Explore the world of active volcanism at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Visitors can see land being added to the largest Hawaiian island, as eruptions continue to spit lava into the air. Wandering over rugged lava flows from previous flareups gives a renewed sense of awe at the magnitude of power within our earth’s crust. Witnessing the strength of a tiny plant pushing its way through this new “soil” also demonstrates nature’s tenacity in renewing life.
History of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park covers over 300,000 acres of wilderness, tropical forests, deserts and two major volcanoes on the big island of Hawaii. Kilauea and Mauna Loa were considered sacred homes of the Hawaiian goddess Pele, and as such, the volcanoes became places for human sacrifice to their goddess. As recently as 700 years ago a temple was built for that purpose. It was destroyed by a lava flow in 1997.
More recently battles that took place in 1790 were interrupted by an unusually violent eruption, and footprints from the soldiers and some women and children were left as permanent remnants in the lava. They can still be seen today.
The park region became popular as a tourist attraction by 1840, when an enterprising individual constructed a building to sell food to visitors. Eventually, a permanent structure was created and became known as the Volcano House, sitting on the rim of Kilauea and its Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. It later became a hotel with several accessory buildings.
Lorrin Thurston was an investor in the Volcano House and became the driving force behind the establishment of a national park here. To drum up support, he printed editorials in favor of the measure in his newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser. In 1907, the Hawaiian territorial government coerced 50 congressmen and their wives to come to the park and enjoy a dinner cooked over lava steam vents.
After 9 years of haggling over boundaries, costs and landowners’ opposition, Hawaii National Park became official in 1916, the seventh national park. In 1961, it was renamed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, after splitting from Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui.
Places to Go
There are a number of highlights to visit within the park. Here are just a few:
Kilauea Visitor Center
Located at the entrance to the park, the visitor center has trail information, rangers, a park movie with an overview of the natural and geologic history of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a bookstore and current road conditions and closures.
Begun as a thatched roof building where food was sold to visitors in the 1840s, the Volcano House is now a string of buildings on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater that constitute a hotel. The original structure dates from 1877 and houses the Volcano Art Center today.
Crater Rim Drive
Beginning at the visitor center, this drive offers an overview of steam vents, craters, shield volcanoes and previous eruption locations around the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater.
Chain of Craters Road
Spurring off Crater Rim Drive, the Chain of Craters Road takes travelers to several craters that have experienced recent venting and eruptions. Only 19 miles long, the road traverses lava fields, ending at the coast, where the ocean has cut Holei Sea Arch from the lava. Along the way, visitors will note that Chain of Craters Road itself has been covered in lava in recent years.
Puapo‘o Lava Tube Tour
Take a ranger-led tour through tropical forests to a lava tube. Because of the fragile nature of the tube, no children under the age of 7 are allowed. Tours are held once a week, and reservations are required a week in advance.
Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
Located along Chain of Craters Road, Pu’u Loa has more than 23,000 petroglyphs created over the past 500 years by local Hawaiians who believe the area to be sacred. Take a ranger-led tour into the lava fields to discover the stories of these drawings.
After Dark in the Park
The Kilauea Visitor Center hosts various speakers, bands and activities for park visitors every Tuesday night. Hear from scientists about recent eruptions, listen to local musicians, or learn about island customs and more.
ʻIke Hana Noʻeau
Meaning “Experience the Skillful Work,” these daily programs showcase experienced craftsmen, talented performers, and experts in dozens of fields. All share the cultural arts of Hawaii with visitors to the park. Programs are held at the Kilauea Visitor Center.
Things to Do
Outdoor activities abound in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Take a look at several here:
There are several day hikes that can be enjoyed within the park:
- Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) – Hot steam vents and colorful mineral deposits are a few of the highlights on this hike.
- Kīpukapuaulu – Hike through old-growth forests to see some of Hawaii’s rarest plants and insects on this loop trail.
- Devastation Trail – Walk a paved path through cinder landscape from a recent eruption to see how flora and fauna have recovered.
- Crater Rim Trail – A fascinating hike around the summit caldera of Kilauea exposes visitors to gasses and steam while passing through lush tropical forests and overlooking desert landscapes.
- Keanakāko’i Crater – This hike will expose visitors to the Keanakako’I Crater, which cannot be accessed by vehicle. The crater used to be a quarry for Hawaii carvers who used the basalt found there to make adze heads. The basalt was covered by lava flows in 1877 and again in 1974.
- Mauna Ulu – Hike up a forested cinder cone to view an eruption fissure, then enjoy a panoramic view of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes.
Backcountry hiking can offer amazing experiences, but because some of the trails are overgrown and do not have recognizable cairns, it is advised that hikers know what they are doing. Here are a few hikes that will take visitors to some stunning overnight destinations:
- ‘Apua Point – Leaving from the Puna Coast trailhead, this hike travels over mostly smooth lava for 6.6 miles down to the coast. Tent sites are under three coconut trees, and the water is shallow, but swimming here is not suggested, as there are very strong riptides.
- Halape – This is a hot and grueling hike, but the destination will definitely pay off. Located eight miles from the Hilina Pali Overlook, hikers will arrive at a small black sand beach, pitching their tents beneath several coconut trees for some well-deserved shade.
- Mauna Loa – If hiking a volcano and staying overnight in a cabin on its shoulders is enticing, then this hike will not disappoint. Hikers that take on Mauna Loa need to be aware of the possibility for altitude sickness, as the mountain is over 13,000 feet tall, and be prepared for weather extremes.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has two campgrounds within its boundaries. Both are accessible by car, but neither has water or electrical hookups.
- Nāmakanipaio Campground – This campground has restrooms and water with drive-in sites and a few rustic cabins for rent.
- Kulanaokuaiki Campground – With 9 designated sites, this campground has a pit toilet but no water.
When to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The park is open year-round, and even with recent volcanic activity, it has managed to continue welcoming visitors. It is, however, a good idea to check alerts, as change can occur rapidly within the park’s boundaries.
Much of the park experiences drastic weather changes, so come prepared for the hot sun, cool nights and intermittent showers with wind any time of year.
Where You Can Stay
If you prefer to live on the edge, you can relax in a rented cabana with hammocks, an icebox and full bathroom facilities on www.HipCamp.com. You’re in Hawaii, so you should make a point of living it up and staying somewhere nice. Find a good place to tent camp or an Airbnb near the park.
Getting to and Around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the big island of Hawaii, approximately 30 miles from Hilo. The park is accessible via Highway 11 from both Hilo to the northeast and Kailua-Kona 96 miles to the northwest. Transportation is needed when visiting Hawaii Volcanoes, as the park has no central transportation system. It might be best to rent a vehicle at Hilo International Airport when you land.
The park headquarters lies just off Highway 11, where the first of two roads within the park starts. Crater Rim Drive takes visitors around the rim of the Kilauea Crater, and Chain of Craters Road extends from Crater Rim to the rest of the park and all the way to Holei Sea Arch and the Pacific Ocean.
What Lies Beneath
Mark Twain’s instruction to “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” rings hollow in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Land is created almost every day here, bubbling forth from the earth’s mantle to become black lava as it hits the sea. The park is proof that earth is constantly changing, releasing pressure, building new landscapes and providing us insight into what lies just beneath the surface. What a remarkable picture it paints, full of power, wonder, and natural beauty.
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