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One of the most impressive places to visit on the Big Island is the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s easy to access, and you won’t need any special type of vehicle. The roads are all paved and in excellent condition so regular cars are fine. Unless you are going hiking in the back country, you also won’t need any special clothing or footwear, though I do recommend wearing a hat. I visit the park frequently in regular walking shoes. For a day trip you probably won’t have time for any of the long hikes so regular shoes should be fine for you, too. Do remember to bring your sun block, water and food unless you plan to eat at the Volcano House Restaurant. You might want to spend a whole day or even two days here, as there is much to see.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has an excellent website, it’s well worth spending some time perusing it:
When you enter the park, I suggest that you skip the visitors center on the right. Instead, park in the visitor center parking lot and take the crosswalk across and then take the paved trail through a short bit of beautiful woods (or you can drive just past the visitors center and turn left) to go to the Volcano House Hotel. When you arrive at the Volcano House Hotel, go in the door at the center of the building and walk in. Go straight ahead and slightly left through the lobby, you’ll then see picture windows with an amazing view of Kilauea Caldera. Every time I take people there I turn to watch their jaws drop when they see that view. There are two nice gift shops in the lobby, an excellent but kind of pricey restaurant, and the cleanest restrooms in the whole park inside this building. If you need to use the restroom this is the best place. The other restrooms in the park can be pretty smelly. Here’s a photo I took of the view through the windows, but believe me the photo doesn’t do it justice.
After you leave Volcano House, go back to the road by the entrance and Visitors Center again. This time take the road all the way to the end to visit the Jaggar Museum and Halema’uma’u crater overlook. On the way you’ll see the steam vents on the left, then further down Kilauea Military Camp on the right.
Occasionally you’ll see Nene geese there at the Military Camp. or other parts of the park. They are the world’s rarest geese. In 1952 there were only 30 left, out of an original population of approximately 25,000 when Captain Cook arrived in 1778. Hunting and introduced predators nearly wiped them out. They have been bred in captivity and released to the wild. Now there are approximately 2500 throughout the islands, so they are still not common to see. As you pass the Military Camp, drive a little slower and look for them on the lawn. You may be lucky enough to see one or more. Do be careful when driving around any of the Hawaiian Islands. Nenes don’t have much fear of people or automobiles and occasionally are struck and killed.
When you get to the end of the road, park and walk over to the museum and crater overlook. The lava lake in the crater fluctuates, if the lava lake is high enough you can see the lava, but that’s rare. Most days the lava is too far down to see it, but it’s still a spectacular view. The museum is quite interesting, and it’s worth spending time inside. Note the burned uniform of a geologist who broke through the top of a lava tube and fell into molten lava. He survived with some very nasty burns, and now works part-time for Epic Lava Tours taking groups out to see the lava flows near Kalapana.
Here are two photos I took of the Halema’uma’u Crater from the Jaggar Museum when the lava lake was high enough to see it. Halama’uma’u is pronounced “hall-ay mah-oo mah-oo .
When you leave Jaggar, you’ll have to drive back the way you came. You may want to stop at the steam vents. If you have time, a hike to the sulphur banks from there is a nice short hike.
From the steam vents, continue driving back toward the park entrance. Just before the park entrance you’ll turn right at the sign that says Lava Tube and Chain of Craters Road. Follow Chain of Craters Road down through beautiful rain forest. The first turnout on the right will be the Kilauea Iki overlook.
You’ll see the trail on the crater floor below. It’s well worth the hike if you have the time. It’s not nearly as strenuous a hike as it looks like it will be, most people in reasonably good health should be able to manage it with no problems. The 1959 eruption here has the record for highest lava fountain ever recorded in Hawaii, 1,900 feet. Do check out the trail guide even if you don’t plan to hike it as it’s full of amazing information:
Here’s a photo I took from the Kilauea Iki overlook just off Chain of Craters Road. That faint light colored line on the crater floor is the trail through the crater:
After you are done at Kilauea Iki, drive a very short distance down the road to the next parking area on the right. Park there and walk across the street to the Thurston Lava Tube. On busy days the parking lot might be full, but don’t be tempted to park in the bus parking on the left as you will be ticketed. Up the sidewalk then to the right, follow the paved sidewalk down and into the tube. As you walk in, pay attention to the sides of the tube, you’ll soon note little ledges which are sort of like bathtub rings left as the level of the lava flowing inside dropped as the eruption feeding it waned. The whole walk takes only about 20 minutes. It’s a beautiful walk to the tube opening and the tube itself is impressive.
Continue driving down Chain of Craters Road. You’re going to pass by several craters and lava flows. The only ones I think are places well worth stopping at are Pauahi Crater, Puhimau Crater and Mauna Ulu. The two craters are mere feet from the parking areas and definitely worth the stop. Both were caused by magma chambers that drained out, with the ground collapsing into the chambers leaving gigantic pits with extremely steep sides. Pretty amazing holes!
When you see the sign directing a left turn for Mauna Ulu, take the turn. The road goes in a ways then loops back, then there’s parking right there. If you don’t do the whole Mauna Ulu hike, do walk at least the first parts of it in the trail guide. It erupted in 1969 through 1974, starting with a fissure eruption over a mile long. A good part of the fissure is still visible not far from the parking area, the first couple of stops on the trail take you along part of the fissure. Amazing to see, absolutely worth the time.
Even if you decide not to do the hike, you should read through the trail guide. This was an amazing eruption and the trail guide is fascinating:
Here are a couple of photos I took of part of the fissure:
After Mauna Ulu, continue down Chain of Craters for about another 10 miles, seems like a long way but it’s worth it. All that lava you’re going to pass by came from the 1969–1974 Mauna Ulu eruption mentioned above. A huge amount of lava poured out over those five years. At the bottom of the Pali (cliff) there is a large turnout. I suggest stopping there and taking a look back up the pali. The view is spectacular, seeing the huge lava flows that came down from Mauna Ulu. Further down you’ll see a sign for a hike to some ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs:
At the end of Chain of Craters, the road makes a loop and you can park on the side of the road on the side heading back after making the loop turnaround. Across from the little buildings at the loop, walk out by the cliff and you’ll see a viewing area for a sea arch that’s pretty cool. After that, head back up the hill and you’re done, unless you want to check out some of the other side roads and craters (most I think are not worth the time but as they say, your mileage may vary).