To visit Volcano National Park is to make a pilgrimage to the ongoing birthplace of Hawaii. The island chain is constantly evolving, in part thanks to the two active volcanoes held within the park. The gently sloping Mauna Lao makes up over half of The Big Island’s landmass, while Kilauea draws visitors from far and wide as the world’s youngest and most active volcano.
While the park is over 333,000 acres and offers almost infinite opportunities for exploring, the highlights have been made easily accessible by two main routes: Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. Combined, they make up a perfect self-drive tour of what boldly calls “the USA’s most dynamic national park.”
Crater Rim Drive
Our first stop after paying $10 for a weekly car pass into the park was to head to the Kilauea Visitor Center to plan out our day. Cheerful park rangers handed out maps, answered questions, and filled us in that a large section of the Chain of Craters Road was closed due to dangerously high amounts of sulfur dioxide gas in the park. We also watched a short movie that gave us a great overview of the history of Hawaii, and dropped in on the Volcano Art Center gallery next door. It’s recommended to allow 1-3 hours — with stops — to hit all the highlights on the 11-mile Chain of Craters loop.
Driving past active sulphur banks and steam vents, our next stop was The Jaggar Museum, named after the famous volcanist Dr. Thomas A. Jagger. Here we learned more about the science behind the volcanoes and the great lengths scientists go to in order to research them. The photos of the volcanoes erupting at their fiery peaks are more than enough of a reason to stop.
But even better than the museum’s enlightening exhibits is the viewpoint outside. Here you can observe the Halema’uma’u Crater, which has been erupting continually since 2008 — officially the longest of the 18 eruptions since 1924. During the day, steam comes curling and smoking out of the heart of the caldera.
At night, darkness brings a new view entirely. Lava bubbles on the crater floor, and a warm orange glow emanates from the volcano. As the park never closes, you can visit any time throughout the night — and likely have the view to yourself.
Doubling back towards the park entrance thanks to the closed portion of the road, our next destination was the Thurston Lava Tube. Entering what seemed like a Disney-created rainforest, we soon came upon an oversized lava tube tricked out with walkways and safety lighting.
We had been warned of major crowds, but visited early enough that we beat the tour busses. Feeling adventurous, we were looking forward to exploring the tube’s unlit extension, but sadly were met by a Do Not Enter sign. The entire loop trail is an easy .4 miles.
Next up was Devastation Trail, a paved 1-mile walk through an area devastated by the 1959 Kileauea Iki lava eruption. Life has returned to the area, which is now equal parts lush and starkly beautiful.
The destination of the trail is the Pu’u Pua’i Overlook, which provides generous views into the Kilauea Iki Crater. Kilauea Iki last erupted from November 14th to December 20th of 1959. During those 37 days, three-quarters of a million people came to watch lava spew 2,000 feet into the sky. At the height of the eruption, Kilauea oozed more than two million tons of lava per hour! Much of it drained back into the vent, causing the surface of the lava lake to crack and subside, creating the crackles surface we see today.
Chain of Craters Road
After a stop back in Volcano for lunch, and I were met by her friend and fellow photographers from Grand Cayman, . I was now traveling with two professional shutterbugs — my camera was definitely feeling self-conscious.
Hoping into Jim’s rental convertible, we took off down the sloping 19-mile Chain of Craters Road. Our ears popped as we descended towards the sea, passing from lush rain forest to barren lava fields to a lone palm tree oasis.
Our first attempted stop was a at the Mauna Ulu Trailhead, where we planned to take the 2.5-mile roud trip hike to the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone. Unfortunately, there was a heavy vog (volcanic fog!) cover, the trail was poorly marked, and Heather was suffered from some altitude-induced vertigo, so we turned around before we reached the cinder cone viewpoint. On the upside, I got to make plenty of .
Next, we pulled over at the moody Kealakomo Overlook, where we had some photo fun!
We were enticed by the 1.4 mile Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail, but unfortunately had to pass it by due to time constraints. Instead, we booked it to the Holei Sea Arch, carved by the sharply eroding lava cliffs of the coast. Thanks to a photo in Lonely Planet and the assurances of a friend in Oahu, I was looking forward to getting a photo of myself standing right on top of the arch. Unfortunately, warning signs, safety ropes and an ingrained penchant for rule-following all kept me from fulfilling that dream.
Having parked near the sea arch, we proceeded on foot to the End of The Road — where quite literally lava has stopped the road in its tracks. Here we got lost in time, clamoring over black mountains and following the organic shapes and folds made by the cooling magma. Similar to how I look at coral when diving, I was awed by the patterns and textures created by nature. This park — and Hawaii at large — is a playground for artists, nature lovers, and science geeks alike.
In some places, new life had already started to thrive — a breathing example of the very process that created the island chain of Hawaii, a land that continues to heave and grow.
I realize I’ve now walked on volcanoes in Costa Rica, Greece, Iceland and the United States! Have you ever been to a volcano?