As the plane tips its wings toward the airstrip, I can see a mass of volcanic lava covering a large part of the land below, the green and blue turning into an immense brown, so alien as if I am reaching somewhere uninhabited, perhaps the edge of the world. On the horizon, volcanoes rise from the floor, reminding this is a place whose history has been shaped by fire; a far off group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean formed five million years ago out of powerful volcanic combustion.

Over 18 days, I journey across the Hawaiian archipelago, hopping from island to island, to grasp its distinct characters. My last destination, the largest, the youngest, and the most volcanically active of the islands, reveals a savagely diverse landscape of forbidden valleys and mysterious lava fields. My family and I arrive in Kona, on Big Island’s sunshiny and commercial west coast, and move straight to Volcano – a place that feels a whole world away from everything I have seen so far in Hawaii.

The Big Island is a destination that brings you straight to the State’s lava action, where you hear that Hawaiian volcanoes are unique because they are far away (3200 km) from the place you usually find them: tectonic plate boundaries. The volcanos in Hawaii, instead, sit in the center of the Pacific tectonic plate, lying over a hot spot, where the magma from the mantle pushes to the surface. The Hawaiian hot spot, therefore, remains in one place while the Pacific plate moves northwest – hence the youngest Hawaiian island is also the most volcanic active as the whole chain runs north. This uncommon hot spot is responsible for much of the seismic activity that makes the Aloha State the number one place on Earth most likely to feel an earthquake. 

Six volcanoes have worked together over the last one million years to create what is the Big Island (officially named The Island of Hawaiʻi) today. Here, dark lava meets the sea. We drive from Kona towards the village of Volcano – going through a vast lava desert – to watch volcanos rising improbably from the Pacific Ocean. The next day, we trek across sections of iconic 505-square-mile Volcano National Park, where more than one million gallons of lava flow into the ocean every hour. Its two active volcanoes testify to the ongoing birth of the islands: quiet Mauna Loa (13,678ft) sprawling above, its unassuming mass downplaying its height, and young Kilauea (4091ft), the world’s most active volcano, providing near-continual sources of awe. 

Big Island’s landmass is still growing, as locals like to point out. Land forms from the continuous movements of the island’s active volcanoes and extends more deeply into the sea each year. In the southeastern shore of the island, Kilauea Caldera has been spewing lava since 1983 – the last eruption in 2018 when Volcano National Park was closed for several months – with more than 600 acres added to the island ever since. Though Kilauea doesn’t spit any fire during the time of my visit, it’s electrifying to trek across its fields -billowy, tangled pavements of arrested pahoehoe lava – knowing that could change at any moment. Kilauea is the second youngest product of the Hawaiian volcanic hotspot and the current eruptive center of the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain. A 280,000 years old volcano that emerged above sea level 100,000 years ago and remains active until today. 

Kilauea caldera, the most active volcano on Earth

Where the island makes itself

Outside Volcano National Park is Manua Kea, a dormant volcano and the tallest mountain on Earth at 9,966 meters. With 4,205 meters above sea level, a significant part of Mauna Kea’s height falls below the ocean’s surface, with its base reaching 5,761 meters deep. We drive up the Manua Kea access road just before sunset to reach its peak over golden hour. I feel the air getting thinner and thinner as we move up and go through a diverse array of landscapes, from lush tropical rainforest to barren volcanic deserts. Such diversity, thanks to the fact that Big Island contains eight of the world’s thirteen climate zones. Each of them with distinct ecosystems, ranging from Wet Tropical to Polar Tundra, as a result of the shielding effect and elevations of its massive volcanoes.

Halfway before reaching Manua Kea’s peak, we come across remnants of a roadblock. I learn not long ago there was a demonstration against the installation of a giant telescope on top of Manua Kea led by Caltech and the University of California. To Native Hawaiians, this is a sacred mountain; to astronomers, the best place in the Northern Hemisphere, and perhaps on Earth, for observing the heavens. The road climbs all the way until we are above the clouds. At the very top of Manua Kea, it ‘s freezing cold. But I don’t want to miss this entrancing feeling – I’m among the lunatic craters of Manua Kea turning into a powerful, beautiful orange hue; below me, an endless, infinite sky. This is the highest point where the land touches the sky – where the two “deities,” Sky Father and Earth Mother, meet. In Hawaiian mythology, Manua Kea is a place that connects humans to the forces of the universe – like an umbilical cord between Earth and space. It’s also a place that gives you a glimpse of the myths surrounding the world’s largest volcano, because it astonishes and reminds you that the world is in constant change and, like everything, this too will someday be gone.  

Views from the top of Manua Kea

On this side of the Big Island, there aren’t many options for accommodation. We spend one night in Hilo, the capital, on the east coast, before heading north, where Big Island’s flora and fauna supplement its geography. Along the way, the lava desert gives space for jungle, farmland, black and white sand beaches, cool highlands, and green valleys. On a sunny early morning, we leave Waimea – where we had stayed for the night at Fairmont resort – to hike Pololu Valley, in the North Koala district. We trek down into its amphitheater valley on a rocky trail, overlooking the remote Hamakua coastline. The trail takes us to a series of valleys that cut in rocky switchbacks and end on the black-sand beach where the ocean and Waipio Valley meet. It’s a fascinating scenery. 

As extraordinary as the Big Island’s volcanoes are, just as impressive are its emerald valleys. A large part of them, along the north coast in the shadow of the Kohala Mountains, are inaccessible. But there are remarkable opportunities to witness this sensational corner of Big Island. The most outstanding of all, I hear, is backpacking through the utterly remote Waimanu Valley. We, instead, hike the Valley of the Kings, or Waipi’o Valley – twenty miles shy of the northern tip of the island. To trek across Waipi’o is to capture its patchwork fields of green taro plants and waterfalls dropping off the cliffsides from its Valley lookout. I’m surprised by the number of private properties along the trek where white people are not allowed to cross; only then do I learn that in this pocket of the Island, one must obey kapu (the ancient Hawaiian system of religious taboos). 

Road trip across Big Island

Views from the bottom of Polulu Valley

Hiking Pololu Valley, in the North Koala district of Hawaii’s Big Island

Crossing the Valley of the Kings, or Waipi’o Valley

Spectacular Waipi’o Valley

At the bottom of Waipi’o Valley

We drive around the west coast to spend the last two nights in Kona and wander, always with the certainty that serendipity might surprise us along the way. From the sands of Hapuna beach, I watch a few humpback whales coming up for air, as this is the time of the year (December to March) when they head down to Hawaii in number from Alaska. When I free dive, dozens of spinner dolphins come close – to look, to play, to chase wonder. The Big Island is one of the most colorful natural history museums on Earth, an entire planet in one island, where you can cross rain forest to desert in a few hours and watch the world make itself. There is no other place where change is so evident – the disturbing certainty that one day most of it will be transformed into something different. Year to year the volcanos add new acreage, year to year the Hawaiian Islands move towards north, year to year the sea bashes it away. 

Free diving with a pod of wild dolphins in the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island

Dolphins of Big Island

We traveled to Hawaii in December 2019 and spent four nights on the Big Island. We flew with Lufthansa from Munich to LA and with Hawaiian Airlines from Oahu to Big Island.