Each of the Hawaii volcanoes has its own distinct features. While the entire chain of Hawaiian volcanoes extends more than 3000 miles (nearly 5000 km) across the Pacific Ocean, most have been quiet for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years.
The Big Island was formed by 6 volcanoes: Mahukona, Kohala, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai and Kilauea. The Mahukona Volcano is submerged off the northwest shore, having sunk beneath the sea and become extinct more than 400,000 years ago. Lava flows from Hualalai and Kohala volcanoes (along with coral deposits) have buried most of Mahukona Volcano.
While Kilauea Volcano may be the most famous of all Hawaii Island volcanoes, there are actually three “active” volcanoes on the Big Island. The other two active Hawaii volcanoes are Mauna Loa and Hualalai. All this really means is that there has been an eruption one or more times in the last 10,000 years, and there is sufficient seismic activity below the surface to suggest that another eruption could occur in the next, say, 1000 years or so.
Mauna Kea Volcano is one of the most interesting volcanoes of Hawaii. Considered dormant (a sleeping giant), Mauna Kea last erupted about 3,500 years ago. When measured from its base, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. The Mauna Kea Observatory, the world's largest astronomical research facility, is located at the summit.
Mauna Loa Volcano has erupted at least 35 times since 1843, most recently in 1984. Not only is Mauna Loa the most massive of the Hawaii Island volcanoes, with 10,000 cubic miles of rock, it is the most massive mountain in the world! With a width of 75 miles (120 kilometers), Mauna Loa makes up approximately half of Hawaii Island. It is more than 100 times the size of Mt. St. Helens in Washington.
In fact Mauna Loa Volcano is so massive, it is actually sinking deeper beneath the ocean under its own weight. It rises 13,677 feet (4169 meters) above sea level, descends 16,400 feet (5000 meters) to the ocean floor, then depresses the ocean floor another 26,000 feet (8,000 meters), for a total height of more than eight miles below the ocean's surface!
Of all the Hawaiian volcanoes, only Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island is currently erupting, as it has been doing continuously since January 1983. Most of the flows have been in a southerly direction from the Pu'u 'Ō'ō spatter cone on Kilauea's summit. But in June, 2014 a new flow began spewing down the northeast flank of Kilauea, and by late October it was threatening the village of Pahoa.
Fun for the entire family, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a great place to explore and learn more about Kilauea and all the volcanoes of Hawaii. You can see steam vents and the stunning Kilauea caldera (summit crater), visit the Jaggar Museum on volcanology, and walk through the amazing Thurston Lava Tube. Tons of great hiking too, from easy to strenuous.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located about 50 minutes from Hilo, and about 2-hours from Kailua-Kona.
To get the most out of the experience, consider going with a knowledgeable and friendly guide! We have a variety of Hawaii volcano tours to choose from.
Can you walk out to see lava flow? Can you watch lava flow into the ocean? Great questions. Your opportunity to view Kilauea's lava flow is inconsistent at best. For years you could almost always count on being able to watch molten lava ooze straight into the ocean. Then it all stopped abruptly in March 2011 when the floor of the Pu‘u ‘O‘o crater collapsed and redirected the flow. Since that time lava flow has been unpredictable. This Big Island volcano can be very tempermental!
The most accurate and up-to-date information on current lava flow from Kilauea can be found on either the National Park Service website for Volcanoes National Park or the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory website. If you are hoping to see actual lava flow during your Hawaii vacation, be sure to check one of these websites.
Of course, things can change at a moment's notice with an active volcano in Hawaii, depending on the whims of Pele, goddess of fire and Hawaiian volcanoes.
Hualalai Volcano is the third most active volcano on the Big Island. Many homes and resorts have been built on the flanks of this volcano above Kailua-Kona. In 1929, intense earthquake activity beneath the surface, lasting for several weeks, was likely caused by rising magma. Because of this and the fact that it has been over 200 years since its last eruption, Hualalai is considered a potentially dangerous Hawaii Island volcano that is overdue for an eruption. Hualalai last erupted in 1801.
Just northwest of Mauna Kea Volcano, diminutive (relatively) Kohala Volcano is considered extinct, having last erupted 60,000 years ago. Many of the premier Big Island Resorts are built along what is often referred to as the Kohala Coast, although the true coast of the Kohala Volcano is farther to the north.
Hawaii volcanoes are known as shield volcanoes due to the characteristic shape they take on as the lava flows outward. The story of how Hawaii Island volcanoes are formed and the creation of the entire Hawaiian Emperor Chain of islands is a fascinating one. Click on the link for the full story.