Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden--a ceaseless bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable splendor. The mere distant jets, sparkling up through an intervening gossamer veil of vapor, seemed miles away; and the further the curving ranks of fiery fountains receded, the more fairy-like and beautiful they appeared. – Mark Twain, upon hiking into Kīlauea Caldera, 1866
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Many people make the mistake of not planning enough time in the Park when they visit the Big Island. This is an understandable mistake because Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is far from both Hilo and especially Kona, making day trips to and from the park difficult from the places most people stay. While understandable, this is a grave error in judgment. This Park is among the nation’s best (I think it is the best – and there are some damn good others) with hundreds of miles of trails and a unique and constantly changing landscape. It is both a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Park is over 500 square miles large – almost half the size of Rhode Island – and over half of that is further protected as the Hawai’i Volcanoes Wilderness Area. I recommend staying for at least one night in Volcano Village, just outside the park’s entrance to get at least a little taste of this magnificent Park. Ideally, a traveler more interested in adventure hiking should allow for at least a week here. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere else other than Volcano Village that is convenient to stay to visit the park, especially if you plan on being there at night which is very highly recommended for the viewing of lava. The best other bet would be Hilo or somewhere in Puna, which would both be about an hour or more from the entrance. Kailua-Kona is over 100 miles away.
Visiting Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
The Park is open twenty-four hours a day, all year long. Admission costs $10 per car, but this is for seven consecutive days. The Kīlauea Visitor Center is open from 7:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Jaggar Museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Kahuku Unit section of the park is located between mile markers 70 and 71 on Hwy 19 south of the park in the Kaʻū District. This section is open on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Kahuku is closed on the 1st Saturday of each month. There is no charge to enter. Note that Kahuku is west of Na’alehu and quite far from the Park entrance, and is easier to visit when you’re in the southern part of the Island.
When you visit the Park, ensure that you bring warm clothing with you. It rains a lot – 120” on average, so bring your raingear. You should also plan on a way to rainproof any other sensitive gear, especially cameras. I like to carry nautical-grade dry bags. Sturdy boots lined with Gore-Tex are highly recommended because hiking on uneven lava can be torturous on the feet and knees, and almost any jungle slogging involves getting your feet wet and muddy. Another unique recommendation is carrying a painter’s mask in your pack in case dangerous sulfur dioxide fumes head your way unexpectedly. It weighs almost nothing and can really prevent a bad day. Sulfur Dioxide is a byproduct of the current eruptions and creates something called vog (like smog) and is a severe irritant to the upper respiratory system (See Hazards for more information). Another quick fix is to wet a bandana with water and breathe through it until you can find an area without gas. Pregnant women, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory problems are most prone, but a good dose of sulfur dioxide is enough to ruin anyone’s day.
The park is a mix of conditions and ecosystems. Hikes near the shoreline at the end of Chain of the Craters road will be very hot and drier (at 0 feet above sea level), but hikes near the Kīlauea Caldera will be likely cool and wet (at 4,000 feet above sea level). Plan on changing conditions and bring enough clothing for a long day in those changing conditions.
Backcountry Office: You need to check in with this office and register for a permit for all overnight hikes inside the Park. It is not located at the Visitor Center, but is a short drive down Crater Rim Drive in the Visitor Emergency Operations Center. As you depart the Visitor Center parking lot, look for “Backcountry Office” signs and turn left onto Crater Rim Drive. Turn right on Crater Rim Drive at the Park entrance station. Take your first right and follow the signs to the Backcountry Office parking area on your left. Walk the paved path to the office, inside a building with two columns with rockwork bases. Permits are free, and the office is open from 8:00am – 4:00pm.
Camping: There are two drive-up campgrounds in the park. Namakanipaio is located 31.5 miles south of Hilo of Hwy. 11. Kulanaokuaiki Campground is located about 5 miles down the Hilina Pali Road.
- National Park Map (National Park)
- Trip Planner (pdf)(National Park)
- Backcountry Planner (pdf)(National Park)
- Current Closures (National Park)
- Park Eruption Update (National Park)
- News Releases (National Park)
- Gas Advisory (USGS)
- Earthquake Update(USGS)
- Kīlauea Update (USGS)
- Halema'uma'u Webcam (USGS)
- Hawai'i Volcano Observatory (USGS)
- USGS Webcams (USGS)
- Friends of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park (non-profit)
Hiking Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
The map below shows the locations of the hikes available on the drop down menu above.
View Big Island Hikes in a larger map
Driving Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Crater Rim Drive: Crater Rim Drive used to travel around Kīlauea Caldera, but the western quadrant of the road has been closed for years due to dangerous gases emanating from Halema’uma’u Crater inside Kīlauea. Now, it travels in two sections. One travels from the entrance to Jaggar Museum, and the other travels from the entrance to the intersection of the Chain of Craters Road (see next section).
Chain of Craters Road: This is the other main road in the Park. It departs shortly after you enter the Park gates and travels for 19 miles descending to sea cliffs along the southern shore of the island. Many of the hikes on this site are along this road, and this road might be the way you access night lava viewing if the flow is going to the sea when you’re visiting. This paved road is suitable for any passenger car and has many pull-out parking areas denoting different craters that you can stop and gawk at with a short walk. Spending half a day stopping at each pull-out is surely worth some of your time. The road used to basically follow the path of the Napaū Trail until an eruption from Mauna Ulu wiped it out completely about 30 years ago. You can also walk along the old road if you walk the Earthquake Trail (so named for when an earthquake made parts of this road unsafe and creating the need for the new road you drive today).
Viewing Lava in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
While Kīlauea has been erupting since 1983, flowing lava that you can walk up to is a rare and special treat usually only enjoyed by locals and very lucky visitors. There’s almost no way you can plan a trip around seeing lava. Always check in at the Visitor Center to see about lava viewing opportunities when you first enter the Park. While not quite as spectacular as seeing flowing lava, it’s been possible for the past few years to see lava at night roiling in Halema’uma’u Crater within Kīlauea. This is one of the few places in the world with what’s called a lava lake, a typically short lived event where lava fills a crater. Night viewing on clear nights is common at Jaggar Museum, just down the road from the Visitor’s Center. You should plan on doing this on several nights, hoping for the clouds to open for a clear view. If lava is flowing within the Park boundary, this hike will be the way you can access it. Alternatively, if lava is flowing outside of the federal Park boundary and is flowing on Hawai'i state land, you can view it at the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area. This area is about 40 miles away from the Park entrance. To get there, take Hwy. 11 to Kea'au and find Hwy. 130. Drive Hwy. 130 until it ends at an array of Danger and Restricted Access Sites. Follow the directions on the signs and proceed. As of May 2012, a carefully-driven passenger car could reach the lava viewing site, but the road past the Restricted Access signs is in horrendous shape. Call 808-961-8093 or 808-430-1966, the County Lava Hotlines, for current information. Kalapana Lava Viewing Area is open from 3 pm to 9 pm daily, but no one is admitted after 8 pm. Compared to the National Park access, your ability to hike to flowing lava will be much restricted by the County.
Watch a Video of Flowing Lava from May 2012: