I visited my first volcano when I was 16. My family had taken a trip to Maui, where I got my first glimpse of Haleakala volcano (which has not had an eruption since the 18th century), and was immediately captivated by the sheer beauty of a barren moonscape dotted with craters. It turned me into a major volcano geek.
Years later I returned to Hawaii to go on an ultimate volcano adventure. My girlfriend and I had basically blown every cent on this adventure but it was well worth it. We saw Diamond Head crater in Honolulu, and then took a small plane over to the big island where we toured Kiluea. We first stopped at the area between Kiluea and Mauna Loa, where we saw the steam vents and fumeroles that were dotted amongst the forest. It was a bizarre landscape. You could really feel the volcano underneath your feet, smell it, and feel the heat from the steam vents.
We made our way to the summit of Kiluea at Halema'uma'u crater, and witnessed the most spectacular active caldera we'd ever seen. We went to the rim of Kiluea'iki (little Kiluea crater) and saw the seemingly fresh floor covered in still degassing/steaming lavas from a 1960's eruption that produced a spectacular hillside cinder cone.
We then made our way down to the town of Kalipana, which was absolutely paved over by a flow during the 1980's-90's. The black sand beach was particularly nice. To the northwest of the black sands beach, we witnessed new land being born. A process as old as the planet itself, and we got so close we could feel the heat of the lavas hitting the ocean, and the sound of the steam hissing off the molten river of rock. Occasional explosions at night put fireworks to shame. The power!
Topping it off, we took our first skydiving lesson over Honolulu. As I breathed deeply in the clouds, I was awestruck by the eroding volcanic landscape I could see so clearly from the sky. This planet is old, and new at the same time. The land is always changing in Hawaii, and no two visits will show you the same place, especially on the Big Island. This was the beginning of a major obsession.
Following Hawaii, I went on a road trip north to Oregon through California, stopping at Lassen, The Geysers, Shasta (did not know they had caverns there, that was a treat), Belknap crater, and finally, Crater Lake. Below is a nice panorama of Crater Lake taken on what had to be the most beautiful clear day I have ever seen. The photo, while nice, does NOT do the place justice. The majesty of Crater Lake renewed in me a sense of awe, and the addiction to volcano eco tourism swelled. Now I can't even think of visiting a vacation destination without making a detour towards a volcano. There is simply no substitute for being there. Smelling the air, the lavas, feeling the low rumble of magma beneath your feet, knowing that what lurks below is powerful, ancient, and constant.
If you've never visited one of these beasts, let me tell you, even as an Atheist, it is a spiritual moment. You can really feel the connection with the past and understand ancient man and his reverence for the powerful forces of nature. Sun and Volcano worship was the beginning of deities, and it is never so apparent than when you're staring something in the face that is more powerful than anything on the planet. It baffles me as to why we make up stories, when its plain to see... Volcanoes and the Sun are responsible for our existence. And for that, you can call me a volcano worshiper!