The trail begins high above the crater and descends through native rain forest, a sliver of ancient Hawaii. Purple shoots of uluhe ferns, their unfurled fronds coiled in tight spirals, poke up from the understory, and the 'apapane birds harmonize in a sweet chorus heard nowhere outside Hawaii. The forest evolved largely in isolation from the rest of the world, and its lack of major predators (and surprisingly few bugs) gives it an Eden-like feel—only without the snakes.
The transition from paradise to Hades is abrupt as the trail drops into the crater. It feels like something out of myth: A cracked, barren landscape of black lava made even creepier by a veil of fog. Steam rises from vents and fissures and a lake of magma bubbles just a few hundred feet beneath the crater floor. Get down on your knees to take a photo and the lava's jagged edges feel as sharp as glass.
But like Kaawaloa-Okita returning to her ancestral village, the rain forest is slowly reclaiming the crater. Scrubby 'ohi'a, a fraction of the size of their tree-size rain-forest brethren, are pioneering the rock. Colonizing ferns trace zigzag patterns of green along cracks where enough soil and nutrients have settled for them to take root. Fifty years ago, temperatures in the crater reached 2,200 degrees. But someday, the 'apapane may sing here, too.
Because visitors spendan average of only six hours in the park, it's difficult for them to imagine living on an active volcano. Of course, Hawaiians have been doing just that for centuries. Not far from the end of Chain of Craters Road, a trail leads to the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs, which feature more than 20,000 carvings of human forms and boats, and, most unusually, piko holes, once used to hold the freshly cut umbilical cords of newborns.
Today's population is centered on Volcano Village, the park's gateway community. Houses and cottages are tucked so deeply among the trees that residents sometimes see one another only at the Sunday Farmers' Market—a tropical cornucopia of mango, papaya, and dragon fruit (19-4030 Wright Rd., thecoopercenter.org, Thai chicken soup $5 a bowl, Sundays 6:30–10 A.M.).
Idyllic, perhaps, but with more than 100 inches of rain a year, periodic warnings about volcanic smog (known as "vog"), frequent small earthquakes, and an erupting volcano down the road, it's a town that comes with more than the usual homeowner headaches.
The village's demographics reflect its unique circumstances. There are scientists, park workers, New Agers, and an intrepid community of artists: painters, woodworkers, and printmakers. Many artists display works at the Volcano Art Center Gallery, located in an 1877 structure built as the successor to the thatch inn where Twain stayed (Crater Rim Dr., Volcano, volcanoartcenter.org, woodblock prints by printmaker-painter Dietrich Varez starting at $5).
When ceramist and Memphis native Tim Freeman visited the volcano in 1991, the clouds parted just in time for a solar eclipse over Halemaumau. The crater's steam plumes suddenly stopped drifting sideways and rose in columns straight into the sky. "This is a magical place," he says. "It has moved me deeply for years."
Freeman settled in Volcano Village in 2001 and now teaches philosophy at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. His vase-like works evoke the volcano itself. The rims mimic the volcano's contours, and he colors the round interior base a lava-like reddish orange. He fires his pieces in underground pits, using wood from faya trees and other invasive species he's cleared from the forest. "I'm trying to express my appreciation for living here and the almost pristine character of the area," he says. "It gives a sense of the fragility of nature. I'm blown away by the beauty of this place."
The notion of a fragile beauty is at the heart of the Kilauea experience. Even a single overnight can reveal its ephemeral ways. As darkness comes to Volcano Rainforest Retreat a few miles from the park, drizzle brushes the canopy of ferns and mist drifts through the trees. Buddha statues and the ceramic masks of Volcano Village artist Ira Ono add to an aura of the sacred and whimsical.
Around midnight, thunder rocks the forest as a storm slams into Kilauea, then just as abruptly ends an hour before sunrise. Along the rim of Kilauea Caldera, Halemaumau puffs away as two nene suddenly wing overhead. Thirty miles in the distance and 10,000 feet above Kilauea, Mauna Kea rises over the rain forest. Free of clouds, its summit is covered with snow washed by the pinks and golds of dawn. "The face of Kilauea is always changing," Kaawaloa-Okita says. "There are moments in time that cannot be re-created. That's part of the marvel. And you want to give yourself every opportunity to experience those marvels."