Regardless of how long you’ll be staying on Hawaii’s Big Island, make sure to spend at least a portion of your time in the iconic Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Not only does it give visitors the chance to experience some of the world’s most incomparable landscapes, but it also encompasses two of the most active volcanoes on earth, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Hike on top of dense volcanic rock, take a scenic drive along the summit and slopes of Kilauea, explore shady rainforests full of native plants and endangered birds, or spend the night in a lodge or campsite inside the park.
More than 500 years before it was established as a protected area, the land making up Volcanoes National Park was inhabited by the Native Hawaiians. The park continues to respect cultural traditions and preserve essential sites on the property to this day, including the sacred Puʻu Loa, one of the largest petroglyph fields in Hawaii, and Kealakomowaena, a specific area once inhabited by early 15th century Hawaiians.
Volcanoes National Park was first established as a national park in 1916 and later, in 1987, became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a national program developed by Franklin D. Roosevelt following the Great Depression, is credited with laying the foundations for much of the infrastructure, such as the Kīlauea Visitor Center, research offices, and many hiking trails still in use today.
If you’ve visited before the 2018 eruptions that covered over 13 miles of land with lava between May and August, there have been quite a few changes to the park. The series of eruptions and resulting lava flow destroyed about 700 homes on the island and completely shut down Volcanoes National Park for months. While a majority of the attractions have since reopened thanks to successful recovery efforts, a number of the park’s major highlights have been closed indefinitely, including the Jaggar Museum and the Thurston Lava Tube.
While the rest of Hawaii offers a wide range of exciting activities and sites, there is only one way for visitors to get close to an active volcano, and that’s by driving to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
The park is located about 30 miles southwest from Hilo on Highway 11 (a 45-minute drive) and 96 miles southeast from Kailua-Kona on Highway 11 (a two-hour drive). There is no public transportation within the park (which spans for over 500 square miles), so be prepared to either walk or drive even after initially arriving.
The vehicle admission fee is $30. Arriving on foot or bicycle will cost $15 and on a motorcycle will cost $25. The pass is good for seven days from the purchase date.
The Chain of Craters Road runs 18.8 miles beginning from Crater Rim Drive, about 3.3 miles south of Kīlauea Visitor Center. The drive runs past scenic views of the coast, rainforests, and trails, and has had parts covered by lava almost every year since 1986. The Crater Rim Drive also stars at the Kīlauea Visitor Center and goes past Kīlauea Iki Overlook, Puʻu Puaʻi Overlook, and the Devastation Trail.
There are 10 different day hikes available to visitors inside the park, all ranging in length, scenery, and levels.
History buffs will definitely want to consider the Maunaiki trail through portions of the Kaʻū Desert and past actual footprints left in the long-cooled volcanic rock by Native Hawaiians, the Devastation Trail previously buried by the falling cinder from the Kīlauea Iki eruption of 1959, or the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs and the largest group of petroglyphs in the state.
To get a closer look at the volcanic craters, try the Crater Rim Trail passing Kīlauea caldera and steam vents, Keanakāko'i Crater Trail, Kīlauea Iki Trail, Ha'akulamanu sulfur banks, or the Halemaʻumaʻu Trail down to the crater floor of Kīlauea caldera. For a taste of a completely different ecosystem, the Kīpukapuaulu loop trail will take hikers through a surprisingly lush ecological area with rare plants and old-growth trees.
There are a couple of choices for those who wish to spend the night inside Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, and both are operated by the Hawai'i Volcanoes Lodge Company.
The campsites at Nāmakanipaio Campground are located 4,000 feet above sea level. The grassy sites are littered with tall eucalyptus and native 'ōhi'a trees. Amenities include restrooms, water spouts, picnic tables, and barbecue pits (campfires are only allowed inside the pits), and campers are permitted to stay a maximum of seven days at a time. Rustic-style camper cabins are available on site as well, which sleep four (one double bed and two bunk twin beds) and include a picnic table, an outdoor barbecue grill, and an outdoor firepit. Campsites cost $15 per night, and reservations are required for cabins.
Guests who want hotel accommodations can stay inside one of 33 rooms at the Volcano House Hotel, a historic building originally constructed in 1846 out of grass and 'ōhi'a wood poles. Today, the site has gone through a modern makeover, complete with four bedroom styles to choose from—the Standard Room, the Volcano Crater View Room with close up views of Halema’uma'u crater, and the slightly-larger Deluxe Volcano Crater View Room with views of Kilauea caldera.
Tips for Visiting
- Check the conditions website before going, as some of the areas are still being affected by the 2018 eruptions and have yet to be reopened. And, since land here is actively volcanic, there is always the possibility for last-minute closures due to cracks, fumes, or vog (volcanic smog).
- The regular park hours are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so waking up for a sunrise or staying up for a sunset in the park is entirely possible (and recommended!). Note that the Kīlauea Visitor Center is only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Speaking of waking up, if you’re planning on hiking the Kīlauea Iki Trail be ready to get to the park early. The trailhead parking at this popular four-mile loop hike will be full by 9 a.m., no matter the day of the week. The rangers advise getting there by 7 a.m. to avoid the crowds.
- If you plan on visiting Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park on the west side of Hawaii Island and Haleakalā National Park on Maui at some point within the next year, pick up the annual Tri-Park Pass at the entrance station of the park for $55 to save some money.
- Wear closed-toed shoes to the park, and be aware that most of the lava field spots don’t provide very much shade.
- Stay on the marked trails and designated roads within the grounds for safety, and keep away from steam vents, cracks, and cliffs.
- Park fees are waived on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week (April 18), National Park Service Anniversary (Aug. 25), National Public Lands Day (Sept. 23), and Veterans Day.