Visiting Volcano National Park was the highlight of our Big Island vacation. In addition to hiking out to watch the lava flow into the ocean, we saw steaming craters, tropical birds, and wild orchids. We hiked across relatively recent lava flows, through a lava tube, and through a rain forest.
Learn how to make the most of your visit to Volcano National Park including tips on what to expect regarding the weather, what to wear, and where to eat.
This National Park is like no other; it has an active volcano, Kilauea. How cool is that? There are actually five volcanoes on the Big Island, only one of which is active. Kilauea has been spewing lava since 1983.
To orient yourself in the park, start at the visitor’s center. They have the standard displays and a very good 20 minute movie that explains the process of how the Hawaiian Islands were formed and how they continue to grow. (Note: Don’t skip this just because you watch a lot of Nova and the Discovery Channel. You are likely to learn something.)
While at the visitors center, read the “Volcano Update” and talk to the rangers. They can give you specific details on where the lava can be seen, including how many miles away the lava is from the parking lot. You can also join a ranger-led walk in the park.
The entrance fee is $10, which gives you in and out privileges for seven days. (Note: Don’t lose your receipt, as they will make you buy a new pass. Trust me on this.) The fee also covers the cost of camping.
Visit the Volcano National Park website for current lava conditions. The following is a description of our hike to see the lava in 2006.
During our visit to the Big Island the week of October 21, 2006, the Kilauea Volcano’s lava was traveling underground through lava tubes towards the south. The lava was peaking out occasionally as it traveled down the mountain, but the big show is where the lava exits the tube and drops into the ocean.
It is easy to see where the lava is hitting the ocean during the day; its intense heat causes huge plums of steam to float into the air. This steam plum can be seen for miles on a clear day, but you cannot see any of the lava’s red glow until dusk. At night you can see the lava itself when it peaks out onto the surface. You can also see the steam plum reflect the red glow of the lava from many miles away.
There are two ways to see the lava right now: fly over it or hike to it. If you are not going to fly, you can drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road and take the short walk to the viewing area. Even though it is short, it is not wheelchair accessible, as the last five minutes are over a field of lava. If you want to get closer, you can walk across the lava field to get as close as the park rangers will let you get. They set up a rope barrier to deter crazy tourists from getting too close.
We wanted to get closer so we hiked the three miles across the lava field to get as close as we could. Walking across the lava during the day wasn’t too bad. Watching the reflective glow of the lava was thrilling. Walking back across the lava at night with just one flashlight was not fun. (We started with extra flashlights, but not extra batteries.) When you go, the lava could be flowing in a completely different place. You can call the park to get an update before you go at 808-985-6000. Also check out the Volcano watch website.
The Thurston Lava Tube is along the Chain of Craters Road near the visitor’s center. It is a very tourist friendly natural attraction. Lights line the tube and safe stairs lead visitors in one end and out the other. There are other, more natural and very dark lava tubes all over the Big Island. Despite this sanitized version, it is fun to walk through the lava tube and imagine hot lava pulsing through it.
The lava tube is beneath a lovely rain forest. The trail leads visitors through the monstrously large ferns and tropical trees. The kids who were with us really enjoyed hiking through the unusual landscape.
As you drive around the Chain of Craters Road from right to left out of the visitors center, you will quickly come to the edge of the longest crater. It was very steamy while we were there. Apparently the amount of steam depends on how much it rained recently.
To the south of the visitors center you can see the steam vents close up and read the interpretive signs that explain how they occur. This trail isn’t easy to find, so ask a ranger how to get to it.
As of October 2006, this is a six hour adventure. That is close to two hours there and two hours back plus time to sit and watch the lava. They tell you to take two quarts of water per person, two flashlights per person, and wear hiking shoes. This is all good advice. We did it with tennis shoes. We also packed a picnic dinner and snacks. We wore long pants which made it hot, but our legs were protected if we fell on the lava rock. It was in the low 70s even after sunset. We took all of our normal camera gear including a tripod. Because the best pictures were taken at sundown when light is low, a tripod is essential.
We camped at the campground in Volcano National Park after visiting the lava.
The Visitor’s Center, Crater Rim Road, Mauna Loa Road, and Thurston Lava Tube are all at about 4,000 feet, so the weather is likely to be much cooler than at sea level. Bring a jacket and rain gear.
The Chain of Craters Road travels down the mountain for 30 miles to the ocean. There the low elevation and heat from the miles of black lava reflecting the sun is usually very warm. When walking to the lava, bring layers to add after sunset.