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"The Big Island"

With a land area of more than 4,000 square miles, Hawai’i is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined.  The island is nearly the size of Connecticut and features all but 2 of the world’s climate zones.

Here we aim to introduce you to the geography, geological history and ecology of our island.  Hawai’i is one of the most unique places in the world.  The while you can drive around the island by car, much of it is accessible only by off road vehicle, hiking, horseback, mountain bike or helicopter.

There is so much to do on the Big Island that we recommend you consult a guidebook before you set out.  There are many excellent ones – some of them we have in each of our homes.   Take your time and explore this site…we have lots of information for you.






●      Hawaii Trails Walks Strolls and Treks on the the Big Island – by Kathy Morey

●      Big Island, Hawaii Guide – by Lee Meyerson (Kindle Edition)

●      Your Ideal Hawaii Island Vacation:  A Guide for Visiting the Big Island of Hawaii by Tyler Mercier and Chris Mercier

●      Snorkel Hawaii: The Big Island by Mel Malinowski and July Malinowski

●      Hawaii The Big Island Trailblazer by Jerry Sprout and Janine Sprout

●      www/



Other sites to check out are the website of the Hawai’i Visitor’s Bureau, and “Royal Footsteps Along the Kona Coast”

Lastly, for your trip to to Hawai'i to take on a deeper meaning, all activities be colored by the awareness of the Native Hawaiian culture.  With that in mind, we strongly recommend the book "Ancient Sites of Hawaii" which is execeptionally well researched, organized and informative. 

Unfortunately, you won’t have time to explore all of the available options on our island but that’s okay  - you can come more than once!   For now, pick an activity or an area and get ready to have fun


What does “Hawai’i” mean?

Most place names in the Hawaiian Islands are descriptive.  Many of these descriptions are obscure or have been lost in time.  Hawai’i is said to have been named after Hawaiiloa a great Polynesian navigator who is said to have discovered Hawai’i.  Interestingly, the Hawaiian word hawai, means the steam that rises from the imu, the earthen oven that Polynesians used for cooking.  To a navigator approaching the islands from the south, the great long mountain of Mauna Loa must have appeared as an enormous imu spewing steam from volcanic eruptions. The letter ‘i can mean supreme in Hawaiian, so maybe Hawaiiloa was named after Hawaii, not vice versa.  We may never know.  

The world’s most remote archipelago

The Hawaiian archipelago is the furthest from any landmass in the world. It is located in the Central Pacific Ocean,

2,390 miles (3,850 km) from California and 3,850 miles (6,195 km) from Japan and more than 5,000 (8046 km) miles from Australia.


Scientists have two theories about the formation of the Hawaiian Islands. Unlike most volcanoes, the Hawaiian chain sits squarely in the middle of the Pacific plate rather than on a tectonic boundary. In 1963, J. Tuzo Wilson proposed the “hotspot theory” to explain this unusual placement. Wilson proposed that the linear geography of the Hawaiian Islands is due to the movement of the Pacific plate over a stationary point of great heat from deep within the Earth.

Heat from this localized hotspot melts the Pacific plate above the hotspot as the rocky crust is pushed over it by the spreading seafloor along the plate boundary. The melting rock of the Pacific plate produces magma. Less dense than the solid rock of the plate, the magma rises through the mantle and the crust as a thin thermal plume, erupting beneath the ocean to form an active seamount. Over time, the countless eruptions increase the height of the seamount until it breaks the ocean surface and becomes an island volcano.

As the Pacific plate continues to move northward over time, the island is pushed away from the hotspot and a new island begins to form over the hotspot. In 2009, Cecily Wolfe of the University of Hawaii used sea bottom sensors to identify how seismic waves propagate through the pliable mantle layer beneath the Earth’s crust. She believes her evidence has pinpointed the location of the hotspot.

In contrast, a new study done by geologists from MIT and Purdue University in 2011, mapped rock layers within the crust. They could find no evidence of a single thermal plume. Instead, they found a “pancake shaped” layer of abnormally hot rock in the crust only about 403 miles beneath the surface, well above the mantle. Temperatures were 300 to 400 degrees C (572 to 752 F) hotter than expected at that depth. This data suggests that hotspots may not be as deep as previously thought and may not be permanently fixed in one spot. Wolfe acknowledges the importance of the new find, but believes it will take much more work to truly explain how her thermal plume and the “pancake” of hot rocks are related and how they provide the heat source for Kilauea and the other active volcanoes of the Hawaiian Islands. “Neither theory is rock solid. Nothing in earth science is perfect,” Wolfe observed.

The Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in origin.   Hawai’i Island is made up of of 5 major volcanic mountains:

Kohala                                                                                      5,480'                    extinct

Mauna Kea          (white mountain)                                   13,796'                    dormant

Mauna Loa          (long mountain)                                     13,697'                    active

Hualalai                                                                                   8,271'                    active

Kilauea                  (spewing)                                                 4,190'                     active


Climate Zones

Hawaii’s isolation and geological activity together with the altitude of its mountains create unique climates and ecosystems.  Because of its many ecosystems and its sparse population, Hawai’i is graced with a wide variety of forests.    Each of the Five Mountains is home to unique plants some found nowhere else in the world.  In addition, there are vast differences in precipitation depending on elevation and orientation.  The windward side of Hawai’I is very wet (when Ian Robertson was growing up in Paauilo on the Hamakua Coast, Paauilo received 48 inches of rain in 24 hours) – the leeward side is usually very dry.  

The Districts of North and South Kona and South Kohala are sheltered from the trade winds, calm seas, sunshine, abundant ocean life. The early Hawaiians were quick to recognize that this was one of the best places to live in all the islands.  Accordingly these districts are home to some of the most historic sites in the Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaii's Ecosystems

There are about 150 distinct ecosystem types in the Hawaiian Islands. These ecosystems are so distinctive that the Hawaiian Islands constitute a unique global bioregion. These ecosystems range from tropical dry forest, to subalpine grasslands, snowy alpine deserts, to brackish anchialine pools, subterranean lava tube systems with eyeless creatures, to windswept coastal dunes. While the number of the species is impressive, these birds, mammals insects and plants live in an environment that is threatened by development and the import of non native species. Some native ecosystem types have been very hard hit. For example, over 90% of Hawaiian lowland dry forests have been lost to fire, development, agriculture, or weed invasions. Other systems have been relatively little affected (alpine deserts on the summit of Mauna Loa, for example are very much as they were before humans). All told, perhaps half of the 150 ecosystem types are considered in trouble, imperilled by human-related changes in the landscape. Most of the loss has occurred along the coasts and in the lowlands, where the majority of human habitation exists today. 

One of the most biologically diverse regions of the world

With over 25,000 unique species, Hawaii is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. A large percentage of these species are only found on the islands of Hawaii.

Over 90% of the native flora and fauna is endemic.  This is the highest rate on Earth.  In orther words, Hawaii's native plants, trees, bires, snails and insects are the most unique assemblage of life in the world.   Unfortunately, Hawaii, with only 0.2% of the land are of the United States, is also "The Extinction Capital of the world" with more than 25% of the United States' endangered species located in Hawaii.

The Unique birds of the Island of Hawai’i’ are a good example of its biodiversity



Hualālai is a dormant shield volcano. It is the third-youngest and the third most active of the five volcanoes, following Kīlauea and the much larger Mauna Loa.  Hualālai is estimated to have risen ocean about 300,000 years ago. Despite maintaining a very low level of activity since its last eruption in 1801, Hualālai is still considered "active" and is expected to erupt again some time within the next century.  

At a mere 8,271 feet (as opposed to the Majestic Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa which are each nearly 14,000 feet high) Hualālai makes up for its lack of stature by creating one of the most begin climates on earth and thereby becoming a favorite dwelling place for Native Hawaiians for nearly 2000 years.

Hualalai & Puuwaawaa

The volcano is home to many rare species and nature reserves.  It is a great spot for hiking.

Hualālai Mountain has created a magical place to grow coffee.  During the day moisture laden air blows off the ocean and up the mountain to cooler elevations.  Each afternoon this heavy airs turns into clouds which shade the crops – and usually turns into a gentle rain. The high elevation, constant cloud coverage and rich volcanic soil from Hualalai Volcano in the upland slopes of Kona create an ideal environment for harvesting this unique Hawaiian coffee bean.



The broad forest-covered summit of Kohala consists of many cinder cones thata erupted along its two rift zones between about 240,000 to 120,000 years ago.

Kohala Volcano is the oldest of Hawai'is five subaerial volcanoes and probably emerged above sea level more than 500,000 years ago.


When eruptions had built Kohala's broad shield to its greatest extent, the volcano was more than twice as wide as it is today. Based on an abrupt change in angle of the submarine slope at a depth of about 1,000 m, scientists estimate the subaerial part of the island at this time was more than 50 km wide. Then, when the rate of eruption decreased more than 300,000 years ago, the slow subsidence of the Island outstripped the rate of growth of the volcano, which slowly began to sink beneath sea level. But to the southeast, lava flows from Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa buried the southern flank of Kohala.


Toward the end of its shield-building stage 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, an enormous landslide removed the volcano's northeast flank. Twenty kilometers wide at the shoreline, the landslide cut back to the summit of the volcano, which at the time was just over 1,000 m higher than today, and traveled 130 km across the ocean floor. The famous sea cliffs of windward Kohala shoreline mark the topmost part of the headwall of this ancient landslide.  Left behind are cliffs and valleys, ranch land and forests that invite exploration.


Wet Forest

Dry forest

Ranch land


Mauna Kea Volcano:  Tallest Mountain in the World

Mauna Kea volcano rises high above the landscape on the north side of the Big Island, stretching 13,796 feet (4,205 meters).  Measured from its base, massive Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world.  The Mauna Kea Summit towers 33,476 feet (10,204 meters).  It is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes.  Astrophysicists from all over the world come to Hawaii to explore the far reaches of the Universe.  They are making astonishing discoveries nearly every month.  This research is made available to the public at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Waimea.    Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,00 feet in about 2 hours.  At 14,000 feet there is 40%less oxygen that at sea level.



“Mauna Loa is the world’s largest active volcano. It extends 13,697 feet above sea level and about 3,100 feet below sea level. Its name means “long mountain” in Hawaiian. Mauna Loa covers more than 50 percent of Hawaii Island, extending into Hilo, most of the southern portion of the island and toward Kiholo Bay in North Kona. It’s 500 times greater in volume than Mt. Rainier, the picturesque volcano in Washington State.  Mauna Loa is so huge that it actually causes the Pacific plate it is residing on to sag under the weight of the volcano. Mauna Loa remains in the shield stage and features a caldera — Mokuaweoweo — at the summit some 3.7-by-1.9 miles — much larger than Kilauea’s 1.2-by-1.9 miles. It also has two rift zones, one extending to the northeast the other to the southwest. The volcano also has the capability to pump out a lot more lava than Kilauea. Kilauea erupts 0.2 to 0.5 million cubic meters each day while Mauna Loa puts out 12 million cubic meters per day. Geologists have studied data and used radiocarbon dating to determine how many times Mauna Loa has erupted during the past 30,000 years. About 35 percent of all the lava on Mauna Loa has been dated with 500 lava flows have been mapped and 300 flows radiocarbon dated. The oldest rocks on Mauna Loa have been dated back between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. About 98 percent of the volcano’s surface is covered with lava flows less than 10,000 years old. Over the past 3,000 years, Mauna Loa has erupted once every six years and evidence of four explosive events have been found. Since written records began, the volcano has erupted about once every five years, See more at:

Rising gradually to more than 4 km above sea level, Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on Earth.  Its long submarine flanks slanting to the sea floor adds another 8 km to its height and the sea floor is in turn reduces by Mauna Loa’s great mass another 8 km.  This makes the volcano’s summit about 17 km (56,000 ft) above its base.  The enormous volcano covers half of the Island of Hawaii.  By itself, Mauna Loa amounts to about 85% of all the other Hawaiian Island combined.


Sitting on the south east flank  Mauna Loa , Kilauea volcano, a youthful shield volcano, is the youngest volcano (on land) of the Hawaiian hot spot and not only the most active volcano of Hawaii but also the world's most active volcano. It has been in near-constant activity since there is oral or written history and it is having an uninterrupted eruption since 1983 (at present at the Pu'u 'O'o vent and along the East rift zone). To the casual observer, Kilauea appears to be part of Mauna Loa, but geological data indicates that it is a separate volcano with its own vent and conduit system.


Kilauea rises 4,190 feet (1,227 meters) above sea level and is about 14 percent of the land area of the Big Island. The summit caldera contains a lava lake known as Halema'uma'u that is said to be the home of the Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele.  Its eruptions are prominent in Hawaiian Polynesian legends and written documentation about its activity go back to the 1820s when it started to attract interested visitors from all over the world and became one of volcanology's hot spots. 


Kilauea has frequent summit and flank lava flow eruptions that are occurring along two elongated rift zones to the south-west and to the east, which extend to the sea on both sides of the volcano. The 3 x 5 km caldera was formed in several stages about 1500 years ago. About 90% of the surface of the basaltic shield volcano is formed of lava flows less than about 1100 years old; 70% of the volcano's surface is younger than 600 years. The long-term eruption from the East rift zone that began in 1983 has produced lava flows covering more than 100 sq km, destroying nearly 200 houses and adding new coastline to the island.

Eruption history

Native Hawaiian oral traditions record the extraordinary eruptive history of Kilauea long before European and American missionaries wrote about it in their journals. Scientific study of the volcano began when geologist Thomas Jagger of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited Hawaii on a lecture tour and was approached by local businessmen. The Hawaiian Volcano Research Association (HVRA) was formed in 1909. In 1919, Jagger convinced the National Weather Service to take over the pioneering research, and in 1924 the observatory was taken over by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The current ongoing eruption cycle began on Jan. 3, 1983, along the middle of the east rift zone. By April, the eruptions became localized at one vent. Lava fountains built a cinder and spatter cone 836 feet high (255 meters) that was named Pu'u 'Ō'ō. The frequent short eruptions produced thick chunky lava flows that usually cooled and halted before reaching the coast. However, in July 1983, the lava made its inexorable advance into the nearby Royal Gardens subdivision and destroyed 16 homes. The expensive subdivision was largely abandoned.

In 1986, lava flows cut through the town of Kalapana as the lava made its way to the sea. As the lava field spread, cooled and spread again over the next three years it destroyed many homes and the Visitor Center in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. In March 1990, Kilauea entered its most destructive eruption period in modern history. Over the summer more than 100 homes, a church and a store were buried beneath 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 meters) of lava. [Explosive Images: Hawaii's Kilauea Erupts for 30 Years]

On March 3, 2012, the very last house in the Royal Gardens subdivision was abandoned by 61-year-old Jack Thompson. For years, Thompson had watched as lava claimed the homes of his neighbors, leaving the area to Thompson and a few hardy squatters. The last roads leading to Royal Gardens were closed in 2008, forcing Thompson to hike several miles to reach an access road whenever he needed something from town, but he still refused to leave. Finally on the morning of March 3, Thompson and a friend were evacuated by helicopter as lava finally consumed his home.

Lava in Halema'uma'u crater overflowed the crater's ledge in October 2012 [Video: Lava in Hawaiian Volcano Reaches Highest Recorded Level], and lava reached the ocean in November [Video: Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Spills Lava into the Sea] when it flooded the ledge of the crater. Lava flowed over the ledge again in January 2013 and continues to flow into the ocean, according to USGS.

The volcano has destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures and frequently damages local utilities and roads. Activity at the summit and along the rift zones can be observed online through webcams placed within the caldera, and information on Kilauea’s activity is updated daily on the USGS website.


  22 miles off the southeast coast of the Island, another volcano, Lo’ihi, has been erupting for about 400,000 years.  Currently 975 feet below sea level, Lo’ihi is expected to emerge in 10,000 or 100,000 years,  with its own identity or making the Big Island even larger

Clara Chan - Univ. of Delaware

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