THE ULTIMATE HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK ADVENTURE GUIDE
by Kim Vawter, Bearfoot Theory’s former Community Manager
My dad and I are on a mission to visit as many National Parks as we can together. Thus far, we’ve had some pretty epic adventures knocking off a few of the most prominent parks in the country. When we picked Hawaii as our next location, I knew it was going to be incredible. Hawaii offers the opportunity to visit two Natiional Parks on two separate islands – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, followed by Haleakala National Park on Maui.
In this detailed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park adventure guide, I share with you my favorite hikes, sites to see, where to eat/stay, and how to view flowing lava up close.
Getting to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the Island of Hawai’i which is commonly called the Big Island. Hawai’i has two airports; Kona and Hilo. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park summit area, which is the most widely visited section of the park, is a 45-minute drive from Hilo and 2-2.5 hour drive from Kona.
Kona airport processes twice as many passengers compared to Hilo, which means it can be a little busier. If you can get reasonable flights, I encourage you to fly into one airport and fly out of the other, but check on one-way rental car prices first. Doing so allows you to see a majority of the island. Either way, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is accessible from either side of the island so don’t fret too much about which airport to fly into. You’ll need a rental car to explore the park as there is no public transportation within the park, and things on the rest of the Big Island are pretty spread out.
If you want to rent a campervan or car that you can sleep in, check out Outdoorsy.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Map
If you want to visit lava up close and personal, then you should allow at least TWO full days for visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I’ll explain more about how to see lava later in this post. If you don’t plan to view lava up close, you can fit in the highlights of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in one day, but you could also easily spend 3+ days in the park. Let’s just say I wish we would have had more time in park!
Important Information to Know About Volcanoes National Park
- It is $25 per private vehicle to enter the park. Get an Annual National Park Pass before your trip if you plan to visit more than 3 parks in one year.
- The Kilauea Visitor’s Center is open from 9am-5pm daily and will be on your right shortly after entering the park. I strongly recommend you stop here on your way in. They have excellent informational boards that list attractions, ranger talks, current conditions, and suggested itineraries for spending an hour, a full day, or multiple days in the park. You can also talk to rangers regarding any last minute questions you have.
- At most National Parks guests work to beat the crowds by getting up early; this is true at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but you also don’t want to miss evenings in the park. The lava viewing is best at night and stargazing can be spectacular in this area as well. Make sure you have plenty of food packed for a full day of adventuring in the park.
- There is a second area of the park, the Kahuku Unit, which is only open on Fridays, Saturdays, & Sunday from 9am-3pm. This Hawaii Volcanoes National Park guide focuses on the central summit area of the park near the Kilauea Visitor’s Center, not the Kahuku Unit.
When to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
In Hawaii, temperatures and conditions vary significantly by elevation & time of year. The weather at Kilauea’s summit (4000 feet in elevation) changes daily and can be rainy and chilly any time of the year. Temperatures at the summit may be 12 to 15 degrees cooler than at sea level. Rain is common in Hawaii; the drier season is from May-October. The coastal area of the park, at the end of Chain of Craters Road, is often hot, dry, and windy with the possibility of passing showers. If you want to avoid crowds, the spring & fall are the best times, in general, for visiting the Big Island.
Insider tip: Pack a lightweight rain jacket for your trip to Volcanoes National Park.
The Top 6 Things to Do In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Stop by the Volcano Art Center
Just to the left of the Visitor Center is the original Volcano House Lodge which serves now as the Volcano Art Center. The center is a great place to pick up unique, handmade Hawaiian gifts. The Art Center is open 9am-5pm daily. They offer demonstrations, classes, and workshops, so I recommend checking their calendar before planning your itinerary for the day.
View the Kilauea Caldera Lava at Night
Stop by The Jaggar Museum, which is informative & very popular since it offers an overlook of the Kilauea Caldera. The Jaggar Museum is open daily 10am-8pm, make sure to arrive before sunset to beat the crowds wanting to view the caldera in the dark. There are interpretation talks in the evening almost daily here. Check the calendar at the Visitor Center or inquire inside the museum. If you want to learn even more ask about Ranger-led tours available to the Whitney Vault, the underground lab that was run by Thomas A. Jaggar.
Kilauea Iki Overlook & Hike into the Crater
This 4-mile loop will take you from Crater Rim Drive down to the floor of Kilauea Iki. The Volcanoes National Park Visitor Center sells a trail guide for $2.00, or you can download the guide online. The trail begins shaded by the surrounding rainforest, but soon enough you’ll be on the floor of what used to be a lava lake, make sure to pack a hat as there is no shade on the floor. Beat the sun (& the crowds) and start your 2-hour trek before 9 am.
Tip: Don’t miss the Kilauea Iki film in the Visitor’s Center. It will give a whole new meaning to your hike.
Walk Through A Lava Tube
The Thurston Lava Tube in Volcanoes National Park is worth a quick stop. You can also add it on to your Kilauea Iki hike as it’s right across the road from the second Kilauea Iki parking area. It’s great for those who can’t complete longer walks or for those traveling with little kids.
Drive Crater Rim Drive to the Holei Sea Arch
There are plenty of stops along the way to Holei Sea Arch. The drive is almost 19 miles long with an elevation change of 3,700 feet. The reason why this drive is so impressive is you get to visualize how lava has flown across the park. Volcanoes National Park has a 2-page driving guide as well as an automated audio tour for the entire drive.
On the drive, you’ll see examples of both types of lava; a’ā and pāhoehoe. There are areas you can stop and see evidence of former park roads that don’t operate anymore due to lava flowing over the road. THIS IS REALLY COOL! There used to be a Visitor Center, a heiau (ancient Hawaiian temple), a campground and a black sand beach along the road but they have all been covered/destroyed by lava.
It’s worth taking the road all the way to the sea arch just to see the expansiveness of the lava flow.
And my personal opinion: History and culture buffs who are looking for a short walk might enjoy the Puu Loa Petroglyphs trail, but I didn’t think it was as exciting as some of the other sites.
See Lava Flow Up Close at Kalapana
If you’ve seen any photos of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ve probably seen images of lava up close. These photos weren’t taken at the Kilauea summit viewing area by the Jagger Museum. Most guests travel to Kalapana, an hour from Volcanoes National Park, to view the lava flow. If you’re lucky, you might be able even to see lava flowing into the ocean, an experience you’ll never forget.
Here are a few things to know about getting to the Kalapana area & viewing lava up close. This information is based on my Spring 2018 trip, so note that lava viewing locations are subject to change.
- You’ll want to check on where the current flow is before driving to Kalapana. There is no trail and the terrain changes daily based on the lava flow. The Volcanoes National Park NPS website has extensive additional information and daily updates on the lava flow.
- To reach Kalapana, you’ll want to take HWY 11 towards Hilo to HWY 130. Then follow HWY 130 until you reach the road’s end, there will be a visitor parking area. It is a 1-hour drive.
- Security guards will be posted on HWY 130 before the entrance to Kalapana Gardens to direct you to parking areas. Don’t leave VALUABLES in your car; this can be a high crime theft area.
- If you’re traveling to Kalapana, know that lava viewing for the general public is only available 3-9pm daily.
- The total distance from Kalapana to the lava flow varies based on the current flow & route to assess the flow. Expect to hike at least 4 miles (1.5-2 hours) one way for viewing.
- The hike to lava is HOT (even at night) and the air is dry, bring plenty of water (at least 2-3 liters per person)
- You should have strong, sturdy hiking boots or tennis shoes. I would not recommend wearing flip flops, Tevas or thin-soled tennis shoes, as the lava is sharp.
- If you plan to visit the lava for sunset, make sure you have a flashlight (not your cell phone camera’s light) and extra batteries. We recommend a headlamp.
See the next section of this blog post for more tips on viewing the Big Island’s lava flows.
To help protect Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, please make sure to follow the 7 Basic Guidelines of Leave No Trace
Tips for Seeing the Lava Up Close Around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There are numerous options for accessing lava viewing:
- Rent a bike & bike to the lava flow
- Hike on your own to the lava flow
- Join a guided hiking tour with the flow
- View the flow from a boat (If the lava isn’t flowing into the ocean then you won’t want a boat tour.)
- Join a helicopter tour
My dad and I opted to go with a guided hike. Have you ever done something and seen other people doing the same activity but in a slightly different way and been thankful you were doing it the way you were? Well, that’s how my dad and I felt on our guided hiking tour. We saw plenty of people biking and hiking to the lava flow and agreed if we did it over again we’d still go with a guided hike.
Why Opt for a Guided Hike? Let me explain:
- When we finally arrived at the lava, there were ALOT of people. One of our guides ran off to find a different section of flow to take us to. Getting away from the crowd was great.
- As we began to hike back with our lights in pitch darkness, numerous people attempted to join our group. Our guides let them know this was a tour and asked them to go ahead. Many people said they were scared & didn’t know how to get back to the main road. Some didn’t have water, lights or appropriate clothing. My dad and I were very thankful to have guides leading us out because honestly, we wouldn’t have known which way to hike. Having the guides was very valuable.
- We loved hearing the personal stories our guides had of living in the area. During the last significant lava flow, they talked about how they played horseshoes at their friend’s house until the lava hit the porch steps. We couldn’t believe the story but after seeing how SLOW the lava flows it put the story in perspective.
If you decide to go on your own without a guide, just make sure you have a good sense of direction and have the right gear. Consider using a GPS app – like Gaia – on your phone to track your route so you can follow your steps back out.
It might seem like a straight-forward hike but keep in mind after the sun goes down the area drastically changes and route-finding back to your vehicle can be more challenging. There is no trail or cairns to follow to the lava flow as the route changes daily based on the current lava flow.
Can’t I hike from the end of Chain of The Craters Road instead of driving around?
Yes, you technically can. It is a 5.5-mile hike vs. 4 miles hike and will take 2-2.5 hours each way. The air quality is poorer on this side as well. Accessing lava flow from the Volcanoes National Park side is discouraged for these two main reasons.
Where to Eat Near Volcanoes National Park
Just a word of note, there aren’t a ton of dining options in the local area, and there are a lot of tourists. I highly recommend making food reservations once you have your trip planning completed. There isn’t a main “downtown” area in Volcano, Hawaii; the surrounding community is similar to a rural area on the mainland.
The Kilauea Lodge, in Volcano, Hawaii, did not disappoint for breakfast. We appreciated how early they opened up (7:30 am daily) so we could get into the park before the crowds. They have a unique menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that is slightly European, yet has local Hawaiian favorites.
Tuk Tuk Thai Food Wagon & Cafe Ono came highly recommended to us from both locals and tourists, but since we had a substantial breakfast, we munched on snacks in our car until dinner. I’d pack enough food so that you don’t have to leave the park just to get lunch. Neither of these restaurants are open for dinner.
Ohelo Cafe offered an excellent dinner for a reasonable price, especially considering there are few other options in the town of Volcano. They have wood-fired pizzas as well as other options and specialize in serving fresh food with a Hawaiian flair. They are closed the first Tuesday of every month & reservations are strongly recommended.
Packing Food from Hilo
There are great grocery stores in Hilo; I recommend stocking up on snacks before heading to Volcano. Island Naturals has tons of options if you are vegan/gluten-free. The Hilo Farmers Market is also an excellent choice for picking up local fresh fruit/vegetables.
Post visiting the National Park, I recommend a stop at Volcano Winery, which is open daily from 10:00am to 5:30 pm. They carry a traditional Pinot Noir and also offer unique creations like Mele, Mac Nut Honey Wine, and Guava Wine.
Where to Stay Near Volcanoes National Park
There are two drive-in campgrounds in the park:
Namakanipalo Reservable Campground
- Tents sites & 10 one-room cabins (sleep 4 people)
- The campground has restrooms, water, picnic tables, and barbeque pits
- Sites are $15 per night; cabins are $80 per night
- The campground is run by the Volcanoes Lodging Company, which also operates the only hotel in the National Park, Volcano House Hotel.
- The campground is at 4,000 feet so it cool & damp year-round. You’ll want to make sure you have a tent that is waterproof with a quality rain fly. You can rent a tent from the Volcanoes Lodging Company for an additional $40 if you aren’t traveling with camping equipment.
- Campground reservations can be made online or by calling the Volcano House.
Kulanaokualkl First-Come, First-Serve Campground
- Located 5 miles down Hillina Pali Road at 2,700 feet
- Nine campsites
- The campground has picnic tables, pit toilets, and NO WATER
- Sites are $10 per night
- No pets allowed
Additional Lodging Options
Volcano House Lodge
The Volcano House Lodge is the only hotel in the National Park. It has 33 guest rooms as well as a dining room & lounge. If you’ve stayed at other National Parks hotels, it has a similar vibe. It is a short walk from the Kilauea Visitor Center.
My dad and I opted to stay in an Airbnb just outside the park; it was a shared house with private rooms (basically a hostel) for $30 per night per room. There are a lot of rental options in Volcano, Hawaii ranging from shared rooms to houses. Save $40 off your first Airbnb stay by signing up here.