There are 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.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a magical, spiritual, wondrous, strange and beautiful place. The Park comprises a land of great contrasts and contradictions ranging from dry as dust desert to teeming tropical jungle; from frigid sub-arctic wasteland to steaming black sand beaches and rivers of flowing lava. Easily the most captivating part of any trip to The Big Island, most people don’t think to schedule enough time to explore this amazing place and wind-up hurrying through, wishing they’d saved more time to see all the wonders of the goddess’s home. Established in 1916, the Park is almost half a million acres in area, about the size of O’ahu, but lots more interesting.
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. In places it’s so fresh it’s still flowing.
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park you can tour by car, take a commercial bus tour, explore by bike, hike the most amazing and finest trails on the island over cinder cones, calderas and deserts on 140 miles of spectacularly diverse trails, wander the smoking lava fields, stand in the rain in a kipuka fern forest or climb to icy heights of a volcanic summit. You can even sit back, relax and just enjoy the view or you can peruse the best collection of art for sale in the entire state at the world-renowned Volcano Art Center.
Seeing the eruptions, the flowing lava, the mystery and magic of the Earth remaking herself before your very eyes, is the first thing most visitor’s think about when they contemplate visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Although the Park is about much more than just the current eruptions, seeing the flowing lava is certainly the most dramatic and memorable part of any visit. Currently, Kilauea Volcano is undergoing two eruptions, one in Halema’uma’u Crater in the Kilauea Caldera and one along its East Rift.
The Halema’uma’u eruption involves the formation of a lava lake within the crater itself, although the lake is covered by a roof of hardened rock and is not visible to the visitor. The eruption has produced a lot of gas, steam and some ash that form a magnificent eruption cloud over the crater, best viewed from the Jagger museum. The eruption cloud has a magnificent orange glow at night, from the molten rock below, which is best seen after dark from Jagger Museum. Due to toxic gas emissions and the danger from the eruption itself, Crater Rim Drive has been closed around the south and east sections of Kilauea Caldera from Jagger Museum to the junction with Chain of Craters Road.
The east rift eruption is the one which produces the magnificent lava streams and fantastic explosions where the lava enters the ocean. Over the years, the lava flows wander back and forth across a lava plain of about nine miles breadth. Where lava is currently flowing makes a difference in how you approach it and where you see it; to get details on current eruptive and flow activity, you may call the National Park Eruption Hotline at 808.985.6000 or the County of Hawaii Eruption Information hotline at 808.961.8093. When lava flows enter the sea within the Park, it is possible to hike directly to them and observe them. Detailed information on seeing the lava flows from within the park can be found here. When lava is flowing on County of Hawaii land north and east of the Park, you must drive to Waikupanaha, outside Kalapana, and see it from the Hawaii County Lava Viewing Area; detailed information about seeing the lava at this location is here.
Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the Park Entrance is above 4000 feet altitude and frequently chilly and wet; bring warm clothes and a rain jacket. Remember this if you’re tired of roasting on the beach, a day in the cool mist of the mountain fern forests may be just the thing to put the zing back in your Hawai’i vacation!
If you’ve never been here before, you’ve certainly never seen anything like this…and you may never get another chance. Be sure to allow plenty of time to see this fabulous, beautiful, mysterious place. A good introduction to the geologic history of the Hawaii Islands in general can be found here, and the volcanoes of Hawaii Island, in particular, can be found here.
General Information: 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 808.985.7017 and there is a 24-hour eruption hotline at 808.985.6000. Within the Park tune to A.M. radio 530 for continuous information broadcast.
Crater Rim Drive circumnavigates Kilauea Caldera (as well as Halema’uma’u Crater, home of the Goddess Pele) in 11 intriguing miles. Although the drive can be made in less than 40 minutes, one is urged to schedule at least three hours to adequately cover the wonders and marvels along its path. Individual sites along Crater Rim Drive are described in detail elsewhere, but this incredible road, which serves as a great introduction to the Park, runs through and connects the Volcano House, the newly remodeled Kilauea Visitor’s Center, the Volcano Art Center, Sulfur Banks and Steaming Bluff, the informative and well-done Jagger Museum and Hawaii Volcano Observatory, numerous caldera overlook points including overlooks of Halema’uma’u Crater, Devastation Trail, Pu’u Pua’i, Kilauea Iki Crater which has perhaps the finest hiking trail in the Park trail and the justly famous Thurston Lava Tube.
The other scenic drive, Chain of Craters Road, takes off from Crater Rim Drive near the Devastation Trail and swoops down the volcano over 4000 feet to the ocean. In about twenty miles it dead-ends where lava flowed over the road in 2004. The road roughly parallels the active East Rift Zone (hence all those craters) and winds steeply down the Holei Pali through alternating basalt desert and thick ohi’a, fern and orchid forests, giving staggering vistas of the coastline below.
Along this road, in addition to numerous craters and pits, is the turn-off to Hilina Pali Road, a five mile drive to one of the most spectacular views in the State of Hawaii. Mauna Ulu, which last erupted in 1976, is along this road and the hike up this cone is one of the most amazing, and awe inspiring, anywhere. Kealakomo Overlook has incredible views out over the lava plain and coast below the Holei Pali and, after descending the Pali in long swooping curves, the road passes the parking area for Pu’u Loa Petroglyph field, the greatest concentration of petroglyphs in Polynesia. The road then heads along the sea cliffs, with waves booming and billowing over them, to Holei Sea Arch and its dead end in the recent lava flow. At the end of Chain of Craters Road are other activities that many visors miss, such as mountain biking, hiking, fabulous bird watching among other; more information can be found here.
Even when several miles away, from the end of Chain of Craters Road the lava flows look invitingly close and one is tempted to dash out and look at this wonder of nature…but the march is over rough terrain, dry and hot and likely much farther than it looks. Before venturing out to the lava flows, absolutely review the information on lava viewing here…it may save your life; it will certainly ensure your hike is much more enjoyable.
Two subsidiary roads, Mauna Loa Road and Hilina Pali Road, allow the visitor access so some of the less-traveled, fabulous backcountry of the park. West of the Main Entrance, Mauna Loa Road travels uphill through forest and grass land on the slopes of the world’s largest mountain, Mauna Loa; more information can be found here.
Hilina Pali Road takes off from Chain of Craters road and penetrates nine miles into the volcanic wilderness just below the summit of Kilauea Volcano to amazing coastal views on top of the Hilina Pali. More information on Hilina Pali Road can be found here.
Remember that the only gas available near the Park is in the village of Volcano immediately east of the Park’s main entrance. It is wise to fill-up before entering the Park. No matter what your plans may be, you are likely to spend more time and use more gas in the Park than you had originally intended. Yes, it’s that good.
Food is generally only available in the Park at Volcano House, but there are a number of restaurants and shops in Volcano Village to buy food and drinks…best to do this when you get gas. Occasionally, Volcano House operates a small sundries and snack wagon at the end of Chain of Craters Road, but it is best not to count on this being open
Fees: Access fees for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for hikers, bikers and motorcyclists are $5.00; vehicles are charged $10.00. This charge entitles the payer to 5 days unlimited access to the Park. One can also buy a Hawaii National Park Pass for $20.00 good for one year at all National Park sites on the Big Island and Maui. For $50.00 one can buy a Golden Eagle National Park Pass, good for one year at any National Park in the country. U.S. citizens over 62 years of age can purchase a Golden Age Passport for $10.00 that entitles them to free access to all National Parks for life. Disabled U.S. citizens may obtain a free, lifetime Golden Access Pass good at all National Parks in the country.
Parking: parking is clearly marked in various areas of interest; do not park along the side of the road, on trails or other unmarked places.
Public toilets: facilities exist at the Visitor’s Center, Volcano House, Volcano Art Center, Jagger Museum, Thurston Lava Tube and Namakani Paio Campground. Water is generally available to tourists at only these locations as well. Pit toilets (but no water) are available at Kipuka Puaulu on Mauna Loa Road, Kilauea Overlook, Mauna Ulu, Hilina Pali Overlook and Kulanaokuaiki Campground on the Hilina Pali Road and at the end of Chain of Craters Road. In the backcountry, water is available in catchment basins at some of the shelters and huts, but you should check with Backcountry Rangers on availability first. There are no lakes or streams in the National Park whatsoever.
Climate: The climate at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is, to say the least, variable in the extreme. From the icy alpine summit of Mauna Loa at almost 14,000 feet to the tropical coastline of La’epuki and Halape at sea level, to tropical fern forests at Nahuku, to the dusty, ash and lava covered scrub of the Ka’u Desert. One may enter the Park at 4,200 feet near the summit of Kilauea in a driving sleet storm or freezing fog only to find oneself in the baking tropic desert of Holei forty minutes later. Expect rain, warm and cold; expect sun, warm and cold, and bring the appropriate clothing for all
In addition to weather and temperature that is unpredictable, changeable and baffling, remember our intense tropical sunlight is made only more intense at altitude. Sunscreen, sunglasses and a sun hat are mandatory…in fact, it is so important we have written separate articles on the use of sunscreen in Hawaii and on sunglasses in Hawaii. Too many visitors ignore warning about our fierce tropical sun and wind-up with a vacation-ruining sunburn or headaches and eye-burn from the intense light; please review that information.
Disabled Access: Special attention has been paid to access by disabled persons to many of the less easily seen wonders in the Park at all levels. Handrails and ropes line trails to the Steam Vents and Halema’uma’u trails. Others, such as Devastation Trail and Crater Rim Trail along Waldron Ledge and some of the shorter trails are wheelchair accessible. The Visitor Center, Jagger Museum, Volcano House and Volcano Art Center are all fully handicap accessible. Unfortunately, the flowing lava can only be seen by a long hike or from the air.
Camping: Camping cabins are available for a nominal fee at Namakani Paio Campground just west of the Park Entrance. Free tent camping is available at both there and at Kulanaokuaiki Campground on Hilina Pali Road inside the Park; however, no water and only pit toilets are available at the latter. There are numerous hike-in campgrounds requiring permits along the many trails in the Park; for locations, permits, availability and regulations, contact the Backcountry Office at 808.985.6017.
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All media copyright 2010 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.