriving just before dusk you can get a good look at the Caldera and its size. If my memory is correct, it appears to be twice as large as the last time I was here. I’ve time my visit just right because soon after arriving a Park Ranger comes out to give a talk about Kilauea. The history, geological forces at work and of course what is currently happening.

As close to Kilauea caldera as I can get

Park Ranger offers up a talk on Kilaeau and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Park Ranger also gives us some tips on the best time to view the Glow Show. What is the Glow Show you ask? When the sun sets, you can see the ruddy red glow from the Lava that lays beneath the caldera surface. It is only available from dusk till dawn, and this is called the Glow Show. Hard to capture without professional camera equipment, but this is what I captured with my iPhone. The photo doesn’t do what I saw with my own eyes justice. You have to see it in person to appreciate its beauty.

Kilauea Glow Show at night


You may not often think about the biological diversity that is found in Hawaii, but if you’ve been here before you know that there are many plants and animals found here and nowhere else. After an exhilarating Glow Show from the night before myself and some friends get up early to meet with a Park Ranger, who is going to take us on a small hike to go Birding.

Start of our birding adventure in Hawaii Volcanoers National Park

Our Ranger greets us and begins our adventure with a brief run through of the birds he hopes we will see. I have picked up a Bird Checklist book from the Visitor’s Centre just in case I can check some of them off. So many of the birds that once flourished here are now either extinct or very rare. Along with the early visitors to the region came their pets and stowaways, these introduced species thrived in Hawaii as they have no predators here and as such they have pushed out the Endemic species.

Welcome from our Park Ranger

Bird Checklist for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

I’m not very hopeful I’ll be able to snap any pics of the birds we see, but I can hear them all around us, and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to spot them with my naked eyes at least. To help coax them out into the open a bit more, our Ranger tries a few calls. It does work a few times, but alas they are too quick for a photo.

On a Birding Adventure with our Park Ranger

Park Ranger tries a bird call to attract

While we may not be able to capture the birds we see, I can snap some pics of the fauna that surrounds us. Most of what we are seeing can only be found in Hawaii.

Mushrooms growing on a fallen Ohia branch

Moss growing on lava rocks

A rare tree in bloom

Our tour continues for about an hour, my brain is exploding with information overload. To say our Ranger loves what he does would be an understatement.

Park Ranger points out a bird as we are under an ancient Ohia Tree


We have been coming to Hawaii for just over 100 years, but the Hawaiian people have called the Islands home for Hundred’s of years, their culture and history are here for the exploring if you know where to look. After a fun morning of birding, my friends and I join up with Ranger Jessica, who takes us for a drive along the Chain of Craters Road to Pu’uloa Trail, home of 23,000 petroglyphs.

Route of Chain of Craters Road

We park our cars at the pull outs and load up with water. The hike to the petroglyphs is only .7 miles, but it is very warm and humid today. You don’t want to get dehydrated and disoriented in a field of lava, it all looks the same.

Ranger Jessica takes us to Puu loa Trail

Stories preserved at Puuloa

We follow Ranger Jessica on the trail and along the way she shares the history behind Pu’uloa. This is a sacred place where Hawaiians for generations have come to carve their stories into the lava rocks. At last count, they have identified over 23,000 individual petroglyphs making this one of the largest if not the largest find of its kind.

We begin our hike to see the petroglyphs

Along the way, there is plenty to see including a flower and a copse of Noni plants, proving life can exist even in the harshest of environments.

Life amongst the lava

The Noni fruit

How to survive

We reach our final destination. A boardwalk has been constructed to protect the petroglyphs from tourists trampling all over them. It’s a short walk around, but you can see hundreds if not thousands of individual carvings. Behind each one there is a person, a family, and a story.

A walk way protects the petroglyphs from tourists

Petroglyphs found at Puu Loa

I bet you thought the only reason to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was to see the volcano? Now you know that you could spend a week here and still not see it all. I’ve been twice now, and there is still more for me to explore the next time I visit the Big Island.

Thanks to all the Park Rangers who showed us around. If you are interested in discovering the park with a Ranger check out the Ranger Programs, they offer free to the public. There is a full schedule of the times and tours offered inside the Visitor’s Centre. Enjoy!

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Disclosure: General

I was hosted by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. This post and my opinions are 100% my own and was not reviewed before publishing.

About Author

Marc Smith is a former event planner turned vagabond adventurer. He loves strong Americano's, great wine, cold beer and zip lining over tree tops. Formerly of Vancouver, most of Marc's time when not travelling is in Canada's largest city, Toronto. Follow along on his nomad adventures and discover places to stay, things to do and where to eat & drink as he explores the world one city and region at a time.

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