Hawaii is a land of sea breezes, beaches of every color and an explosive core. Plan a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for a lesson in volcanology along with a chance to see lava make new ground. An easy park to explore in one day, here’s the things to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park At a Glance
|Year Established: 1916|
|Located: The Island of Hawaii (The Big Island)|
|Size: over 320,000 acres|
|Top Features: Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes and Volcano House|
Top Spots in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
With a major eruption in 2018 followed by a period of calm before more volcanic activity in late 2020, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a top destination on the Big Island of Hawaii. Obviously the top thing to see is the volcanoes, in which the park boasts two. Though don’t miss taking a scenic drive down the Chain of Craters Road to see the sea arch and the dramatic shoreline. Since the park is on the windward side of the island, enjoy the rainforest landscape and bright birds, many native to Hawaii.
- Stop by the Visitor Center.
- Take a scenic drive.
- Hike along a crater.
- See a Nēnē.
- Earn a Junior Ranger Badge with the kids.
- Grab a bite at the Volcano House.
Visitor Centers in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Kīlauea Visitor Center offers an interpretive area along with information desk with maps and Junior Ranger Booklets. Find out more information about volcanic activity. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Note: The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the Jaggar Museum were damaged in 2018 and remained closed.
Scenic Drives in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Crater Rim Drive—Located near the Visitor Center with several overlooks of the volcanic crater along with steam vents, including sulphur vents. See native plants and birds in a drive that can take a hour.
Chain of Craters Road—A 18-mile (28-km) road crosses lava fields on its way to the coast. Several buildings were destroyed and covered by lava during eruptions. Find the Hōlei sea arch near the terminus. No food, water or restrooms located along the road.
Other Sites to Explore at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)—Explore the lava tube (cave) created from an eruption 500 years ago. Explore the tube with electric lights (from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) to learn more about the geological feature. The hike is 1.5-mile (2.4 km) round-trip from the Kīlauea Iki Overlook.
Hōlei Sea Arch—As the surf errodes the lava-formed coastline all that remains is a sea arch, like the Hōlei Sea Arch. Located at the end of the Chain of Craters Drive.
Cinder Cones—During an eruption, sometimes hills grow around a vent, producing a cinder cone. A good example is Pu’Huluhulu inside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Crater Rim Trail—A winding level trail that starts at Kīlauea Iki Overlook continues to Keanakāko’i. Access trail from the Kīlauea Visitor Center, the Volcano House, Crater Rim Drive or Stream Vents. Don’t have to complete the whole trail.
Mauna Ulu Trail—A 2.5-mile (4 km) moderate trail along the 1969 to 1974 eruption including climbing a cinder cone.
Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs—A 1.4-mile (2.2 km) boardwalk trail with the best preserved petroglyphs on the Hawaiian Islands. The lava field is 500-years-old with 23,000 petroglyphs.
Ha’akulamanu (Sulphur Vents)—A 1.2-mile (2 km) level trail that starts at the Kīlauea Visitor Center to see the volcanic gas vents. Not suitable for those with repository issues along with small children and babies. My youngest complained of the smell.
Wildlife Viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes
Most animals that made it to the Hawaiian Islands came by air or sea. Then they remained isolated and adapted into a native Hawaiian species, especially the birds.
Nēnēs, or Hawaiian geese, is the state bird and endangered. They can be found in parking lots throughout the park. They are protected birds and use care when in their vicinity. Do not feed.
‘Apapane is an abundant red bird that eats from one plant.
‘Lo is a Hawaiian hawk and frequently found in the park.
Kids at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Where to Eat in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Volcano House restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner overlooking the crater. Find a keiki menu (kids) along with entrees with Asian and Hawaiian influences.
George’s Lounge offers a take-out menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also find small plates along with cocktails, local beer and wine to enjoy the view from its floor-to-ceiling windows.
Picnicking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Find picnic tables at several locations within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
- Kīlauea Visitor Center
- Itilina Pali Overlook
- Hōlei Sea Arch
- Mauna Loa Lookout
Where to Stay in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Volcano House is perched along the edge of the Kīlauea volcano. The first grass hut opened in the area in the 1840s. A timber-framed building was erected in 1866 and guests included Mark Twain. It was enlarged in 1877 and this building still stands as the Arts Center.
After a fire, the present hotel opened in 1941 and has undergone renovations over the years. Find 33 rooms, along with a dining room, lounge, snack bar and gift shop.
Camping in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Find a campground 3 miles down the highway from Volcano House.
- Reservations accepted
- 16 sites with no hook-ups.
- Picnic table with a fire pit.
- Bathhouse with running water, flush toilets and hot showers.
Nāmakanipanio Camping Cabins
The vintage mid-century cabins were recently renovated. Find sleeping for four people outfitted with hotel linens, including towels for the bath house. Electricity is provided along with a covered picnic table along with fire pit.
I stayed in a camping cabin for one night and found it a convenient and memorable experience close to the main attractions of the park. The bathhouse is steps away from the cabins in the a cabin-only loop.
History of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
As the oldest of the Hawaii islands, the park boasts two active volcanoes. Kīlauea is one of the world’s most active, and Mauna Loa, the world’s largest shield volcano.
While still a U.S. territory, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to designate Hawaii National Park. It was renamed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park after Haleakalā National Park, on neighboring island Maui, became an independent park in 1961.
It was designated a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. Then the park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The People of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Native Hawaiian People
Originally, people from the Society Islands crossed the Pacific Ocean to get to the Hawaiian Islands, the most remote islands on the earth. Though dating is imprecise, the first people are thought to arrive in 1000 AD.
The traditional Hawaiian society was stratified with a ruling royal class along with skilled experts, laborers and outcasts. The volcanoes were believed to the home of Pele, the goddess of fire in the Hawaiian religion.
The Civilian Conservation Corps crews arrived at the Hawaii National Park (its name at the time) in 1934. Part of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Program, the CCC crews worked on conservation projects across the U.S.
During their tenure, the men of the CCC worked on clearing brush and dead wood along with laying foundations for several buildings.
Japanese WWII Enterment
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, marital law was enacted. People of Japanese descent in Hawaii were forceable detained at 17 sites across the island chain, including a site near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The Kīlauea Military Camp was repurposed into a detention center for those Japanese immigrants living on the Island of Hawaii. All detainees were transferred to Oahu within a few months.
Mark Twain visited the erupting Kīlauea in 1866 as a newspaper correspondent. During his visit, he stayed at the Volcano House, that building was destroyed.
Lt. Charles Wilkes visited the area during a surveying mission for the U.S. in 1840. Part of a round-the-world expedition, six ships and over 300 men were out to sea from 1838 to 1842.
Weather in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The weather is fairly constant year-round with temperatures averaging between 67 and 73F (19 to 22C). Rain can happen any day so pack a rain jacket. The spring is the wettest season with 25 inches (63 cm) of rain on average. Summer is the driest season with 8 inches (20 cm) of rain a month.
Other Park Sites on the Island of Hawaii
Once the largest cattle ranch on the island, this area is on Mauna Loa, the largest shield volcano in the world. Walk through the interpretive area or take a hike. It’s part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and added to the park later.
Located off of Highway 11, between mile marker 70 and 71. It’s open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Spend some time on a black beach, it’s a bucket list to do. The black sand is actually lava from nearby eruptions broken down by the surf. Panalu’u Beach features coconut palms along with a food trailer.
Located south of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park off Highway 11 at the end of Ninole Loop Road. Find street parking nearby.
Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
This park site explores the traditional Hawaiian culture, especially the Hawaiian royals. The area is protected by a 400-year-old wall and traditionally royal visitors entered via the ocean. Also walk by the fish ponds and see traditional Hawaiian games along with a temple and canoe huts.
This area is for cultural exploration and not recreation. So many activities are prohibited, including pets and eating.
Located on State Highway 160 in Hōnaunau. Open daily from 8:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $20 for a 7-day pass for a private vehicle.
Kaloko-Honokōhua National Historical Park
See the largest fish pond in Hawaii, used to cultivate fish for harvesting. The Honokōhua beach is home to Hawaiian green turtles.
Located off Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, south of mile marker 97. Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. This park is free to enter.
Gateway Towns on Hawaii Island
A gateway city on the Island of Hawaii, find lodging and dining options. It’s on the windward side of the island so it’s more lush and green.
Hilo International Airport (ITO) offers inter-island flights to all the Hawaiian Islands several times a day along with North American and international flights.
If visiting Hilo, consider touring the Pacific Tsunami Museum located at130 Kamehameha Ave.
Another gateway to the Big Island of Hawaii, Kailua-Kona on the leeward side of the island with less rainfall. Find more resorts on this side along with the Kona coffee plantations, a must for coffee drinkers.
Find the Kailua-Kona International Airport (KOA), the largest of the island’s airports. It offers inter-island flights to all the Hawaiian Islands several times a day along with North American and international flights.
Getting To Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Located in the southeast corner of the Hawaii Island (Big Island) it’s approximately 30 miles from Hilo and nearly 100 miles from Kailua-Kona.
Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, though volcanic conditions can cause closures. Admission is $30 for a 7-day pass for a private vehicle.
Know Before You Go
- You will need a car to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Rent one at the airport.
- Rain is common year-round pack a rain jacket for sudden showers.
- Limited food and water at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
- Stay on boardwalks and trails during your stay. Uneven surfaces are frequent.
- Use care when exploring steam vent areas, older and younger guests are effected by the gases.