How to Get up Close to a Volcano in Hawaii
With lava flowing, steam rising from vents and plumes of volcanic gas ascending, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers travelers a place to witness an incredible earthly spectacle: creation of new land.
This popular national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site is located on the island of Hawaii, commonly called the Big Island, as Hawaii is also the name of the island chain that comprises the state.
Getting to Volcanoes From Honolulu
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, and is the home of the mythical volcano goddess Pele. To the delight of visitors, Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, adding to the island’s size. Its sister volcano, Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984, is Earth’s most massive mountain, measuring 80,000 cubic kilometers when including the part of the mountain below sea level.
Start your journey on the island of Oahu in Honolulu, Hawaii's state capital and largest city. The cosmopolitan oceanfront setting has much to offer. As all of Hawaiian Islands are the byproducts of volcanic activity, you can catch older remnants of eruptions on Oahu before heading to the current ones at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Snorkel at Hanauma Bay, a former volcanic crater that’s now home to a thriving coral reef, or hike up Diamond Head tuff crater.
Flights depart about every hour, from around 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., from Honolulu to both Hilo and Kona international airports on the Big Island. Car rentals are available at both airports.
The Big Island is easy to navigate. The Hawaii Belt (State Highways 11, 19 and 190) goes around the island. Hilo is closer to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (just 48 kilometers southwest on Highway 11). The drive from Kona is farther (133 kilometers along the western and southern coasts on Highway 11), but this route offers opportunities to see the Captain Cook monument and visit the sacred grounds of Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park.
Diamond Head soars above the beaches of Honolulu, Hawaii
Exploring Volcanoes National Park by Car
The terrain, vegetation, animals and culture you’ll encounter at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are the outcome of at least 70 million years of volcanic activity, migration and evolution. This process continues today, with active lava flows, ash falls and eruptions. Check the park’s list of closures and advisories when planning your visit. Once you arrive, stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center for the most up-to-date information about closures and activities, as well as trail maps. Travelers can experience much of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s natural wonder by car. The 17-kilometer Crater Rim Drive circles Kilauea’s summit caldera, going through a desert and rain forest, and taking travelers near the trailhead for a short hike to the caldera floor. The park’s self-guided nine-stop tour along this route begins at the visitor center and includes overlooks such as the Kilauea Iki. You’ll also see volcanic gases seeping out of the ground at Sulphur Banks, the lighted prehistoric Thurston Lava Tube – a 500-year-old cave formed by a river of lava – and the cinder outfall from a 1959 eruption along Devastation Trail, whose parking area also is the starting point for a 1.3-kilometer hike to the Keanakakoi Crater. Another drive with spectacular views is the 30-kilometer Chain of Craters Road. The trip starts 5.3 kilometers south of the Kilauea Visitor Center and descends about 1,128 meters to the Pacific Ocean. You’ll see craters and lava fields as well as a petroglyph field and a cliff offering a view of the Holei Sea Arch and the Pacific Ocean.
Steam rising from a crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Exploring Volcanoes National Park by Foot
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park features more than 240 kilometers of hiking trails. Easier trails allow for regular walking while more arduous ones require peak fitness and professional gear. The highlights are the trails that traverse craters or encircle summits, such as the Kilauea Iki and Crater Rim trails. The moderate 6.4-kilometer Kilauea Iki Trail begins in a lush rain forest before descending to a lava lake – dried now, of course – with cones, steam vents and vegetation peeking through the gray crater floor. The challenging 1,219-meter-high Crater Rim Trail leads hikers on a 17.7-kilometer loop of Kilauea’s summit caldera. You’ll see plants, birds and insects, but the steam vents, craters and caldera won’t allow you to forget you’re on an active volcano.
Where to Sleep and Eat
Many visitors stay in Hilo or make the drive from the Kona side of the island. A few bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rentals are available in Volcano Village, a five-minute drive from the park entrance. There are also a variety of restaurants in Volcano Village. You can also stay in the park or grab a bite to eat at the Volcano House, a 33-room, historic lodge that sits on the rim of Kilauea caldera.