The impressive Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with two active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea), requires at least a half-day visit, and a full day (or even two) is better. Of the two volcanoes, Kilauea is much more accessible and is more active—it's been erupting continuously since 1983. Mauna Loa, with its challenging backpacker trails to the summit, is for the committed outdoors enthusiast.
The Kilauea Visitors Center is the place to start your tour of the park. After paying the admission fee (US$25 per car) and getting a map, walk over to the Volcano House for a first glimpse of the crater.
The nearby Volcano Art Center exhibits high-quality works by local artists.
Volcanic activity in the national park is unpredictable, varying daily (phone 808-985-6000 for recorded updates). You may be able to observe lava, and on some days you can get a much closer view. The prime place to see lava is at the viewing area at the end of Chain of Craters Road (the road ends because it, along with a visitors center, was wiped out by a lava flow). Marked trails lead to places where you can observe the flow—stick to designated areas. The trail can be treacherous. Wear appropriate footwear and bring a jacket should you end up taking longer than anticipated. Try to visit at dusk: The sun setting on the desolate landscape of hardened lava is spectacular, and the lava flowing into the sea can be best seen at night (flashlights are required to find your way back to your car). The trails close at 9 pm.
Check with park rangers on duty for latest eruption and lava-viewing details. It's a 45-minute drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road. From there, it can be a hike of 3 mi/5 km or more to the viewing site. Be prepared for rough, uneven terrain, volcanic fumes, heat, intense sun and no services of any kind. Occasional closures of various parts of the park are possible when the volcano is particularly active.
Crater Rim Drive provides access to most of the other viewing areas in the park. Worthwhile stops include Steaming Bluff; the Jaggar Museum (displays on the geology and physics of volcanic activity—note the olivine crystals in the building's columns); the Halemaumau Overlook (infants and those with respiratory problems should avoid this stop because of the sulfur); Devastation Trail (a forest killed in 1959 by a blanket of pumice ash); and the Thurston Lava Tube (a cave formed by lava that's in the midst of a cool, damp rain forest).
Hiking trails abound in the park: They take you into dense rain forests, around steaming calderas and along lava flows. One of the most memorable walks is in Kipuka Puaulu, called Bird Park because of the many native birds you can see flitting between lehua blossoms and high above in the trees. You can also walk into the Kilauea Caldera on a well-marked trail that starts at the Volcano House.
Ask the park rangers about other trails. You might also check before your trip with the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter for information about its programs and excursions in the park and elsewhere on the Big Island. Phone 808-965-5460. http://www.hi.sierraclub.org/hawaii/mokuloa.html.
If you're not up to touring the park, consider a volcano flightseeing airplane or helicopter tour. There are accommodations within the park at the Volcano House. The inn offers a buffet lunch on the rim of Kilauea Crater that's open to guests and nonguests alike.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is 30 mi/48 km south of Hilo.
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