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Exploring a volcano and lava-ing it

By Gail O'Neill
CNN Travel Now

Hawaii (CNN) -- Nearly 19 years ago, a volcano on Hawaii's Big Island burst to life after years of silence. Kilauea has been on the move ever since.

It's not what you'd call explosive action. Today's lava flows are relatively passive and easy to predict, making the volcano the most accessible in the world.

"This volcano is a sleeper," Don Swanson, scientist in charge of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said recently. "Most of the time it's very pleasant, like it is today. The lava just comes out quietly and there's really no huge hazard associated with it."

Lava defines the Big Island -- home to three active volcanoes -- from its black sand beaches to ominous open fields.

From the seat of a helicopter, the story of the lava flow unfolds below.

"It's amazing to be able to come up over a ridge line and see this expansive newly formed land, and it's the newest land on earth," said David Griffin of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.

Volcano baby

Kilauea is a youngster by geological standards.

"It's still developing. It hasn't even had time to form a nice mountain shape on it because it's on the side or the flank of the Mauna Loa," said Terry Reveira, education specialist with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

A large, mountainside crater called a caldera is 11 miles around and billows with steam -- evidence of movement deep below.

"Because this is an active area, there is still magma underground, a few miles underground. What happens is, if it's raining that water will percolate down through these rocks, which are very porous, hit the hot rock and come up in major steam clouds," Reveira said.

The Kilauea caldera is also home to Pele, a fire goddess in Hawaiian mythology.

"As long as you're here in Hawaii you learn to have great respect for this particular goddess and you can see her work still evident today at her volcano," historian Daniel Akaka Jr. said.

Playing with fire

The fearsome goddess is reflected in local art -- in the mind set of many residents, too.

"I think living here that you end up having a special reverence and appreciation for Pele," resident Richard Koob said.

The real magic of the volcano comes in seeing Pele's freshest creation first-hand.

To do so, plan on several hours for a round-trip hike. By helicopter, the journey takes just a few minutes and provides unparalleled views.

In another part of the park, you can walk through a section of an ancient tube, a gigantic underground formation that once carried molten lava for miles.

A walk in this park is a history lesson in layers, where rocks resting side by side can vary in age by centuries.

Little danger

Most days, the open plain is windy and hot. Visitors pass ferns already taking hold of new land, the process of creating soil well under way. Every crunchy step brings them closer.

Standing by the flow is very uncomfortable -- about 150 degrees Fahrenheit against the skin. The flowing lava is 2,000 degrees, and within a couple of minutes is hard enough to stand on.

"There's a little danger if you start to walk on a really young flow that's just a few minutes old," Swanson said. "Then you can step through the crust and then you're going to burn yourself badly. But if you're careful and just realize that you shouldn't go where you're not comfortable going, where it's too hot, then you'll be OK."

It's an incredible spectacle that could continue for thousands of years, or stop at any minute.

• Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau
• Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
• USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
• How Pele Came to Hawaii

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