The Big Island of Hawaii is one of the best places on the planet to see an active volcano. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located 30 miles southwest of Hilo, is the home of Kilauea Volcano, one of the most active on earth. Traveling here provides the opportunity to witness the incredible process of creation and destruction that make it not only a sacred place for Native Hawaiians, but a highlight for any vacation in the Aloha State.
If volcanoes happen to be focus of your Hawaii vacation, the Volcano Rainforest Retreat is a unique place to stay for the ultimate Hawaiian holiday. Located just five minutes from the park entrance, this B&B property offers four private, secluded guest cottages set in the lush rain forest, providing a peaceful, tranquil retreat.
To get even closer, consider staying at the historic Volcano House Hotel, where you’ll find a one-of-a-kind experience in renovated rooms with magnificent views of Halemaumau Crater. Just a few miles behind the hotel, Namakanipaio Campground features camper cabins as well as rustic campsites.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses 333,000 acres all the way from the summit of Mauna Loa to the Pacific Ocean. Discover 150 miles of hiking trails that wind through volcanic craters, arid deserts, cavernous lava tubes, petroglyphs, rain forests and two major active volcanoes. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1985, while Kilauea has been erupting since January 3, 1983.
Kilauea, sometimes referred to as the “world’s only drive-in volcano,” produces 250,000 to 650,000 cubic yards of lava each day. The current eruption could last for another century … or just another day. The volcano goddess Pele is said to be rather unpredictable, so it’s worth visiting just for the chance to see the blistering lava flow as it meets the sea.
While most people just drive through the park’s 50 miles of roads and head on to something else, it really takes at least three days to see the whole park, including the main attraction, the Kilauea Halemaumau Crater. Other must-see attractions in the park include a fuming pit of steam and sulfur, Thurston Lava Tube, and Devastation Trail, a short hike through a desolated area that was destroyed by lava. You won’t want to miss the Chain of Craters Road either, where lava spills on a regular basis across a blacktop road, creating a spectacular fiery-red paved path to the sea.
The volcanic eruptions here on the Big Island are considered “quiet” eruptions, as the gases escape slowly rather than building up and violently exploding. Most of the time the lava here moves at a crawl, providing the opportunity for safe viewing.
When visiting the park, keep in mind that neither Pele nor Mother Nature run on a set schedule. You might get lucky and see the volcano spewing fountains of lava that skyrocket hundreds of feet in the air, or it could be pretty quiet. Oftentimes, you will see lava flows near accessible roads that allow you to get as close as the sizzling heat allows. Occasionally, however, it is only visible from a distance. Your best bet is to speak with park rangers for advice about where to go for the best lava viewing.
Stop in at the Kilauea Visitor Center near the park entrance for a map and the latest information on conditions and lava flows. Be sure to ask about the current ranger-led programs, which are well worth joining for a more in-depth look at all this incredible park has to offer.
The Jagger Museum is also worth a visit — from the observation deck you can marvel at the crater, and sometimes even see lava. It also offers a number of interesting exhibits, with sensational videos of volcanic eruptions and live seismographs measuring geological activity in the region. Kilauea Caverns of Fire is home to the largest lava tube on earth — here, you’ll be standing inside an active volcano! It’s certainly a story to tell all your friends back home!
For families with small children, an easier way to experience some of the park highlights is to take the jaunt around Crater Rim Drive. Chain of Craters Road is also a must-experience. The fabulously scenic 18-mile drive starts in the lush rain forest, progressing to a surreal, moon-like landscape, then ends abruptly in the Pacific Ocean since being swallowed by lava in the 70s and 80s.
If you’d like an even more thrilling experience (along with some of the very best views of Kilauea), helicopter tours offer an unparalleled adventure — especially at night. A bird’s-eye view is without a doubt the best way to see the volcano’s bubbling caldera, putting the enormity of it all into perspective. A 45-minute tour from Hilo with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters will take you over the boiling volcano, some of the destruction the lava has caused, and some spectacular remote beaches as well.
One final piece of advice: Be sure to pack some warm clothes to wear in the park, as the weather here is much cooler than it is on the beach. A rain jacket or poncho can be handy, as mist or light rain is fairly common. Sturdy hiking shoes are also a must. And, of course, you won’t want to forget your camera! There will be many postcard-worthy moments to capture on film throughout this incredible trip!
Volcanoes National Park is a truly unique adventure. There’s nowhere else you can see the furious majesty of Earth’s power so up close and personal. Be sure to visit this hot spot on your next trip to the islands!
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