Travel Tips for Visiting Hawaii’s Big Island

1. SPIN THE BOTTLE-NOSE. Kealakekua Bay is one of the best spots in Hawaii to see spinner dolphins, who make this crescent of water their personal playground. They are slender dolphins, generally 7 ft. long or less, that have dark gray backs and white stomachs. Seemingly natural performers, they leap out of the water to incredible heights before spinning and splashing down. While there’s no schedule for this show, your best bet of catching a glimpse is in the early morning.

2. WHAT THE HELL IS A CALDERA? A “caldera” and a “crater” look suspiciously similar, but don’t be fooled: the terms are not interchangeable. A caldera (from the Portuguesecaldeira) is a volcanic crater with a large diameter that is formed by collapse of the central part of a volcano or by explosions of extraordinary violence.

3. GOING WITH THE FLOW. Exploring lava flows past the end of Chain of Craters Rd. requires vigilance and care; the newly formed land is unstable and lava flows are unpredictable. The hike, which changes every day with the movement of the flow, is easier in the daytime but much more rewarding around sunset. As the sky darkens, “skylights” through the upper crust of a lava tube often appear. Before you set out, be aware of the dangers of lava. Whether the flow is 3hr. or 30min. from the end of the road, it pays to heed warnings. Consult the ranger station or national park service for eruption updates and safety information, watch the safety video at the Visitors Center (every hr. on the hr. daily 9am-4pm), and be prepared with gear (sunscreen, hat, sturdy shoes, water, a flashlight, pants, and all-purpose gloves.) Perhaps most importantly, stay on Pele’s good side; what you actually see at the end of the road will depend wholly on her temperament at the time of your visit. It’s always possible that conditions may be too dangerous to allow hikers onto the flow or that there is no visible lava. Precautions to keep in mind:

Stay off “benches” created by lava flowing into the sea, and don’t go near the water! Benches are extremely unstable and inevitably crash into the ocean below. The water itself is dangerous because splashing waves can carry molten lava into curious crowds.

Watch for fires! Lava can easily set grasslands on fire. With a bit of wind, this can be very dangerous. Also, burning organic material causes the buildup of methane gas underground, which can ignite in powerful methane explosions.

4. DESERT RAINS. A quick trip around Kilauea Caldera reveals a strange anomaly: within minutes the barren landscape of the Kau Desert in the southwest suddenly becomes a region of lush rainforest. The transition is so abrupt it seems impossible. The fact is, the Kau Desert is not technically a desert—it receives about as much rainfall as a tropical rainforest. The catch is that this rain, contaminated by sulfur dioxide gas, is as acidic as vinegar, with a pH level of about 3.4 during eruptions. Trade winds guide the acid rain over the Kau Desert, creating a stark contrast with the lush rainforest to the northeast.

5. WATCH FOR INVISIBLE COWS. Free-roaming cattle are a hazard taken quite seriously on Mauna Kea Access Rd. Dark cattle hide so well under the cover of the nightfall that they’re very difficult to see. Signs warn drivers to “Watch For The Invisible Cows.” Be careful. Those cows are out there.

6. (NOT) GOING CUCKOO IN AKAKA. If you stare halfway up the falls for 20 seconds and then look directly to the right, where the moss grows on the rock, your eyes might mislead you! (Spoiler alert: the rock to the side of the waterfall will look like it’s growing.)

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