Forty-three years before Hawaii became a state, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawai’i was established in 1916 (originally as Hawai’i National Park, along with Haleakalä on Maui). The park’s landscape is ever-changing, with three active volcanoes defining the park’s future: Hualalai (last historic eruptions in 1800 and 1801), Mauna Loa (last erupted in 1984) and Kīlauea, which is currently erupting; flowing lava can be seen on both land and from the Pacific Ocean (more on that below). Though the lava fields are arid and mostly void of any plant life (though some enterprising flora has adapted and provides bursts of color among the dark ground), it’s surprising to learn that seven of the world’s 13 climates can be found within the park’s 505 square miles, from desert to lush rain forests. During a recent trip to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we compiled these 10 tips (in no particular order) to make the most of your visit to the park, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year:
1. See the lava: In Hawaiian, Kīlauea means “spewing” or “much spreading,” and there’s no telling when Kīlauea’s lava flow will end, but right now there are terrific opportunities to see new earth being formed. From the land, a 7.4-mile, six- to eight-hour hike (defined as “grueling” by the National Park Service on the Current Conditions page of the park’s website) from the Coastal Ranger Station at the end of the Chain of Craters Road is available to take to see the lava flow, but be prepared for a long day under the hot sun. Also know that the volcanic gases are making the air quality poor from this point of entry. Another hiking option is from the County of Hawai’i lava viewing area, the access of which is open daily from 3-9 p.m. It’s an 8.4-mile roundtrip hike to the ocean entry, where the lava is flowing into the Pacific Ocean. A third option is to see the lava flow into the ocean from the water on a boat tour such as those offered by Lava Ocean Tours. The tours go right to where the lava is flowing from Kīlauea into the ocean, and provide spectacular photo opps, or simply terrific viewing to take it all in. Can’t get to the Big Island anytime soon? Take a peek at the volcanic activity on the park’s website.
2. Take a tour: There’s so much to see within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and so much history that is an integral part of the island, that it’s really best to take a guided tour. On a recent visit we toured with Tyler and Hayley Ford, co-owners and guides with Akamai Adventure Tours & Travel. Tyler and Hayley customize their tours to suit their clients’ interests, while highlighting all that Hawaii has to offer. Our half-day tour took us deep into the park and to its different points of interest, blended with geology, history and Hawai’ian culture.
3. Follow the crater: There are a few ways to experience the Crater Rim: by car, bicycle, or foot. The 11-mile Crater Rim Drive leads motorists and bicyclists from the Kīlauea Visitor Center towards Mauna Loa, with eight highlights along the way: the Jaggar Museum; the Kīlauea Overlook; Sulphur Banks with steam vents, Steaming Bluff and Ha’akulamanu; Kīlauea Iki Overlook; the Thurston Lava Tube; the Puʻu Puaʻi Overlook; the trailhead of Devastation Trail (one-mile round-trip walk); and the trailhead for the 0.8-mile hike to Keanakāko’i Crater. Likewise, the 11-mile Crater Rim Trail circles the caldera while passing through desert landscapes and lush rain forest. The trail can be an all-day hike, or park along the drive and walk parts of the trail. Currently part of the trail (Jaggar Museum south to Keanakāko‘i Crater) is closed due to the current eruption in Halema‘uma‘u Crater; be sure to check with park rangers before embarking on your hike for closure information.
4. Visit the museum and see the views: Stop no. 2 along the Crater Rim Drive is the Jaggar Museum, devoted to volcanology and filled with geological and cultural exhibits. The museum is a terrific introduction to the islands’ volcanoes with a look at how they developed, and how they continue to change the landscape. Historic scientific equipment sits alongside real-time monitors that relay the volcanoes’ up-to-the-minute activities. The overlook outside of the museum is a terrific vantage point for seeing the activity of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater, which is currently very active. Since the park is open 24 hours a day, the overlook is as well, providing around-the-clock viewing and photo opportunities.
5. Go underground: Below the Volcano House (hotel) is the original Whitney Vault, in which MIT scientist, Hawai’ian Volcano Observatory founder and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park co-founder Thomas A. Jaggar set up his 16-by-12-foot underground lab. The vault is open to visitors weekly (check the park’s calendar for dates and times) for a peek inside the lab and its original seismograph and other tools used by scientists in the early-1900s.
6. Take a hike: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has more than 150 miles of hiking trails that wind throughout the park, from short, easy day hikes on paved trails to longer, off-trail hikes that can venture into the backcountry and last hours, or even days. Because the park’s volcanoes are active, trails can change quickly and parts of the trails may be closed due to lava flow. Check in with park rangers before setting out on your hike to be sure that routes haven’t changed.
7. Walk through lava: You can literally walk through an area where lava flowed hundreds of years ago, creating a tube in its wake. Discovered in 1913 by local newspaper publisher Lorrin Thurston, the cave-like Thurston Lava Tube appears out of a lush tree fern forest. The 600-foot long tunnel’s ceiling ranges in height from 10 to 30 feet, and it’s easy to imagine the lava stalactites that once hung from above (but long ago were taken as souvenirs by its first visitors).
8. Leave no trace: As with all national parks, it’s always important to Leave No Trace, one of the principles of which is to leave what you find. When it comes to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, that practice may be even more important. In the Hawai’ian culture, Pele is the goddess of fire and volcanoes, and everything that comes from the volcano, including the flowing and solid lava, is her creation. Removing the lava is not a good idea, though many people do take pieces home with them, only to mail those pieces of lava back to the park because of bad luck they encounter once home. In fact, there’s a make shift “graveyard” within the park where these returned pieces of lava are laid to rest.
9. Watch them fly – watch the Nēnē: The nēnē, or Hawaiian goose, is an endangered species that makes its home throughout Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park; 250 of them, in fact. A tip from Jessica Ferracane, the park’s public affairs officer, is to walk along the Crater Rim Trail at sunrise and watch as the flock flies out of the crater and to its feeding grounds further into the park. And if you’re in the park more than one day, another terrific spot to watch the sunrise is at the Kīlauea Overlook.
10. Starry night: Nearly void of light pollution for miles around, star gazing at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is spectacular. From anywhere within the park (where there isn’t tree cover), shift your gaze skyward and watch the stars dance, and if you’re lucky, the Milky Way will appear, too.
For more on Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.
Susan B. Barnes, Special for USA TODAY