There area many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track. Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.
This day trip may be made a part of a longer scenic drive, including the wonders of Puna and lava viewing at Waikupanaha; after reading this article, please go here.
A Scenic Drive Through Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a magical, spiritual, wondrous, strange and beautiful place comprised of great contrasts and contradictions: dry as dust desert to teeming tropical jungle; frigid sub-arctic wasteland to steaming black sand beaches to rivers of flowing lava.
The star attractions in the Park are a pair of active volcanoes; Mauna Loa is the largest mountain on earth and Kilauea is most active volcano on earth. However, there are numerous other wonders from lava tubes to crawl down, black sand beaches with sea turtles to watch, mysterious petroglyph fields to explore, tropical jungles to hike through, endangered bird species to find, happy-face spiders to amuse and an otherworldly volcanic landscape so fresh it’s still steaming.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During daylight hours, an access fee is charged. The Visitor Center has a 24-hour information line at 808.985.6000 and there is a 24-hour eruption hotline at 808.987.8862. Within the Park tune to A.M. radio 530 for continuous information broadcast. There are tourist items available for sale, and one restaurant and in the park; however, generally, shopping, restaurants and gasoline are mainly only available in the nearby village of Volcano.
There are four main roads which access most of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: the Mauna Loa Scenic road, which lies above the visitor’s center and winds up the slopes of Mauna Loa; Crater Rim Drive which circumnavigates the summit crater of Kilauea Volcano; Chain of Craters Road which runs down the southeast rift zone along a series of volcanoes and pit craters to the ocean and Hilina Pali Road, which cuts across Kilauea Volcano to the cliffs along the sea.
Mauna Loa Scenic Road
This gateway to the southern flank of the world’s largest mountain, Mauna Loa, lies about 2 ½ miles west of the main entrance to the park. The road traverses lava desert, ohi’a scrub savanna, fern forest and ends at the start of the hiking trail to the icy heights of Mauna Loa’s summit.
A small fork road heading east just after the start of Mauna Loa Road leads to a series of tree molds that formed when lava poured through the deep tropical forest. The trees were too wet to burn and the lava simply cooled around the trunks. Later, as the trees rotted, these unusual, deep pit molds were left behind. Definitely worth a visit, there are even pit toilets available at the Tree Molds.
About 1 ½ miles further along Mauna Loa Road is Bird Park, or Kipuka Puaulu. A forested island in a giant lava flow, this micro-ecosystem preserves forest plants and animals and is a haven to many bird members of Hawai’i’s endangered species. Cool, quiet, restful and inviting, there is a one-mile nature trail around this tropical forest oasis.
Mauna Loa Road is closed at various elevations at various times due to fire hazard. If one has the time and an adventurous heart, it is well worth the trip to drive to the end of the road and perhaps even hike a ways up it. The start of the Mauna Loa summit trail is here, but for even hardy hikers, that goal is at least two days hard hiking distant. The world’s largest active volcano is a LOT bigger than it looks! More about the Mauna Loa Scenic Road can be found here.
Crater Rim Drive
A fine introduction to the wonders of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Crater Rim Drive circles the summit crater of Kilauea Volcano, including Halema’uma’u Crater, the home of Madame Pele. The drive runs 11 fabulous and amazing miles through arid, barren volcanic desert, ohi’a forest and grassland and lush fern jungle. The most interesting sites along the drive are the Visitor’s Center, Jagger Museum, Halema’uma’u Crater, Kilauea Iki Crater, Devastation Trail and Thurston Lava Tube. Although the circuit can be made in under 40 minutes, one should allow at least three hours even to begin to explore this fantastic place; if you have never been here before, you certainly have never seen anything like it. Many people who plan to rush through the Park find themselves utterly engrossed, wind up spending much more time than they planned here and extemporaneously changing their plans, cutting time from some other attraction. Best plan to spend sufficient time here in the first place.
Experience has shown that the impact of the landscape is much greater if the drive is done anti-clockwise
Below are some suggested highlights along Crater Rim Drive. The road currently is closed between Jagger Museum and the intersection with Chain of Craters Road due to the eruption in Halema’uma’u Crater. Also, bear in mind that there are no services available along Crater Rim Drive, except for restrooms, drinking water and the book shop at Jagger Museum.
Kilauea Visitor Center: Newly remodeled and updated, the Kilauea Visitor’s Center is an outstanding resource of information on Hawaii’s volcanoes and the National Park; the not-to-be-missed first stop in the park you must make. The Center is run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff that has the most up-to-date information on viewing the eruption, hiking and camping, bird watching, stargazing and just about any other topic of interest to Park visitors. Available for sale in the Center are maps, guidebooks, books and videos about the volcanoes, Hawai’iana, history, plants and every topic you can imagine pertinent to the Park, even souvenirs. There are free brochures and pamphlets on various trails, attractions, hiking safety and lava viewing hazards and precautions.
The Visitor Center is open daily from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.; there are public restrooms, water and pay phones available. Starting at 9 a.m. and showing every hour on the hour is a 20 minute informative movie about the Park; the film changes from time to time, but always contains spectacular footage of eruptions, information on volcanology and the natural and human history of the Park. For information, please call their Info Hot line at 808.985.6000.
Jagger Museum and Hawai’i Volcano Observatory: Famed for its fabulous views of Mauna Loa and Kilauea as much as for its interesting exhibits, The Jagger Museum (named for geologist Thomas A. Jagger) is open daily from 8:30a.m. to 5:00p.m. Exhibits include murals by Herb Kawainui Kane, seismograph charts of eruptions and earthquakes, geological displays and displays about the natural and human history of the Park.
When entering the parking lot of the Museum/Observatory, be especially careful of the Federally-protected Hawaii Goose, the Nene, who seem to congregate here. The Nene is the State Bird of Hawai’i, and this parking lot and its surrounding area constitute one of the best places for viewing them.
Thurston Lava Tube: Nahuku, the Thurston Lava Tube, gives the visitor an opportunity for a close-at-hand inspection of the inner plumbing of a volcano. It also makes for an interesting and unique way to escape the noonday heat or afternoon shower, briefly. Lava tubes form when the outer crust of a flowing river of lava begins to cool and crust over, but the lava continues to flow beneath it; as the margins of the flow begin to cool and form walls growing towards the middle, the nascent tube is formed. When the flow has completely drained away, the lava tube is left behind.
Thurston lava tube is a remarkably large, well-preserved and accessible example of a lava tube-type cave. An easy, 0.3 mile trail (about a 15 minute hike) winds through lush fern forest alive with singing birds and buzzing insects, down into a collapse crater entering the lava tube and slipping about 300 feet through the well-lighted, floored cave, popping up through a skylight in the tube and returning to the parking lot. A very easy walk and certainly a “must see” for any visitor to the park.
When Lorrin Thurston, founder of the Honolulu Advertiser, found the cave in 1913, the roof reportedly was covered with stalactites, now there are none—it is said that rapacious tourists removed every one in the intervening years.
More about Crater Rim Drive can be found here.
Chain of Craters Road
Following along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, Chain of Craters Road passes through an amazing array of rift volcanoes, pit craters, lava trenches and flow fields. This road traverses and opens-up some of the most wild and beautiful landscapes seen anywhere, terminating near the active lava flows from Kilauea Volcano. Perhaps nowhere else on earth are the elements high mountains, wild seascapes and active volcanoes and their lava flows more dramatically displayed. Altogether, Chain of Craters Road is a singular and essential addition to any visit to the Island of Hawai’i. Crazily switching-back repeatedly down the Holei Pali, Chain of Craters Road finally reaches the untamed and scenically wild coastline, where giant waves spray and spume over sea cliffs dozens of feet high. Towering steam plumes in the distance at the end of the road mark where unimaginably hot liquid rock pours into the wild, wild sea. A place of mystery, a place of power, a place of wonder
Once connecting Volcano Village through the Park to Puna and State Routes 130 and 137 at Kalapana, Chain of Craters Road has repeatedly been badly damaged by earthquake, buried in lava, re-routed and re-built and broken up and buried again. The current eruption, which began in 1983, has buried a significant portion of the currently-closed nine miles of road between its temporary end inside the Park and the eastern closure at the town of Kalapana, outside the eastern edge of the Park. The road is now closed at the 19-mile marker, right at Holei Sea Arch.
Collapse features, such as the numerous “pit craters” found along the Chain of Craters Road, form when lava drains out of subterranean chambers, causing the surface to collapse. Notice how all the debris seems to point downward into the bottom of the crater; there is no material around the rim of the crater that is suggestive of eruptive or explosive events. On the walls of the crater, one can see numerous, inter-layered, pre-collapse lava flows and airfall beds that were truncated by the collapse and exposed.
If a car ride back up the pali can be arranged, riding bicycles round Crater Rim Drive and down Chain of Craters road can be a momentous and fun excursion. Starting slightly above 4200 feet in elevation and ending at virtually sea level, this 22 mile drop from misty mountain cloud forest, running through tropical rain forest and into tropical desert is invigorating physically, stunning visually and makes a wonderfully memorable addition to any visit to the Island of Hawai’i. However, if you decide to pedal the 4200 feet elevation and 22 miles back up Chain of Craters Road to Kilauea Summit in the heat of day, this will also ensure a quite memorable, though far less pleasant, addition to your visit.
There are no services, water, food or gasoline available along the length of Chain of Craters Road. Do not underestimate the draw of this area on your imagination and your spirit; you WILL spend more time here than you think. Plan ahead, get food, water and gas before venturing down the road. Remember, after dark on the South side of Hawai’i Island, it is virtually impossible to find gasoline or food for sale along the highway between Volcano Village west to Kona or north to Kea’au.
For more about Chain of Craters Road, please go here.
Hilina Pali Road
At 2.2 miles down Chain of Craters Road is the turn off to the Hilina Pali Road. This road is 9 miles of some of the most spectacular, lonely and striking scenery in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Spectacular coastal views, strangely-colored rock and twisted trees under weird skies make this an fantastic side trip for exploration and photography. Be especially careful when driving this road, it is mostly only one lane and there are more people enjoying this trip through the backcountry than you might think.
About halfway to Hilina Pali Overlook is the Kulanaokuaiki Campground. Set amongst rifts, collapse features and flows, this desert campground is secluded and spectacular. Driving further across the broad lava flows, past panoramic vistas of Mauna Loa, along the spectacular drop-off of the Hilina Pali (literally “cliff of faith”), one comes to the Hilina Pali Overlook, a great place for a picnic or short hike.
Connecting with several longer trails across the Ka’u Desert, Kilauea Crater, or down the Pali to such abandoned coastal villages as Halape and Keauhou, the Hilina Pali Overlook is the central cross-roads of back-packing trails which crisscross the park.
Hilina Pali Road, due to its remoteness and lack of bus traffic, is a great place for a mountain bike ride, birding, or just getting away from crowds and tours. There are magnificent views, heart-stopping sunsets and pit toilets at the Campground and Overlook,. There is no water or other services available. Hilina Pali is a nesting place for the endangered Nene, the Hawai’i State bird, which is related to the Canada Goose. Hilina Pali Road may be closed during Nene nesting season.
Less than 1/10 of a mile from Hilina Pali road is the unmarked Devil’s Throat collapse crater…an excitingly vertically-sided pit that is worth the visit just for the “okole squeezing” peering down the throat will give you. More about Hilina Pali Road can be found here.
End of Chain of Craters Road
The end of Chain of Craters Road is currently at the 19 mile marker near the Holei Sea Arch. This is where the road was cut off by flowing lava which also destroyed the 2 million dollar Visitor Center. When the lava is flowing near the road, one can walk right up to it. There are displays about the volcano and natural history of the area, as well as a wealth of information on hiking to, and viewing, the lava, available here.
Hiking all the way out to the active flows is one of the most spiritually rewarding, awe-inspiring, curiosity quenching and amazing things one can do anywhere in the world—but it is neither for the physically unfit nor the meek of spirit. It is a long, hot hike (currently seven miles) over broken ground and glass-sharp rocks; the heat from the volcano is savage; the weather, if clear, is sweltering…frequent squalls blow in off the ocean and the rain and wind can get pretty wild out on the lava plain where there is absolutely no cover or shelter to protect you. No water or shade is available anywhere along the hike. Plan assiduously before you go, make sure you have TWO working flashlights per person for the long hike back in the dark. For specific information about hiking to the lava flows from the end of Chain of Craters Road, please go here. More about activities and sights at the end of Chain of Craters Road can be found here.
Lava Viewing Near Kalapana
At this time, there is nowhere else can you see lava flowing from a volcano into the sea; no Big Island visit is complete without seeing this awe-inspiring show. Currently lava is only flowing into the sea outside the Park. From the belt Highway, turn south at Kea’au on Highway 130, continuing through Pahoa to the 20 mile marker; take the exit clearly marked “Lava Viewing”, a right branch about, for two miles to the parking area. Port-a-potties are available here. The road is open from 2 p.m. until 10; no cars allowed in after 8. Lava viewing information is available from Hawaii County at 808.961.8093; check conditions before you go. The easy trail, a 20 minute stroll to the viewing area, is well-marked.
The quality of viewing varies as lava flows nearer or farther from the trail. Viewing is best at dusk so bring flashlights for the hike out. Take close-toed walking shoes and a hat, long pants and long-sleeved shirt, at least 2 liters of water, sun block and a rain jacket and camera. It’s a good idea to bring a tripod for your camera, or your shots will be blurred. Remember food and gas are not available anywhere nearby after dark, so fill up BEFORE you park, bring snacks and drinks. There are port-a-potties available at the parking lot. More about lava viewing at Kalapana can be found here.
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Copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.