What could be more magical than watching new land being formed as lava flows from the mouth of a volcano? Hawaii Volcanoes National Park protects and celebrates this beautiful site as its boundary extends from the Pacific Ocean to nearly the 13,677-foot summit of Mauna Loa. Tucked along the southeast edge of the Big Island, this lava-belching landscape has been a national park for over 100 years. In this article, we talk about the ten things you’ll want to be sure to do when visiting the park.
You can also listen to our podcast episode about the park right here.
#1: Go to the visitor center.
If you’ve listened to any of our Dear Bob and Sue Podcast episodes, you know that this is the first thing we recommend visitors do when arriving at a park. That is, of course, after you’ve gotten your picture taken in front of the park’s sign.
The visitor center sits on the rim of the Kilauea Caldera. There you’ll find rangers and volunteers on duty ready to provide you with the latest information about current lava flows, hiking trails, and other things activities in the park. It also has excellent exhibits and a gift shop.
You can access the 1.2-mile roundtrip Sulphur Banks trail from the visitor center. The boardwalk takes you past vents where volcanic gasses and groundwater steam seep out of the ground.
#2: View a Kilauea Eruption
It’s never a guarantee that Kilauea will be spewing lava while you’re there: no lava was flowing when we visited the park back in 2010. But if the recent activity is an indicator, you will probably see some volcanic activity.
In December 2020, lava began flowing and continued for 5-6 months. After a four-month break, it started again in September 2021. It continues to erupt as of the writing of this post in November 2021.
Check the park’s website for locations where you can safely view the eruptions. There, you’ll also find webcams where you can watch the lava and discharges from the comfort of your browser.
#3: Hike Kilauea’s Iki Crater
This hike takes you down 400 feet into the Kīlauea Iki crater, across the crater floor, and up again to the parking lot. We loved this trail. It seemed surreal to think we were walking on what was once a boiling lava lake. If you attempt this hike, know that it is moderate to challenging with steep and rocky sections.
The distance of the hike depends on where you park. If you park at the Kilauea Iki overlook, it’s 3.3 miles roundtrip. But if the overlook parking lot is full, you’ll have to park at the VC. From there, the hike is 5.3 miles via the Crater Rim Trail.
#4: Visit the Thurston Lava Tube
If you love exploring caves, don’t miss this lava tube. While the trail to the site is a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike from the Kilauea Iki parking lot, the tube itself is only about 600 feet in length.
This 500-year old lava tube is a very popular destination. To avoid crowds, try going before 9 am or after 4 pm.
The lava tube is illuminated during daytime hours, but there are no lights on between 8 pm and 8 am in the cave. You can still visit the site when the lights are off, but you’ll need to bring a flashlight or headlamp. And we suggest you take a backup or two, just in case.
#5: Drive the Chain of Craters Road
The 19-mile spectacular drive takes you from the park entrance past many scenic points as it makes its way down to the ocean. The road initially opened in 1928, but due to obstructing lava flows, the park has rebuilt and realigned it many times over the years.
#6: Hike to the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs
To get to the petroglyphs, park at the trailhead along the Chain of Craters Road. This coastal trail traverses a 500 to 550-year-old lava field to one of Hawaii’s most extensive petroglyph fields. The 1.4-mile roundtrip hike will take you through the site, which is home to approximately 23,000 petroglyphs. The rock carvings document the life and culture of the Native Hawaiian people.
#7: Go take a gander at the Holei (Ho-LAY) Sea Arch
At the end of Chain of Craters Road, walk about a thousand feet past the gate to the observation area. There you’ll see a 90-foot-high lava rock arch nestled in the cliffs along the ocean. An ancient lava flow about 550 years ago created the arch, which will someday crumble into the sea. (But probably not anytime soon.)
#8: Visit the Hilina Pali Overlook
Off the Chain of Craters Road, drive the Hilani Pali Road, a 10-mile narrow, unpaved road up to the overlook. The road is yet another example of the incredible impact the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) had on the National Park System; they built the road in the 1930s. At the end, you’ll reach the 12-mile overlook, from which several trails begin. Also, along the road is one of the park’s two campgrounds.
#9: Go to the Mauna Loa Lookout
A beautiful viewpoint accessed via an 11-mile unpaved road, this lookout affords incredible view of the Kilauea Crater below. It’s also the trailhead for hikers who want to summit Mauna Loa. The lookout has a picnic table, a pit toilet, and a shelter that the CCC built back in 1937. If you go, keep in mind that the road to the lookout is narrow and rough in places.
#10: Stay until dark
Or go back to the park at night to take in the spectacular, natural light shows. In addition to the possibility of seeing the volcano’s flying and flowing lava light up the night, the park is also one of the best places to stargaze on the island.
Bonus Tip: Where to stay in the park
Volcano House is a historic hotel near the entrance to the park, and is about 2 miles from the Kilauea Overlook. In addition to its 33 guest rooms and ten cabins, it is home to the park’s other campground with 16 sites.
Established in 1846, the hotel has gone through a variety of renovations and reconstructions. The park built the current version in 1941. Being near the edge of the Kilauea Crater, it’s a great place to view lava flows and eruptions.
And if you want to get out into nature and backpack, you have your choice of eight established sites, which all require a permit. In addition, the park allows off-site dispersed camping in some locations. See the park’s website for more details.
If you enjoyed this post, you might want to also check out Three Perfect Days in New River Gorge National Park.
The feature image for this post came from Adobe Stock