Skip to Content

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, A Visitor’s Guide

Kilauea Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Big Island of Hawaii (appropriately named Hawaii) is currently the largest of the archipelago Hawaiian Islands. The region is an extremely active volcanic area with new volcanoes forming under the sea.

One day, in the distant future, although not in my lifetime, more islands will join the archipelago. The Big Island is best known for its world-famous Kona coffee (did someone say coffee?) and its active volcanoes.

There are five volcanos on the Big Island; Mauna Kea, Kohala, Hualālai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses two of these; Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

The islands of Hawaii are popular for their paradise appeal. Maui attracts visitors to its incredible beaches and laid-back lifestyle. Oahu offers a rich cultural and historical experience at humbling Pearl Harbor and Hawaii’s royal palace, the Iolani Palace, Hawaiian last royal residence.

The Big Island brings travelers to see its stunning waterfalls like Akaka Falls, snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, and the star attraction Kilauea at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Whether a natural involving phenomenon or a sign of geological change, volcanic eruptions have fascinated people and scientists worldwide for centuries.

Looking back, I can vividly remember my emotions of standing inside a volcano (a dormant one in Tenerife in the Canary Isles, I might add) for the very first time. To this day, volcanoes still hold me captive with their immense power and unpredictable nature.

A Living Laboratory

As one of the most active volcanoes globally, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the perfect place for scientists to monitor Kilauea’s activities. With a complex system of seismometers, GPS, and on-ground monitors, scientists can study the inner workings of a live volcano.

Geologists use the information gathered to predict eruptions in an attempt to lessen the impact on residential areas. Countries worldwide also come to Hawaii to develop better warning systems for volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Visitor’s Center

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is accessible from both Kona and Hilo. If you are planning to visit, you will want to check the current state of activity. There are several ways to get to the park: by bus tour and by car.

The cost of entry is USD 25.00 per vehicle, and the pass is good for seven days. Alternatively, you can purchase a tri-park pass for $50. It allows access for one full year from the date of first use at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Haleakalā on Maui, and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

I remember my first visit to see Kilauea during a port day on a Hawaiian cruise. I was surprised at the size of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Upon entering the park, visitors receive a park map showing the volcano and areas covered by previous lava flows.

The Kilauea Visitor’s Center was my first stop. Inside the park, it’s located to the right of the entrance. The volcano national park hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily.

At the center, the on-duty park rangers provided me with updated information and answered my questions on recent activities. They informed me of any closed areas of the park.

Kilauea Iki Overlook

From the visitors center, drive the Crater Rim Road to the Kilauea Iki Lookout. Here, the views of Kilauea Iki are spectacular. Kilauea Iki is a fifty-year-old pit crater that is next to the main Kilauea crater. From the lookout, it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of the crater.

However, Kilauea Iki is vast, at one mile long, 3,000 feet across, and 400 feet below the parking area. A well-walked trail heads down into the crater and across the crater floor.

Kilauea Iki Overlook, Hawaii
Kilauea Iki from the lookout. Notice Kilauea steaming in the background

If you plan to take the trail to the crater floor, keep in mind, it’s dry, hot and the path offers little shade. Be prepared by wearing a sun hat, using sunscreen, and carrying plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Better yet, plan your hike in the earlier hours of the morning before the mid-day sun reaches its hottest temperatures. 

Kilauea Iki Trail

For those adventurous enough to hike to the bottom, the four-mile looping trail takes approximately two to three hours. The black lava crater floor seems barren and lifeless compared to the lush green jungle surrounding it.

Be sure to look for the beautiful red flowers on the surrounding trees. The ʻōhiʻa lehua trees are the first signs of life on the lava since the volcano’s eruption.

While it was hot, we hiked the trail in the afternoon because it was the only way it could fit into our itinerary. The start of the trail is flat and, at specific points, offers good views of Kilauea.

As the trail descends to the crater floor, the tropical trees and plants provide some much-needed shade. It’s a stark comparison to the barren land found at the bottom of the trail.

Walking out onto the crater floor is reminiscent of a desert. It’s barren, dry, and only a few scrubs have managed to grow amongst the dry lava floor. Black and hard, the lava bed is riddled with cracks, the result of shrinkage.

Seeing the large field of barren lava provides a harsh lesson in the destructive power of an explosive volcano. The trail continues across the crater floor and is marked by Ahu (stacked lava rocks).

It’s recommended to follow these rocks, and the path is well-worn like an animal track across the landscape. Pace yourself and keep some water for the trek back.

Remember, don’t be deceived by the easy trek down the Kilauea Iki Trail because it’s all uphill on the way back. If your time is limited, continue on Crater Rim Road for an overall experience of the park. 

View across the Kilauea Iki crater floor
View across the Kilauea Iki crater floor

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston lava tube,Hawaii Volcano National Park
Thurston lava tube

The Thurston Lava Tube is one of the main attractions for visitors in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Lava tubes mark the spot where molten lava once flowed.

As the outside of the lava hardened, the inside continued to flow, leaving a hollow tube. How cool is that? The walk through the tunnel was short, but its size surprised me.

In 2018, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes damaged the Thurston Lava Tube, which collapsed and closed. Although through a recent restoration, this interesting natural wonder is now open again.

The Jaggar Museum and Halema’uma’u Crater Overlook

[Updated June 2019] Due to volcanic activity in 2018, the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum is closed. The museum once gave visitors a quick run-down on the world of volcanoes, like an “everything you wanted to know.”

From there, visitors would have found the best viewing options for the steaming Halema’uma’u Crater. Large amounts of the steam plume from this massive cater, known as the home of Pele, the volcano goddess.

There once was a large lava lake at the bottom of the crater. However, in May 2018, much of that lava has drained out through fissures into the Puna district.

Since this vital lookout point is no longer accessible by visitors, the best vantage point for viewing is on the Sulphur Banks Trail.

Kilauea lava, Hawaii
Lava bubbling at Kilauea

While I have visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park a few times, I was fortunate to see lava bubbling from the crater in May 2015. With a rental car, I ventured into the Puna district, where lava was flowing.

A visit to the Puna district was not complete without seeing Kalapana. Kalapana today is a dark ocean of solidified black lava, but once, it was a thriving fishing village.

Standing on the hardened lava, I realized the unpredictable fury of Mother Nature. There is a peacefulness about this barren land that is indescribable. There in the rocks, I found a sign that spoke volumes; “Serenity.”

Lava pool, Hawaii Volcano National Park
Lava hot spot in the hardening lava field
Serenity...............a small shrine found among the lava field
Serenity ~ need I say more?

Sulphur Banks Trail

At sulphur banks (Ha’akulamanu), volcanic gases seep out of the ground along with underground steam. The smell is reminiscent of rotten eggs. Volcanic gas comprises water vapor, although it can be rich in carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen halides, and hydrogen sulfide.

In large concentrations, these gases are harmful to people, animals, and agriculture. For this reason, anyone with heart or respiratory conditions, pregnant women, infants, or young children should avoid this hike.

The walk is a short and easy 1.2-mile (2 km) round trip, filled with steaming rocks and vibrant mineral deposits. The flat trail takes you to the lookout of Kilauea’s crater.

Since the eruptions in 2018, this is the closest you can get to the Halema’uma’u Crater. Be on the lookout for the pure sulphur crystals, as these are a real treat to see.

The Chain of Craters Road

The Chain of Craters Road is open daily from 10 am to 9 pm but check the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website for closures. The 19-mile roadway runs through the park all the way out to the ocean. No water, food, or fuel is available along the Chain of Craters Road.

In 2003, lava flow covered part of the road just past the Hōlei Sea Arch. If visitors are permitted to the end of the way, the slowly advancing lava is available to view. 

Along the road, there are views of Pauahi Crater and Mauna Ulu and dry lava beds from previous eruptions. If this is your first time to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this is a drive you must take. The vast areas of dry lava are unbelievable and must be witnessed.

I was fascinated by the ripples and soft layer designs in the lava fields. We stopped many times at lookouts and other regions to experience the magnitude of destruction caused by Kilauea.

Hardened lava, Hawaii Volcano National Park
Hardened lava field

At the end of the road is a small parking area next to the ocean. Take a short walk to the magnificent Hōlei Sea Arch. At 90 feet high, this natural formation has a limited life span.

As the ocean waves crash against the lava tower, the arch will eventually crumble into the sea from erosion.

Hōlei Sea Arch
Hōlei Sea Arch

Final Thoughts

For me, visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National park was a humbling experience. There are no words to describe an area destroyed by a volcano, where there once stood a fishing village.

The National park is vast and although I’ve visited it on three separate occasions, there’s still lots more to discover.

With endless walking trails and hikes across lava fields, an itinerary to Kilauea can last for as many days as you can manage. Should you decide to hike, wear closed-toe shoes as the lava is not so forgiving should you stub your toes.

Whether you have one day or a few days on the Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not to be missed. If you’re looking for something more adventurous to do, try swimming with the manta rays in Kona.

Happy travels ~ Karen

Dorothy StHilaire

Saturday 26th of March 2022

Thank you for your insight, I’m extremely excited for my visit to the big island of Hawaii in September of 22 . Volcanoe National park is definitely on my agenda.

Forever Karen

Saturday 26th of March 2022

Dorothy, I've been to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park several times and enjoyed every visit. The landscape changes a lot between visits because Kilauea is so active. I hope you have a wonderful trip.