Visiting a live volcano has been on my bucket list for years, and 2015 was the year I could strike it off, when we visited the Big Island of Hawaii. Although it’s a huge park, there is a lot you can see in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in one day.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a United States National Park located on the island of Hawaii (Big Island). It includes two active volcanoes: Kilauea, which is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa and the park is visited by millions of tourists each year.
The park is more than 300,000 acres in size with over half designated as Hawaii Volcanoes Wilderness area where you can hike and camp.
The park also includes a diverse ranges of environments from lush tropical rain forest through arid desert to tundra towards the summit of the 13,677 feet (4,169 m) high Mauna Loa. Plus, of course, there is active lava activity in the main caldera of Kilauea and another vent called Puʻu O’o. Kilauea has been erupting continously since 1983.
We had just a day to spend in the Park, so in order to make the most of it, our first stop was to the visitor centre where we scoped out a plan with the help of the staff there.
The 10-step plan to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in one day
The very helpful staff in the Visitor Centre helped us with maps and explanations, and told us that a cruise ship was in Port in Hilo so the passengers on day tours would soon be arriving in the Park. They recommended that we started with the Thurston Lava Tube to get there ahead of the crowd. We used that as our starting point.
1. Thurston Lava Tube
We parked the car in the Kileuea Iki Trailhead carpark, and walked the path between it and the Thurston Lave Tube. This path hugs the edge of the Kilauea Iki crater and affords views across the crater that are astounding. I was dumbstruck by the outlook.
There is a hike you can do (the Kilauea Iki Trail) which takes you right from that carpark down 122 metres (400 feet) through the rainforest to the floor of the crater itself where you hike across that hardened (but still steaming) lava lake base. The hike is about 6.5 kilometres (4 mile) in a loop and takes about 2-3 hours.
Which was unfortunately 2-3 hours we didn’t have to spare. So, while every bit of me was itching to do it, we had to pass on that hike and now it has gone straight to the top of my list for ‘next time’.
This lava tube was formed about 500 years ago when the exterior of a stream of moving lava cooled and hardened more quickly that the hot liquid lava inside, creating a hollow tube as the hot lava continued to flow through and out the other end.
It’s an easy walk through the lighted, cave-like lava tube. When it was discovered in 1913 by a local newspaper publisher, the roof of the tube was covered with lava stalactites, but sadly those all disappeared as people souvenired them.
2. Jaggar Museum and Halema’uma’u Overlook
After the lava tube, we got back in the car and drove to the Jaggar Museum. Outside the museum there is an observation point from where you can see the on-going (since 2008) gas eruption of Halema’uma’u crater. Visibility depends on vog and weather conditions, but during the day you can often see a plume of volcanic gas from the magma in the lava lake of the crater. (Read on, as we’ll be back here again later this evening).
The Thomas A. Jaggar Museum is a museum of volcanology. There’s fascinating displays of equipment used by scientists in the past, interpretive information, current condition reports and working seismographs. We were particularly taken with the display of clothing from scientists who have strayed a bit too close to the lava! There is also a gift shop and toilets at the Museum, plus if the weather is dodgy, you can shelter inside the museum, and still view the caldera and crater through the glass windows.
3. Steam Vents (Wahinekapu)
Next stop was back along the road toward the Visitor Centre at the Steam Vents (Wahinekapu).
Steam literally vents out of the ground right next to the carpark. This is caused when ground water seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks underground, and then frizzles into steam. (I’m pretty sure ‘frizzles’ is the scientifically correct word.) As there had been quite a bit of rain in the days prior to our visit, the steam was hissing away like a boiling kettle.
Between the carpark and the caldera edge is a wide open plain filled with grasses and other shallow-rooted plants. The ground underneath the surface is too hot for anything too deep-rooted to survive. A short walk through this grassy meadow with its steaming cracks, takes you to the caldera’s edge which is also steaming and gives you another great outlook over the caldera.
4. Sulphur Banks (Ha’akulamanu)
Straight across the road from the Steam Vents carpark is the start of the Sulphur Bank Trail, which is a 800 metre (0.4 mile) one-way walk back towards to the Visitor Centre. We actually drove to the Visitor Centre, parked the car there and then walked back in to the Sulphur Banks from that end. The walk is very accessible, with paving and a boardwalk (totally suitable for wheelchairs and/or prams and strollers…but note my reservations in the next paragraph).
At the Sulphur Banks volcanic gases rise out of the ground along with steam. These gases contain carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (that’s the one that smells like rotten eggs). Some of the gases solidify into coloured crystals on the ground, others form sulfuric acid which then breaks down the lava to clay. There are plenty of warnings along the walk that the air is a bit toxic and can be hazardous to health, and that visitors with heart or respiratory problems (such as asthma), pregnant women, infants, or young children should avoid this walk. We found our chests tightening as we did this walk, and two of our party felt quite nauseous and turned around. So take these warnings seriously.
5. Lunch at Volcano House
Volcano House is the only hotel inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and is actually Hawaii’s oldest hotel, existing to cater to generations of volcano tourists since 1846. It is perched right on the edge of Halema‘uma‘u Crater opposite the Visitor Centre.
We headed there straight after our walk along the Sulphur Banks and as we had sent our two green-skinned compatriots ahead, they had managed to snag a window-side table in The Rim Restaurant for lunch. The view over the crater was awesome in the true sense of the word.
6. Chain of Craters Road
After regrouping with a restorative lunch, we decided to tackle the drive down Chain of Craters Road.
Chain of Craters Road is a one way road (about 30 kilometres each way, 60 kilometres (38 miles) for the roundtrip) which descends 1,128 metres (3,700 feet) from the Kilauea Caldera to the coast and ends abruptly at a bit of road which was covered by lava in 1986.
Driving straight there and back takes at least 90 minutes and there’s no water, gas or food along the way. The drive takes you through spectacular monochromatic lava field landscapes.
We were about half way down the road when the vog started closing in around us. With visibility greatly reduced, and hairpin bends ahead, we made the collective decision to turn around. It proved to be an excellent decision, as we made a couple of incredible stops on the way back up.
7. Kealakomo Overlook
Walking across the black and white landscape of the Kealakomo Overlook point was like being in a surreal science fiction movie. The silence as the vog swirled around us was eerie, and only the occasional pop of colour reminded us that we hadn’t, in fact, lost our colour vision.
On a clear day, you should be able to see the Pacific Ocean and have a panoramic view of the location of the ancient village of Kealakomo which was abandoned following the 1868 earthquake and tsunami and then buried by the Mauna Ulu lava flows of 1969-1974. All we could see was a vast white-out which reminded me of being out on a snowfield as a blizzard comes in. But a warm snowfield 🙂 .
8. Mauna Ulu Trailhead
Mauna Ulu (‘growing mountain’) erupted over several phases from 1968 to 1974. At its peak, lava fountains of over 530 metres (1,770 feet) were recorded, which is second only to those of Kilauea Iki.
We wandered all over parts of the Mauna Ulu Eruption Trail, which is a walk which takes in the a lava fields, passes the gaping 1969 fissure, and highlights some of the features formed by the lava as it rapidly cooled.
We were particularly taken with the variety of vegetation in this area. So much colour and texture in what at first glance looks like a monochromatic landscape.
9. Devastation Trail
How could we resist a 30-minute walk along a ‘Devastation Trail’? This easy 800 metres (half a mile) one-way walk took us through the cinder outfall of the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki. By this stage Queenie was a bit over the whole walking-through-landscapes-of-a-single-colour thing, and she set off at a cracking pace! So we ended up doing the walk and back in record time.
At the end of the trail is a great overlook into the Kilauea Iki crater where we could see people doing the Kilauea Iki hike across the base of the crater. From our vantage point over 120 metres above them we could hear every word of their conversations, and the songs they were singing.
Watch out for those crater acoustics…don’t use the hike as an opportunity to discuss your deepest, darkest secrets!
10. Dinner at Kilauea Lodge
We were staying in an AirBnB house in the town of Volcano which is about 2 kilometres (1 mile) from the National Park entrance. After returning to the house to relax and enjoy the outdoor jacuzzi surrounded by rainforest, we headed out to Kilauea Lodge in the townsite for dinner.
Kilauea Lodge was originally built in 1938 for the YMCA for accomodation for Hawaii’s children during their Volcano explorations. In 1986, it was refurbished as a country house style hotel. The hotel restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day.
Another dinner alternative in the township is Thai Thai Restaurant which we tried out the night before. It was great value and really tasty Thai food.
10. Back to Halema’uma’u observation point at the Jaggar Museum
No day in the Volcanoes National Park is complete without returning after dark to see the lava glow from the Halema’uma’u crater.
As we arrived, we caught about 30 seconds of glow before the vog closed in, and visibility reduced to nothing. We were so disappointed, but we sat it out for a while…and were helpfully instructed by a youngster standing alongside us to keep quiet, as if we did we could hear the roar of the crater. After a few minutes, the vog cleared, and the view was spectacular.
What you see is not lava itself, but the glow of the lava reflecting off the back wall of the crater. From the Jaggar Museum, you’re about a mile from the crater itself, but that helpful young chap was right…you can hear the roar of the lava as it churns.
While Kilauea has been continously erupting since 1983, and is active in two locations, at the time of our visit the flowing lava was only accessible to view from the air via helicopter tours.
This is a constantly changing and unpredictable situation, so you’re best to check current conditions with the National Parks for lava flows inside the park (www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava2.htm) or with Hawaii County for lava flows outside the park (http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/lava-related/).
The detailsHawaii Volcanoes National Park
Address: 1 Crater Rim Drive, Hawaii National Park, 96718
Phone: (808) 756-9625
Address: 19-3948 Old Volcano Road Volcano Village, Hawaii, 96785
Phone: (808) 967-7366
Thai Thai Restaurant
Address: 19-4084 Old Volcano Road, Volcano Village, Hawaii, 96785
Phone: (808) 967-7969
Do live volcanoes hold any appeal to you?
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