Insider’s Guide to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Colleen McNeil
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Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is a special place. Not only is it found on the tropical island of Hawai’i, but where else can visitors see an active volcano? The park itself encompasses two volcanoes: Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, with an elevation of 13,677 feet. The land that the park sits on has long been a source of Hawaiian legend, as Halemaʻumaʻu Crater was (and to some, still is) considered the sacred home of the volcano goddess Pele. Today, the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater is steams with volcanic gas, and is one of the highlights of the park.

The park covers more than 333,000 acres, and was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980, a World Heritage Site in 1987, and gained its National Park status in 1916. While many people visit the park to drive along the Chain of Craters Road, there are 150 miles of trails that allow visitors to gain a deeper appreciation for the power of volcanoes and the unique wildlife that calls Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park home.

Classic Adventures

A great way to see what the park has to offer is by taking Crater Rim Drive , which starts at the Jagger Museum and the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. After learning about the history of the land, travel down the road to see the sulphur steam banks (Ha'akulamanu), where volcanic gases rise up from the ground. From there, continue on to see Kīlauea Iki, which is one mile long, 3,000 feet across, and 400 feet deep. Today, it’s an empty crater (that visitors can actually hike across), but as recently as 1959, it was a bubbling lava lake. The next stop on this tour is another popular attraction – the Thurston Lava Tube. Visitors walk 1/3 mile into a lush fern forest and through the tube, which was once filled with hot, red lava. A little bit further down the road is the Devastation Trail, which is a 30-minute walk through the cinder outfall of the eruption of Kīlauea Iki in 1959. The drive ends with a short, 0.8-mile hike to Keanakāko'i Crater, where there was an eruption in 1982 that covered several hundred feet of the road.

Kīlauea Iki. You can see the trail running through the middle.
Kīlauea Iki. You can see the trail running through the middle. Abbie Mood

The more scenic driving tour is along Chain of Craters Road . It takes visitors through the heart of the park to the coast, stopping at a few craters along the way. Towards the end of the road is where the drive becomes well worth it. Almost 10 miles in is the Kealakomo Overlook, where visitors have a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the lava field that buried the ancient village of Kealakomo. Six miles later, get out of the car for a 1.5-mile round trip across a lava field to see the petroglyphs at Pu’u Loa. It’s the largest petroglyph field in Hawai’i, dating to 1200-1450 A.D. and has historically been a sacred and religious site to the Hawaiian people. A couple miles later, the road meets the sea, where there is an overlook for viewing the Hōlei Sea Arch. Created within the last 100 years, the arch is 90 feet high, and someday will crumble and fall into the ocean. This spot is literally the end of the road, as an old lava flow blocks vehicles from going any farther.

Besides sightseeing from the car, many visitors to the park want to get out and explore on foot. There are several smaller trails at many of the stops along the driving routes (such as at the steam vents and the petroglpyhs). The ‘Iliahi Trail is an easier, tree-shaded trail. It’s a 1.5-mile loop that takes visitors on a path through the rainforest, past active steam vents to a wonderful view of the Kīlauea summit caldera.

One of the more popular hikes is the Kīlauea Iki Trail that was mentioned above. It’s a moderate to strenuous hike that starts in the rainforest and descends down into the crater (which means visitors have to hike back up to get out). It’s a 4-mile loop along the floor of the 1959 lava lake, where visitors can look into the vent that erupted, and see cinder and spatter cones.

A hardened lava field at the park.
A hardened lava field at the park. Kaua'i Dreams

For a real adventure, take the 11-14 mile Crater Rim Trail Loop. It ranges from 11-14 miles because at the time of this article, a portion of the trail was closed, but the entire distance is 14 miles round trip when access is not restricted. It’s possible to hike smaller sections of this loop but the entire trail is the best way to see the park’s volcanic features and unique ecosystems. There are great views all along the trail, and though the distance is long, the trail itself is not difficult.

Explore the Pu'u Huluhulu trail for a truly eerie experience. This lava landscape is from the 1969-1974 Mauna Ulu flows, and is covered with lava trees, which are pretty much towers of molten lava. It is 2.5 miles round trip, and involves a climb to the top of a cinder cone. The view from the top of the Mauna Ulu crater is worth the climb.

Secrets of the Park

After finishing the Chain of Craters road, take the turn-off onto the 11-mile Hilina Pali Road. It will lead to the breathtaking Hilina Pali Overlook, and also to the lesser-known 4.8-mile hike along the rim of Hilina Pali. There are panoramic views the whole way and it crosses over hardened lava flows. The trail eventually leads to the rustic Pepeiao Cabin, where visitors can actually stay overnight, with a permit. For a longer hike, continue uphill from the cabin and take the Ka'u Desert Trail. It’s a very remote, 7.3-mile hike through old lava flows, and is where visitors can see the phenomenon called “Pele’s hair”, which are fine, hair-like strands of volcanic glass.

The Hilina Pali Overlook.
The Hilina Pali Overlook. niksnut

Another lesser visited feature of the park is along Highway 11. There is a trail called the “Footprints Trail”, that is just under two miles round trip and takes visitors out to see the fossilized footprints of Hawaiian warriors from 1790. The original belief was that a battle going on at the time and warriors were marching across the land when the Kīlauea caldera exploded, raining ash and hot gas down on the party. While there is no argument about the explosion of the caldera, it is now speculated that the footprints may have been evidence of everyday life in the area.For visitors in good physical condition who want to chase a sunrise/sunset, hike up to the summit of Mauna Loa . It’s a long hike at 13.1 miles roundtrip, is considered high altitude (up to 13,000+ feet), and weather can be unpredictable, but it can be worth it for a prepared and physically fit hiker. Anyone embarking on this adventure should fully educate themselves on the potential risks before heading out, such as blizzards, high winds, and white out conditions that can happen any time of year.

The best way to see the park is to spend at least a couple days here, taking the time to drive around and also get out of the car to explore on foot. Crater Rim Drive will take up a few hours and hit all the popular sightseeing spots, so it would be beneficial to have another day to spend hiking around.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • The park is open year round, including holidays, and the weather is consistently warm all the time.

  • The park is open 24 hours a day, so visit the crater at night to see an eerie red glow.

  • The endangered Hawaiian goose, the nēnē, can be found along (or on) the road, so drive carefully. Never feed the nēnē.

  • The Keanakāko'i Crater trail is a great place to view Mauna Loa's 13,677 foot summit and Mauna Kea's 13,796 foot summit.

  • Take plenty of water and wear sunscreen/hats/sunglasses. There isn’t much shade on most trails, and the black hardened lava gets quite hot from the sun.

  • There are two campsites at the park, lodging in the park/along the outskirts, or you can stay in either Mountain View or Hilo. It’s about a 45-60 minute drive from Hilo, the closest major town.

  • Don't pocket any volcanic rock! Legend has it that Pele will curse anyone who takes anything from around her volcanoes. Don't take our word for it - thousands of pounds of rocks are mailed back every year.

The endangered nēnē goose.
The endangered nēnē goose. Sean Hagen

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