Tips for visiting Volcanoes National Park

Sep 15, 2019

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My wife and I are old enough to easily remember the 1959 release of the movie “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Based on a Jules Verne novel, it was the fictional tale of four adventurers who went into the bowels of the earth to find its center. While such a fantasy belongs solely in the realm of our imagination, the idea of seeing and experiencing some of this volatile subterranean furnace is intriguing, to say the least.

That’s why Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was on our must-see list as we navigated through the Hawaiian Islands on our first visit to the Rainbow State. We considered this national park to be like an interactive peek to another world below: our own journey to see what flows from the center of the earth.

In This Post

Starting the day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Photo courtesy of Buddy Smith)

Volcanoes National Park basics

While the National Park Service is technically in charge of Volcanoes National Park, Pele, the legendary Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire, has the first and last word on all activities there. If the old Yankee Stadium was “the house that Ruth built,” then Volcanoes National Park — and, in fact, the entire island of the Big Island of Hawaii — is surely the land that Pele built. Pele, “she who shapes the sacred land,” supposedly lives in the Halema’uma’u Crater within the park.

Related: Points and miles guide to visiting Hawaii

How to get there

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is in the southeast corner of the Big Island of Hawaii and occupies about 12% of the island’s land mass. Highways circle the perimeter of the island, so there is easy access to the park from the major airports at Kona and Hilo. Many tourists drive a rental car to the park, but you can also go as part of a group tour. Look for tour operators at Viator.com, or search Google for “Hilo” and “Volcanoes National Park” and you’ll find options from companies like Roberts Hawaii and others.

When is the park open?

The park is open 24 hours a day, with its busiest time being between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Despite the 500 square miles of park space, our observation is that most visitors stay within a few miles of the park entrance.

How much does it cost?

Entrance to the park costs $25 per noncommercial vehicle. This fee is good for seven days and covers all the occupants in the vehicle. Individuals that come by bus, bike, motorcycle or on foot will pay fee of $12, which also covers seven days. Of course, national park passes are valid and welcome. Our lifetime senior citizen national parks pass worked perfectly for our group of five.

What’s the park like?

Since the Big Island first poked its head above the blue Pacific waters some 500,000 years ago, volcanoes have shaped and molded the diverse topographical and environmental landscape of the island on an almost continual basis. Elevation changes from sea level to 13,500 feet have transformed the island into a climatic and vegetative cornucopia, with landscapes ranging from almost desert dry to rainforest to arctic in a span of less than 50 miles.

Upon arriving, your first stop will undoubtedly be the visitor center where, depending on your time and level of interest and curiosity, you can get either Volcanoes National Park 101 or glean enough information for a thesis toward a master’s degree in volcanology. The center is well staffed with park rangers and well supplied with park souvenirs and basic provisions for your visit. You can also learn about the ranger-led walks and talks that happen several times a day and that go to multiple destinations.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The Volcano House awaits you about 100 yards from the visitor center. Virtually the entire south side of the building is glass to allow your first view of the Kilauea Caldera and the Halema’uma’u Crater. Head through the door to the viewing platform to get an even better look at one of the main reasons you came to the park.

Volcanoes National Park. (Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

Impact of the 2018 Kilauea eruption

Kilauea, the most active volcano on the planet, had been alive and erupting almost nonstop since 1983. But in May of 2018, a series of earthquakes preceded a new and more vigorous lava flow that created fissures through which gushed rivers of 2,000-degree lava, which made its way relentlessly down the shield volcano and toward the sea. More than 700 houses were lost in neighborhoods that were in its path and Volcanoes National Park was closed for months due to the dangers and damage.

The consistent volume of lava flowing would have filled 40,000 dump trucks per hour. The total amount of lava released would fill about 300,000 Olympic swimming pools and cover the entire island of Manhattan with 27 feet of lava. An additional 875 acres of new land was created by the lava as it interacted with the ocean waters. The Halema’uma’u Crater has almost doubled its size since May of 2018, and has gotten about 1,500 feet deeper.

Damage to the infrastructure of the park has resulted in both short term and long-term closures. The Jaggar Museum and crater lookout was the most popular attraction in VNP, and it was damaged significantly by last year’s activity. The ledge that it sits on has now been declared unsteady and it is highly likely the site will never reopen. The Thurston Lava Tube has been closed to the public for the past 16 months, but progress is being made toward its reopening later this year. (A lava tube is like a self-created subway tunnel for lava.) The highly traveled Crater Rim Trail and Crater Rim Drive are both only partially available to the public at this time.

Another significant post-2018 eruption development is that Kilauea is now sleeping. After 38 straight years of lava flowing and lava glowing, right now there is nada lava. No flow, no glow.

The lava lake in the Halema’uma’u Crater has been replaced for the first time in known history with water. Experts are a little wary of this new situation, as they are concerned that when Pele turns the hot lava faucet back on, that mixture of lava and water could lend itself to a more explosive reaction.

(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

Things to do at Volcanoes National Park

To appreciate and experience the offerings of the park, we visited the steam vents, drove the Chain of Craters Road and hiked the Devastation and Halema’uma’u Crater trails.

The 38-mile round-trip Chain of Craters Road is like a geological history map of recent and long-ago volcanic activity. The road follows and bisects several massive lava flow fields that stretch for miles until they disappear into the ocean’s edge.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The road has a significant elevation drop of 3,700 feet, and it is therefore easy to figure out which way the lava is wont to go. We found unexpected beauty on our excursions onto the lava beds in the color variance of the lava itself, the artistic qualities of the random flow patterns and in the vegetation now calling the lava home.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

Following the road to its conclusion will lead you past the petroglyph fields to the Holei Sea Arch.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Holei Sea Arch. (NPS Photo by S. Geiger)

Just a short drive from the Visitor Center on the part of the Crater Rim Drive that is open, you will find Devastation Trail. This short hike gives you a graphic illustration of the dramatic environmental changes associated with this volatile area. A dense rainforest occupied this landscape prior to a 1959 eruption that left the area burned, barren and covered in a lava/cinder mix. As time has passed, nature has started its never-ending cycle to reclaim what was lost. Life is returning and, given enough time, will surely recreate its former self until … it starts all over again.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Devastation Trail. (Photo courtesy of NPS)

The Halema’uma’u Trail is another interesting, moderate hike that quickly takes you through some of the extremely diverse vegetative zones seen in this national park. The walk starts near the Volcano House and descends through an almost jungle environment that is wet, warm and very conducive to prolific plant growth. The forest trail is closely lined and canopied by huge healthy ferns and native trees and plants.

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

The hike takes you down about 500 feet in less than a mile as you essentially go down the sidewalls of the Kilauea Crater until you reach its caldera. Goodbye greenhouse, hello Mars.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

The hike used to continue to near the edge of the Halema’uma’u Crater, but the recent volcanic activity has restricted this access.

After the immersion in the contrasting temperature, exposure and landscape at the crater, you return up the tropical hillside. Our party of four ranged from a 4-year-old to a 70-year-old and all made the trek OK. A few strategic resting stops await those wishing for a quick break to either catch a breath or to linger a moment longer to absorb the surroundings.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

Where to stay at Volcanoes National Park

Lodging in the park is limited. The historic Volcano House has 33 guest rooms and sits adjacent to Halema’uma’u Crater on the Kilauea Caldera. Rates vary depending on date and type of accommodation, but average in the $250 to $350 per night range.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Ten rustic (read: basic) camper cabins are located nearby in the Namakanipaio Campground for $80 a night. Our one overnight stay was in one of these cabins. It proved to be quite adequate and a nice balance to the nicer resorts and hotels we experienced on the rest of our trip.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Namakanipaio Campground. (Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

 

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

A limited number of campsites are also available in the park for $15 each. Additional lodging can be found 10 minutes away by car in Volcano Village, or 30 miles away in Hilo, where a wide array of options are located, such as the Hilton Naniloa in Hilo where we stayed using Hilton points the night after we finished exploring Volcanos National Park.

Where to eat

Pick up some fresh pastries at Punalu’u Bake Shop on your way into the park (if coming from the Kona side) and save those for snacks as there aren’t a ton of dining options within the park. Volcano House does serve sit-down meals, but it can take a while and the cost of sit-down meals adds up.

There are a few other restaurants in the immediate vicinity, such as the Lava Rock Cafe, where we enjoyed chili and stir-fry one night, as well as a well-reviewed Tuk Tuk Thai Food Truck we missed on this trip.

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Surprises within the park

One of the bigger surprises that we learned was that the park is the 15th most-visited national park, with about 2.5 million annual visitors. We were amazed at this statistic because you do not just casually drop by the park to check out the lava. It is not like being at the Grand Canyon in Arizona when, on a spontaneous whim, you decide to head north to Utah to scout out the hoodoos in Bryce or The Narrows in Zion — this one is over 2,300 miles of ocean away.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

One jaw-dropping and smile-inducing experience we shared in the park was the perceived closeness and intensity of the stars. The Big Dipper was directly overhead, but its name truly did not do it justice. Maybe the Extra Large, Bigger, Badder, Bolder, Brighter Dipper would have been more appropriate. Each of the seven stars shined so brightly and so clearly that the stellar array seemed to be sitting just above the treetops. It was as if 5 watt bulbs had been replaced by 100 watters. We wished the opportunity to view the stars atop the nearby 13,500 foot Mauna Kea had presented itself on this trip. Mauna Kea is recognized as the top astronomical observation area in the Northern Hemisphere due to its elevation, clean air, cloud-free skies and dark nights. Next time, for sure.

(Photo by J. Wei/National Park Service)
(Photo by J. Wei/National Park Service(

Bottom line

We hope to return to Volcanoes National Park someday. We really want to see those stars again and hope to see the lava lake in the Halema’uma’u Crater glowing like a cauldron with orangish-red lava streams flowing gently (and safely) to the sea. Pele, are you listening?

Featured image courtesy of Summer Hull / The Points Guy

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