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HAWAI'I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK IS A MUST VISIT SPOT ON THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII. BELOW WE OUTLINE 5 OF THE TOPS THINGS TO DO IN THE NATIONAL PARK, FROM TOP HIKES TO THE BEST PLACES TO VIEW KILAUEA'S FURY.
Protecting some of the most unique geological, biological, and cherished cultural landscapes in the world, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is a surreal place to spend some time.
It is highly likely that many of the photos you have seen of the national park will include - or be totally of - glowing red lava. That is because Hawai'i Volcanoes protects two of the world's most active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kilauea. While presently (in late 2022) both volcanoes have been fairly "inactive" this hasn't always been the case.
Kilauea famously went a bit crazy in 2018. Between the months of May and August large lava flows covered most of the land southeast of the national park. During that time, over 700 homes were destroyed - mostly in the nearby Puna District. At the same time, the main area of the park experienced tens of thousands of earthquakes, large, towering ash plumes, and a massive collapse of the Kīlauea (Halemaʻumaʻu) crater (it went from 280 feet deep to about 1,600 feet deep).
Today, you can still clearly see evidence from the historic eruption; including, along the Crater Rim Drive (which is now, unfortunately, mostly closed).
We visited the national park in mid-September, and even though everywhere else on the Big Island was nice and hot (and incredibly sunny), when we entered the park gates we found it cold, wet and foggy. While this was a somewhat welcome respite - we'll admit that we weren't completely prepared for the chillier temperatures. But it turns out, that due to the park's higher location (the visitor center sits at 4,000 feet or 1,232 meters above sea level), more often than not, the main park area is quite misty, foggy and some could even say gloomy. Therefore it is smart to come prepared with the right gear - you can see our recommendations below.
But even with the somewhat sub-par weather, we still tried to take full advantage of the national park's many amazing destinations. Below you will find what we believe are the top 5 things to do within Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
So with that - happy adventuring!
THE NITTY GRITTY | HAWAI'I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
| Year Established: in 1916 as Hawaii National Park, but this was eventually split into two different parks: this one (Hawai'i Volcanoes) and Haleakalā National Park (found on the island of Maui). The park is actually one of the oldest national parks in the USA (it is tied for tenth oldest with Lassen Volcanic National Park in California).
| Where is Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park: the park is located on the Big Island of Hawaii. The closest major towns are Hilo (~45 minutes away), Kona (~2 hours away) and Volcano (less than 5 minutes away).
| Weather in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park: while Hawaii is usually seen as a warm and tropical getaway, up in the national park you can instead expect chilly temperatures and a high chance of rain and fog. Make sure to come prepared with waterproof gear, layers and shoes that can handle mud and puddles of water.
| Cost to Enter Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park: $30 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)
| Best For: volcano viewing and hiking
HAWAI'I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK MAP
➳ Explore the full park map here.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN HAWAI'I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
1 | Hike Kilauea Iki
If you only have time to do one hike in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, then make it this one. Measuring around 3.3 miles total, this medium difficulty hike takes you along the rim and then down to the bottom of Kilauea Iki, a volcanic crater that last erupted in the 1950s. Today, the trail takes you through lush green tropical forests and then down to the crater floor where you can still clearly see cracked lava and the point where the volcano began to erupt. If you are curious to learn more about the somewhat recent eruption, you can pay $1 and get a paper guide to the trail.
To start the hike, begin at the park visitor center and then drive out along Crater Rim Drive until you see a sign for the Kilauea Iki parking lot. Do know that this parking lot can get busy and often fills up on the weekends (so try to arrive early and/or on a weekday).
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking for a longer hike and/or don't want to worry about parking at the trailhead, you can also start your hike from the visitor center. This will make the hike about 2 miles longer (5.3 miles instead of 3.3).
We also highly suggest adding on the Thurston Lava Tube (also known as Nāhuku) trail at the end. The lava tube trail is roughly 1.5 miles and starts and ends at the same parking lot as the Kilauea Iki trail.
2 | Explore the Park's Steam Vents & Sulphur Banks
Another interesting place to explore are the Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks - both of which are located only a short distance from the park's visitor center.
The Steam Vents are a conglomeration of small open ravines that emit hot, somewhat wet air (aka steam). You can walk next to the vents and look into the unique interior - most of which is made up of dense ferns and orchids. We suggest hiking out along the Crater Rim Trail to get an up-close view of the vents. Plus, the heat from the steam is a nice reprieve from the chilly air.
Right next to the steam vents is the Sulphur Banks (also known as Ha'akulamanu) - a larger thermal area where you will find very few trees. Just like with the steam vents, the best way to explore the Sulphur Banks is to walk along the well-established Ha'akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) Trail - which is just over 1 mile in length.
LEARN MORE | WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE 7 LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES ALL ADVENTURE TRAVELERS NEED TO FOLLOW
3 | Drive Down to the Coast
Formerly known as Cockett's Trail and now called the Chain of Craters Road, this nearly 19 mile road winds its way down from the park's visitor center to the far southern coast of the island. Along the way you can stop and check out the Keauhou Trail, the Pu'u Huluhulu Cinder Cone, and the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs.
This is also a great option if you want to get a better view of the aftermath from the 2018 Kilauea Eruption and also check out more of the history of this part of Hawaii. We suggest putting aside a couple of hours for this adventure, since there is a lot to see along the way.
➳ Learn more about this scenic drive.
4 | Walk Out to the Various Viewpoints
If you are short on time, but still want to take in the amazing landscapes that Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park encompasses, then we suggest simply spending an our hour so just wandering between the viewpoints that an be found along the crater rim.
Some of the best ones can be found along the 'Iliahi Trail and Kau Desert Trail - both of which are easy to reach from the main park road.
Now if you are looking to head to some viewpoints at night, then we highly suggest visiting the Kilauea Overlook, which before 2018 gave you some of the best views of the flowing Kilauea Crater, but which now will give you the chance to take in the bright red glow that the famous volcano emits (for a better idea on this, check out our first photo in this national park guide).
5 | Stay Late to See the Glowing Lava
One of the absolute best things to see and do in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is to walk down to see the glowing red lava from the Kilauea volcano once it gets dark. By staying until after sunset, you have the chance to really understand the power of one of the world's most active volcanoes. Shooting orange embers, bubbling lava and an ever-changing crater landscape, the Kilauea volcano is an absolutely stunning sight - especially in the dark.
The best place to see the lava is from the Deception Viewpoint Trail which is reached via a 1 mile walk along the now closed Crater Rim Road (after the 2018 eruption the road was destroyed and has not been fixed). Do note that while you are walking down a road there are no lights so it is smart to bring a headlamp or at least your phone to help guide your way.
Once at the final viewpoint, you will have an amazing perspective of the glowing lava - including the ability to see some spewing rocks if you happen to visit on one of Kilauea's more active days. Though be aware that you will very likely not have the viewpoint to yourself (be prepared to push your way to the front at least once). But man the sight of the lava glowing from down below is a truly stunning sight to see.
🎒 GEAR NEEDED: you will definitely want to bring warmer clothes - for it gets chiiillly once the sun goes down, a nice pair of walking shoes, a headlamp to help guide your way, and some binoculars (these will give you a better view of the lava).
OTHER ADVENTURES WORTH DOING IN HAWAI'I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
HIKE UP TO THE TOP OF MAUNA LOA
Often considered to be the largest volcano on Earth (and technically one of the largest mountains by sheer mass), hiking to the top of Mauna Loa might just be the ultimate adventure on the Big Island of Hawaii.
There are two ways to reach the summit: via the Mauna Loa Road Trailhead or via the Mauna Loa Observatory Road Trailhead. The first trailhead heads up the more southeastern side of the volcano and measures just over 19 miles in length (one-way). While the other option starts up the more northern side and measures around 12.5 miles (total).
Here are a few more things to know about this epic outdoor adventure:
| You will need an overnight permit if you plan to camp along the way (which you definitely should!). The overnight backcountry permits cost $10 (per group, with up to 7 people in a group) and will need to be picked up at the park's Backcountry Office, which is located very close to the Kilauea Visitor Center. There are 8 backcountry campsites available for use (Ka‘aha, Halapē, Keauhou, ‘Āpua Point, Nāpau, Pepeiao Cabin, Red Hill Cabin and Mauna Loa Cabin) - though be aware that there may be NO water available (it is weather dependent) and even if there is water at some of the spots you will still need to treat it (we love our Katadyn water filter).
➳ Learn more about the park's backcountry permits and important Leave No Trace Principles on the mountain here.
| The hike up to the summit is strenuous - not only due to the length, but also due to the elevation gain and altitude (the summit sits at 13,678 feet or 4,170 meters). Be prepared for rapidly changing weather and lots of wind (just like when you hike other nearly 14,000 foot tall mountains). But unlike most mountains, Mauna Loa has the added dangers that come with it being an active volcano (make sure to always check that the summit is actually open just in case there has been an increase in volcanic activity).
EXPLORE THE LESSER-KNOWN KAHUKU UNIT
Historically known as the Kahuku Ranch - which was once considered one of the largest cattle ranches in Hawaiʻi - this recent addition to the national park is today made up of over 100,000 acres of wide open, rolling hill country.
The Kahuku Unit has an array of options when it comes to day hiking; including, the Pu‘u o Lokuana Trail, which is roughly 2 miles long and takes you out to a hidden pasture and next to lava tree molds, the Pit Crater Trail, which heads steeply up old country roads to the rim of a volcanic crater, and the Kona Trail, which is the longest trail in the unit at 7 miles long (round-trip from the ROD quarantine gate). This final trail gives you the chance to take in stunning views of the wide open landscape as well as relics of historic ranch life in Hawaii.
➳ Learn more about hiking in the Kahuku Unit here.
To reach the Kahuku Unit, you will need to drive along the Mamalahoa Highway (Highway 11) until you reach the park entrance gate, which is very close to the most southern point on the Big Island and about 1 hour from the national park visitor center.
This section of the park is only open Thursdays through Sundays from 8 AM to 4 PM. Also, note that water is NOT available anywhere in this section of the park.
\\ Where to Eat in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
The closest town with any services to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is the aptly named town of Volcano. Within the small, sleepy town you can find a couple of decent restaurants - including a few Thai restaurants, some small local cafes and a well-stocked grocery store/gas station.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking for a unique gastronomical experience, consider stopping in at the Volcano Winery where you can sample various wines - including Guava Grape and Macadamia Nut Honey wines.
\\ Where to Stay in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
The closest place, and maybe the most unique place, to stay is going to be the historical Volcano House. This stunning lodge is perched on the rim of the Kīlauea caldera and gives visitors and guests the opportunity to wake up and go to bed with amazing views of the Halema'uma'u crater.
While built in 1846, the iconic spot has recently been renovated and now offers 33 stylish rooms - all within a short walk of some of the top spots in the park; including, the park visitor center, access to the Crater Rim Trail and the opportunity to see the Kilauea volcano erupt and start to glow once the sun goes down.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is by far one of the best places to explore on the Big Island of Hawaii. There is just something humbling and awe-inspiring in seeing a spewing volcano with your own eyes. And man, Kilauea is truly a site to see.
While we think you could spend days in this beautiful national park, we understand that you might not have that sort of time. Luckily, these 5 adventures above don't take very long and can easily be done in a day or two.