Hawaii is a land shaped by volcanoes. This remote island chain in the center of the Pacific Ocean rises out of the sea, pushing toward the sky due to volcanic activity and geological forces occurring here for millions of years. Hawaii volcano lava flows have spewed eruptions over millennia and have formed a lush, rugged landscape that most people see as a tropical paradise. But while beaches and big waves lure people from around the world, underneath lies a land of fire.
Volcanic History of the Hawaiian Islands
The Hawaiian Islands are a popular travel destination with a rich culture and history. All of the endless beauty found here results from the constant molding and shaping created by volcanic eruptions. Hawaii is a part of the Hawaiin-Emperor seamount chain, a nearly 4,000-mile span of volcanoes and seamounts that span the Pacific. The islands are located near the Hawaii hotspot, which is a lava tube reaching directly from the Earth’s core to Hawaii.
There are currently six active volcanoes in Hawaii. The Big Island has four of these – Mauna Kea, Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai. Haleakala, on the island of Maui, is another. The sixth is a submarine volcano called Lo’ihi that rests below sea level in the waters southeast of the island of Hawaii. There are also inactive volcanoes throughout the islands that have not erupted for thousands to millions of years but still are visible as dramatic mountains jutting from the sea. These include Kohala on the Big Island and Le’ahi (Diamond Head) on Oahu.
The many volcanoes in Hawaii are also integral to native Hawaiian history and culture. Oral histories passed down for generations tell of the god Pele who traveled to the islands searching for a new home. She decided that Halemaumau crater at the summit of Kilauea was suitable, and from here, she began to create new land while destroying the old. Pele is responsible for the islands’ volcanic activity and is a respected and vital presence in Hawaii still today.
The Volcanoes of Hawaii
Let’s take a look at the major volcanoes in and around Hawaii. Whether you are planning a visit and want to see a lava lake up close or just want to learn more about the power and beauty of these sometimes glowing peaks, any of the following are worth exploring in person or online.
Most of these are located on Hawaii’s Big Island, and you can find them within proximity to the two major towns of Hilo and Kona. The USGS monitors all of the active volcanoes. Their USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory stations help provide a better understanding of the natural forces at work and provide a way to alert the public in case of eruption.
Kilauea volcano is a good place to start because it sits at the center of the Hawaiian creation story. As mentioned above, this is the place where the goddess Pele first settled in Hawaii, and Halema’uma crater is where she called home. Kilauea is a caldera and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Its East Rift Zone was almost constantly active between 1983 and 2018 and has seen dozens of eruptions over the last few centuries.
Mauna Loa is another famous Hawaiian volcano. This one makes up most of the landmass of the Big Island and, along with Kilauea, can be found within the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is considered the largest volcano on earth in terms of mass and volume. It’s an impressive sight to see. The last eruption of Mauna Loa occurred in 1984, and USGS estimates believe that it has seen steady eruptions over the last 700,000 years.
Although not as active as the other volcanoes on the Big Island, Mauna Kea is still more than impressive. This is the highest volcano in Hawaii and actually tops out higher than Everest if you measure from the seafloor to the summit. It’s also believed to be the only Hawaiian Volcano to see glaciers during the last ice age. The drive up to the summit is a recommended excursion and will give you amazing views of the entire island.
Haleakala is another active volcano that dominates the southern portion of the island of Maui. It has erupted about ten times over the last thousand years, with the last lava flows occurring somewhere between 400-600 years ago. If you can wake up early and make it to the summit for sunrise, you are in for a dose of island magic. Haleakala National Park is a great way to see the unique landscape and volcanic effects this mystical mountain has had on Maui.
This is a lesser-known but still reasonably active (geologically speaking) volcano on the Big Island. The most recent eruption occurred in 1801 and produced a significant enough lava flow to reach to ocean. This is a great place to walk on ancient lava flows and see the dramatic effects these can have on the surrounding landscape.
Even though you cannot technically visit Lo’ihi, it’s still worth mentioning here because of the example it provides demonstrating how the Hawaiian Islands were born. This is a submarine volcano, meaning that it is entirely below sea level. Still, it has erupted around ten times in the last 1000 years and will eventually become another island when enough lava has cooled, built up, and penetrated the surface. Lo’ihi is a living example of how the islands existed before emerging from the sea.
Volcanoes have shaped much of the landmass on earth and captivated humanity over our entire evolution. Hawaii is home to some of the most active volcanoes on earth, and these provide an opportunity to see their powerful forces at work. The major volcanoes on the islands are revered by native Hawaiians and remain the guardians of this modern day paradise. If you’re lucky enough to visit Hawaii, getting up close and personal with any of them comes more than recommended.