Situated on the Big Island about 2,400 miles off the California coast, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is perhaps the single best place in the world to see active volcanism, with an otherworldly landscape and a host of interesting plants and animals (many of them rare and endangered) thrown in for good measure.
Though remote by mainland standards, this big, physically and ecologically diverse park is easy to get to once you make your way to the Big Island. When you get there, you find it highly amenable to auto touring as well as short and easy walks leading to scenic overlooks, cultural sites, and other attractions. For the more adventuresome, there are backcountry and wilderness adventures.
Since January is volcano awareness month at Hawaii Volcanoes, this is an apt time to take a good look at what the park has to offer. This checklist will orient you to some things that first-time visitors should know. We trust that it will whet your appetite for firsthand experience, in which case there are some basic physical and cultural facts you should know, and some suggestions and caveats to bear in mind.
Hawaii Volcanoes is a park unlike any other in the National Park System. To get the most from your visit, you need to have some basic knowledge about the geology of the Hawaiian Islands and the active volcanoes on the Big Island.
The Hawaiian Islands The Hawaiian Islands are actually the tips of 15 huge volcanoes that have been rising from the floor of the ocean over the last 25 million years. (Additional volcanoes lie underwater.) The islands of Hawaii are among the world’s largest mountain masses, and the Big Island’s active volcanoes are among the most active on earth. Hawaii’s volcanoes are hot spot volcanoes, meaning that they exist because there is a hot spot in this part of the earth's crust from which molten rock rises to the surface and emerges from volcanic vents in the form of lava, cinders, pumice, ashes, Pele’s hair, and other volcanic products. Layers of lava solidify to form gently-sloped shield volcanoes. The ocean is very deep here – over 18,000 feet -- and the process is slow. It takes several million years just for a shield volcano to reach the ocean surface.
The Big Island and Its Volcanoes
The southernmost island is named Hawaii, but is known as the Big Island because, at 93 miles long by 76 miles wide, it is almost twice as big as all of the other islands combined. The Big Island is actually the combined masses of five huge shield volcanoes. Two of these volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, are active. The rest are dormant, but remain close enough to the hot spot to possibly become active again.
Mauno Loa is the Mightiest of Mountains
It took Mauna Loa about 3 million years to reach its present size, including about two million years just to reach sea level. The summit is now at 13,679 feet. Coupled with its impressive height, the tremendous bulk of Mauna Loa – estimated to be 10,000 cubic miles – makes this volcano the world’s largest mountain by a wide margin. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984.
Kilauea is an Intensely Active Volcano
Kilauea (kee-luh-WAY-uh) rises only about 4,000 feet above sea level, but is currently one of the two most active volcanoes on earth (the other is Italy’s Stromboli). Kilauea’s summit caldera, the centerpiece of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, encompasses about 2,600 acres and is 2.5 miles long, 2 miles wide and over 300 feet deep. At one end of the caldera is Halemaumau, a 300-foot firepit whose floor rises and falls with its frequent eruptions. Since 1969, there have been lots of eruptions from a parasitic lava shield in Mauna Ulu ("Growing Mountain"), which is on Kilauea's east rift zone. In late December 2009, Kilauea marked its 27th year of nearly continuous eruption. By 2002, the eruption had already buried 43 square miles of the island and increased its size by 544 acres through the addition of lava and black sand beach on the southeastern shore.
How much lava is Kilauea producing? That varies with time, of course, but production has recently been in the range of 250,000 to 650,000 cubic yards per day.
The Rift Zone
Situated on the eastern flank of Kilauea is the rift zone, essentially a big crack from which 2,000-degree lava pours out. At times (but not since 1986), gas pressure creates fire-fountains, great curtains of molten rock spewing as high as 1,800 feet into the air. There are lots of lateral conduits, so lava emerges from the side as well as the crest of the volcano.
Much of the lava flows to the sea through lava tubes, lateral conduits that are essentially long tunnels roofed by hardened lava (basalt rock). In places where lava tube roofs have been blown out by steam explosions, rivers of lava can be seen pouring through the tubes on their journey to the ocean. Where flows have ceased, cave-like tunnels may be left behind when the flow hardens on the outside (forming a sturdy roof) while the inside drains away. Exploring Thurston Lava Tube is very popular with visitors, and it is the only lava tube that is open and accessible to visitors.
The timing of your visit can make a huge difference, and so can the luck of the draw. Periods of exceptional volcanic activity create spectacular visual effects that delight visitors, but they also attract hordes of people to the park and create safety hazards that affect visitor access. The big displays that create prime time for flightseeing planes and helicopters (as well as cruise ships and excursion boats hugging the shore) also create traffic congestion and crowding, make rental cars and motel rooms very hard to get, and generate a host of other inconveniences or annoyances. Perhaps worst of all for park visitors who’ve planned far ahead and traveled a long way, safety concerns occasionally prompt the temporary closing of some park roads, trails, areas, and sites with little or no advance warning. Some areas and sites are also subject to temporary closings to protect endangered flightless geese called nene.
Checking the park website for up-to-date information before you leave for your visit is a very good idea. Just visit the Closed Areas and Advisories page of the park’s website.
The Weather is Fickle
The great diversity of altitudes and exposures in Hawaii Volcanoes makes for unpredictable, highly variable weather that can change in a flash from comfortably warm and sunny to uncomfortably rainy and chilly and then back again. For more information about the park’s weather visit this site.
Safety is Serious Business
Visitor safety is always a concern at Hawaii Volcanoes. Oddly, the low level of risk is part of the problem. Although there can be fire fountains towering hundreds of feet at times in Kilauea’s rift zone, the Big Island volcanoes do not characteristically have dangerously explosive eruptions. Instead, they have “quiet eruptions” that create lava flows and other effects that are comparatively approachable. That’s good in the sense that visitors can usually get quite close to active volcanic features to get a better view. That’s also bad in the sense that visitors may get too close and end up getting injured or killed. If you’ve seen those TV commercials advertising prescription drugs, you know that they rattle off a list of possible side effects that may occur, even if the risk is very small. People visiting this volcanic park get equivalent warnings. If you were to string all of the caveats together, it would read something like this:
People visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park may be injured or killed through exposure to hazards that include, but are not limited to: earthquakes, steam vents, steam explosions, volcanic fumes, volcanic eruptions, hot rocks, jagged rocks, flying rocks, unstable rocks, collapsing shoreline benches, and rogue waves. At many places in the park, falls can produce serous injury or death. People hiking or climbing Mauna Loa are at risk of hypoxia, dehydration, and hypothermia in addition to potentially fatal falls. Have fun.
All kidding aside, injuries and deaths are rare at Hawaii Volcanoes. People do need to exercise due caution, though, and that includes keeping a close eye on your kids. This is not a place to let youngsters roam around unattended. For additional safety information, visit this site.
This volcanic landscape has been part of the native Hawaiian homeland for around 1,600 years. The Park Service is responsible for protecting many cultural/religious sites in the park, and visitors must be respectful.
Do You Want to Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes?
The park has two drive-in campgrounds designed for tent camping, Namakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki. Both are small and simple, operating on a no-fee, no-permit, no-reservations basis (limit seven days per month). Namakanipaio has water, but Kulanaokuaiki doesn’t. You’ll need a tent with a good rainfly. It gets chilly at these campgrounds, so be sure to bring warm clothing.
There are rustic, sleeps-four camper cabins (reservations required) at Namakanipaio. However, the cabins were closed January 1, 2010, for a renovation project that will take four to six months. If you’re interested in the cabins, you’ll need to contact the park about availability.
Renovation Project Temporarily Closes Volcano House
Volcano House, the park’s National Register hotel, occupies a spectacular location on the caldera rim. The Volcano house was closed on January 1, 2010 for a renovation project that included seismic retrofitting, fire suppression upgrades, and interior improvements. The restoration work has been completed, and the lodge reopened to the public in June 2013.
Bring Your Own Food
Volcano House is the only place in the park that serves meals. There are restaurants and fast fooderies in Volcano Village just outside the park entrance.
Wheelchair accessibility and availability are pretty good at this park. If these are concerns, be sure to visit this site for more specific information.
NOW, GO AND HAVE FUN!
** Stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center, which is located just inside the park entrance on the Hilo side and is usually open from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. In additional to visitor information and helpful staff, you’ll find exhibits, a bookstore, and an auditorium in which films and videos are shown throughout the day. The 25-minute film "Born of Fire, Born of the Sea" is shown on the hour beginning at 9:00 a.m. and ending with a 4 p.m. showing.
After Dark in the Park is a series of programs presented by guest speakers at the Kilauea Visitor Center Auditorium beginning at 7 p.m. two or three Tuesday evenings each month. Featured topics range from geology to biology, Hawaiian culture, and history.
** Visit the Volcano Art Center Gallery. That’s not hard to do, since it’s right next to the visitor center and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Besides the gallery and gift shop, there are scheduled events and activities, including workshops, classes, performances, and demonstrations. It’s a family-friendly place, so if you’re traveling with kids be sure to see if there are activities to get in on.
** Tour Crater Rim Drive. Hawaii Volcanoes is an automobile-convenient park, and the existence of this 11-mile long, paved, pullout-rich loop around Kilauea’s summit caldera proves it. For lots of motorists headed to or from the Kona Coast and “just passing through” the park, Crater Rim Drive is their only exposure to the park’s scenic delights. The tour takes one- to three-hours, depending on the time spent enjoying the panoramic views you get at the overlooks. Watch out for bicyclists, horses, and nene.
** Get out of your car! More than just circling the summit caldera, the drive traverses the caldera floor and passes through desert and lush tropical rain forest ecosystems. Those willing to leave their cars to take short walks are rewarded with magnificent views. The main attractions along the Crater Rim Drive are Sulphur Banks (Ha’akulamamanu), Steam Vents, the Kilauea Overlook, the Jaggar Museum, Southwest Rift, the Halema’uma’u Overlook, the September 1982 Flow, the Keanakako’I Overlooks, Devastation Trail, the Pu’u Pua’I Overlook, the Thurston Lava Tube, and the Kilauea Iki Overlook.
** Don’t miss the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, which is located on Crater Rim Drive about three miles from the park entrance. It’s generally open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visitors can enjoy earth science displays, murals depicting Hawaiian culture, and other interesting exhibits related to volcanic activity and related earthquakes. An overlook behind the building offers a panoramic view of Kilauea Caldera and Mauna Loa. Excellent signage helps visitors understand what they are seeing as they look out over this landscape from different angles.
One of the more interesting exhibits at the Jaggar Museum is the scorched and perforated clothing of a volcanologist who tested the limits of his luck when he got too close to a lava flow and acquired an addition to his “don’t do it again” list.
** Be sure to visit the Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku to native Hawaiians). In prehistoric times, this conduit for seaward-flowing lava was drained and left in cave-like form. The Park Service has made it convenient and safe to walk through it. The visit entails a short walk (one-third mile loop) through a fern tree forest.
Are you interested in touring a wild lava tube? Each Wednesday at 12:30, small groups of visitors (maximum 12) are taken on a ranger-guided tour of the Pua Po’o Lava Tube. Unlike the heavily visited Thurston Lava Tube, this is a “wild” (undeveloped) lava tube in a less accessible location.
** Explore the East Rift area via Chain of Craters Road. Visitors who have three to five hours to spend in the park can also explore the East Rift and coastal area of the Park via Chain of Craters Road. This road descends toward the sea (dropping 3,700 feet in 20 miles) and abruptly ends where a recent lava flow crossed the road. It is sometimes possible to view active lava flows from the end of the road. There is also a Sea Arch and the Kamoamoa Blacksand Beach and Campground. Motorists can take a side road, the Hilina Pali Road, to access the Kipuka Nene Campground (closed October to March to protect nene) or visit the Hilina Pali Overlook. No food, water, or fuel is available along the Chain of Craters Road, so plan accordingly. Speaking of planning accordingly, don’t forget that when you reach the point where lava flows have blocked the road, the only way back out is to return the way you came.
Those pesky lava flows! Before lava flows blocked Chain of Craters Road, motorists could use this route to drive to and from Hilo. This “back way” route was very convenient and is sorely missed by area residents and tourists alike.
** Take a hike. Many would argue that the true character of the park is best discovered on foot. There are about 150 miles of trails in Hawaii Volcanoes, and most are well maintained and easy to follow. Park visitors using the foot trails should wear long pants and bring a windbreaker or rain gear, sturdy close-toed shoes, hats, water bottles, sunglasses, and high UV factor sunscreen.
Easy Trails: Two of the park trails are paved and accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. Visitors who want easy walks tend to choose among three popular trails. The Halema’uma’u Overlook is at the edge of the crater about a ten-minute walk from the road (around a half mile round trip). The Devastation Trail is a boardwalk trail that leads past a lush forest that was cut in half by lava flows and through the cinder outfall of the 1959 Kilauea eruption; the 30-minute walk is about a half mile each way. The Thurston Lava Tube is a 20-minute walk (one-third mile loop) through a fern tree forest and a cave-like lava tube of prehistoric origin. Another easy trail is the one at Bird Park (Kipuka Puaulu).
Longer Hikes: There are several good choices for those interested in day hikes of greater duration. Park managers give the highest rating to the Kilauea Iki Trail, which is reasonably short (four miles, or about two hours) and descends 400 feet through native rainforest into a crater and across lava flows still steaming from the 1959 eruption in this area. Another good choice is the Crater Rim Trail, a fairly lengthy hike (complete loop is 11.6 miles) around the summit caldera.
Backpacking: Wilderness trips of several days duration are also available. All backcountry camping is by permit only. Piles of rock (cairns) called ahu are used to roughly mark the park’s backcountry trails.
** Are you into bicycling? Hawaii Volcanoes is a great park for cycling – if you bring your own bike and don’t mind a lot of up and down. All three of the park's main roads offer great opportunities. Since traffic can be hazardous, and you have to watch out for horses and nene (endangered flightless geese) as well as vehicles, safe biking practices are mandatory. Be sure to pick up the “Bike the Volcanoes” brochure at the visitor center.
** Are you a peak-bagger who can’t pass up the chance to summit Mauna Loa? The three or four-day hike on the 18-mile trail to the summit of Mauna Loa at nearly 14,000 feet is an unforgettable backcountry trip.
Mauna Loa hikers need to be aware that hiking the Mauna Loa Trail is a serious high altitude outing suitable only for those who are in top physical condition and properly outfitted with winter mountaineering gear. There is a substantial risk of hypothermia, dehydration, and serious altitude sickness (hypoxia, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema). People have died on this trail. Enough said.
** The flightseeing option: Many park advocates, especially backcountry and wilderness recreationists, don’t like flightseeing because of its intrusive effects. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Hawaii Volcanoes is one of those grand and rugged parks that are highly appealing to the flightsing enthusiasts among us. A fleet of concessionaire aircraft brings tourists by the thousands into the park every year on routes that expose them to scenery not soon forgotten. If you’ve got the money, the time, and the inclination, you might want to consider this option.
Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a nonprofit that offers year-round educational adventures through the Hawai'i Volcanoes Institute, provides a volunteer workforce for designated projects at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (such as forest restoration and maintenance of the historic 'Ainahou Ranch), and administers grants and raises funds for various projects benefiting the park.