Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to supernatural forces and stunning feats of nature. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is said to be the dwelling of the sacred deity, Pele, at the foot of the volcano Kīlauea, and it is also a vital player in the world of volcano research, housing two of the world’s most active formations.
Visitors to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park should plan to spend a full day there, exploring the variety of trails, wondering at the diversity of geologic formations, and learning about the cultures and traditions of the native peoples who revere this place.
A rental car is a MUST. The Big Island’s geography is such that short distances on a map can turn out to be long drives in reality. During times of eruption, plan for crowded roads and limited parking; arrive early in the morning to take advantage of the relative peace before the park fills up for the day.
Where to Stay
Visitors who wish to stay in the park itself can do so at Volcano House, an historic hotel offering traditional rooms, rustic cabins, and even campsites. The hotel offers bike rental, guided tours of the park, as well as fun additions like evening cookie service and welcome mimosas. (Please note: during the Covid-19 pandemic, some of these services have been suspended.)
Alternatively, the town of Hilo is a good base from which visitors can venture out to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park for a day trip. (It’s a 45-minute drive from Hilo to the park.) There are plenty of options ranging from hotels to vacation rentals available; as a former fishing town and centre of the island’s sugar industry, Hilo is full of historic charm and captures the spirit of “old Hawai’i.”
What to Do
These four hikes are all nearby to one another and can be done in a single day:
- Crater Rim Trail
One of the park’s most popular stopping points, Crater Rim Trail is an easy, paved walk along the (you guessed it) rim of the Kīlauea summit caldera. The sheer magnitude of the crater, and the vents in the earth with billowing steam, give you the feeling that this place might indeed be home to otherworldly deities. Due to its ease of access and low-intensity physical requirement, this site gets busy very quickly. Stop here first on your visit to the park to avoid the crowds.
- Kīlauea Iki Trail
Visitors can park at the Kīlauea Iki overlook to undertake this impressive trail; it begins by following the ledge of the crater and affords a sweeping view of the crater’s floor from above. From this trail, it’s possible to do a loop that includes Nāhuku (see below), or, for a more challenging hike, you can descend down into the crater itself and walk across it. If you opt to do this, plan for at least three hours and bring plenty of water.
- Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
Formed 500 years ago, Nāhuku is no ordinary cave; it’s actually a lava tube through which visitors can hike, its 2000 degree Fahrenheit lava having cooled centuries ago. The lava tube is also home to incredibly diverse and fragile ecosystems found nowhere else in the world; visitors are reminded to stay on marked trails throughout the park to avoid disrupting the wildlife.
- Ha’akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) Trail
This unique area of the park is marked by colourful mineral deposits and wraithlike billows of vapour from deep within the earth. As the English name suggests, Sulphur Banks trail is also a particularly pungent walk. (The NPS advises that those with respiratory problems, as well as pregnant women and young children, should avoid this trail.) It is especially imperative to remain on the marked trails for this walk; areas off-trail are unpredictable and venturing there can result in third-degree burns due to the presence of underground steam flows.
What to Consider
- Dress appropriately
To many people’s surprise, the Big Island of Hawai’i isn’t exclusively a sunny, beachy paradise. To be sure, it is still paradise, but the presence of the volcanoes and the incredibly diverse geography of the island means that the weather fluctuates wildly. At the higher elevations of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, be prepared by wearing waterproof hiking shoes, a raincoat, and layers you can add or remove as needed.
- Bring the right gear
Similar to point #1, bringing the right gear makes all the difference for a seamless day in the park. It isn’t unusual for the weather to change within a few hours; it’s wise to bring both sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) and rain gear. Similarly, many of the trails that take you near or across volcano craters have little shade; bring plenty of water in case you find yourself caught under the bright rays of the sun. For safety’s sake, a whistle and flashlight are also valuable to have in your bag.
- Pack a lunch
There is a restaurant (The Rim) at Volcano House, the park’s on-site hotel, but for the most ease and flexibility for your visit, it’s best to pack a lunch. Picnic tables are available at the visitor centre; if you plan to eat while on the trail, remember to do so while obeying posted signage. (No venturing off-trail to find the perfect picnic spot!) As always, abide by “leave no trace” principles and remember to pack out any trash.
Have you been to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park? What tips would you add? I’d love to know- send me a message or leave a comment on this post!