It’s been a few years since I’ve ventured across an active volcano, an experience that has a way of making one feel small amongst the mighty power of Mother Nature. And while that may sound a bit dramatic, climbing to the summit of Mount Etna in Sicily has stayed with me as something that was both exhilarating and perhaps a bit intimidating. And what fascinates me the most about volcanoes is that they are often in a state of constant change, evolving before our human eyes in a span of not centuries or millennia, but months and years. That’s why as I prepared for a return trip to Hawaii’s Big Island I was especially excited to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
The park’s history is closely linked with Pele, the Hawaiian goodness of volcanoes, who according to tradition was the creative (and destructive) force behind the formation of the Hawaiian Islands. The park itself is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, which offer frequent reminders of their presence and power. In fact, the 2018 eruption of Kilauea was a monthslong event that not only dramatically transformed its caldera but also destroyed hundreds of homes from lava flow and erupting fissures, and Mauna Loa recently began erupting again in 2022 for the first time in 40 years. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to witness some of this activity (from a safe distance, of course) during your visit. While the park encompasses a rather vast area, most first-time visitors will focus their time in the area around the Kilauea Caldera.
Our day began with a stop at the Visitor Center where we topped off our water bottles and grabbed a Junior Ranger activity book for the most junior member of our party. You’ll find that many of the park’s main sights are a short walk or drive from the Visitor Center along Crater Rim Drive. At one point this main road fully encircled the Kilauea Caldera, but volcanic activity damaged sections of the road, which now exists as an 11-mile out and back drive. There are a handful of hiking trails throughout the park, including the aptly named Crater Rim Trail that runs alongside the road and offers various hiking opportunities that can be done in segments or in full if you’re feeling adventurous.
Our first destination was the Kilauea Iki Trail, a 3.3-mile loop that begins in the lush rainforest along the rim of the crater with a gradual descent onto the vast expanse created by the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki. We couldn’t help feel oh-so-small as we crossed the wide-open wasteland of the crater floor, now exposed to the brutal mid-day sun, allowing ahu stacked stones to guide our way as we jumped over large cracks in the solidified lava lake. Sparse vegetation signaled signs of life in a landscape that more closely resembled a science-fiction setting where fountains of lava once spewed thousands of feet into the air.
We reached the other side and climbed back up through a series of lush switchbacks framed by fiddlehead ferns and thick trees. Rather than continuing to the parking lot, we made a slight detour to the Thurston Lava Tube. Formed more than 500 years ago, a paved path led us inside the cool, damp tube where 2,000-degree lava once flowed. Few lights illuminated our path as we made our way to the other end, emerging again into the daylight before rejoining the trail to reach our car (note that the tube is not lit between 8pm and 8am so bring a flashlight or headlamp if you’re visiting at night).
Crater Rim Drive continues before turning onto the Chain of Craters Road, which leads towards the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs and Holei Sea Arch on the southeast coast of the island. Instead of venturing further out we headed back towards the Visitor Center to the nearby Seaming Bluff, where you can see (and feel) hot, wet steam vents, followed by the Sulfur Banks. The latter features a wooden boardwalk path for an up-close look at the putrid byproducts of a volcano. Before calling it a day and returning our completed Junior Ranger activity book to the Visitor Center and drove to the northernmost part of Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Overlook, another viewpoint to take in this incredible force of nature. From here you can see the Halema’uma’u Crater where the volcano’s lava activity is currently confined. It’s believed that this is also the spot where Pele resides. With white steam rising, we gazed out upon the caldera, still smoldering as if it were contemplating not if but when it will let its presence be known again as it has done in the past and will likely continue to do for years to come.
Also Good to Know
Many of the main sights and hiking trails within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park offer little to no shade, so it’s recommended to bring lots of water, sun protection and to start your day early. This is also a good tip as parking lots are limited and fill up relatively quickly. It’s also important to check out the latest volcanic activity when planning for your trip, especially if you’re interested in nighttime eruption viewing (check out current conditions here). And for those who want to stay inside of the park, you can do so at the Volcano House Hotel, which has existed in some form since 1846 and has hosted notable guests including Mark Twain. The current hotel first opened in 1941 and features 33 guest rooms, 10 cabins and 16 campsites, as well as two restaurants for visitors enjoy.
HAWAI’I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK BY THE NUMBERS
- Established as a National Park in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson
- The park spans a total of 323,431 acres with an elevation ranging from sea level to 13,681 feet
- Home to the summits of 2 active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa
- Mauna Loa is the world’s largest volcano, rising 30,000 feet from the ocean floor to its summit, exceeding Mount Everest in height
- The 2018 eruption of Kilauea caused the Halema’uma’u crater to collapse and expand from 280 feet deep and 0.5 miles wide to 1,600 feet deep and 5 miles wide
- There are 23 species of endangered plants and trees within the park
- Attracts more than 2 million visitors per year
- Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987
Hey there, love your blog!
Thank you for sharing this fascinating and informative post about Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park! It’s incredible how volcanoes are in a constant state of change and evolving before our eyes. The Kilauea Iki Trail and Thurston Lava Tube sound like amazing sights to see. I’m curious, is it safe to explore the park on your own or are guided tours recommended?
Charlotte 🌿 http://www.arvorlife.com 🌊
With you from ocean to mountain top ⛰️