Day 4: Volcanoes National Park
On day four on the Big Island, it’s time to get closely acquainted with the island’s ruling element: fire! You cannot visit Hawaii without paying a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the highlights of every trip. The park is home to the Kilauea Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, enlarging the Big Island at the expense of the ocean since 1983 (learn more about the volcano here).
Due to recent lava eruptions, quite a few spots seem to be closed as of March 2019. I strongly advise to (1) stay up to date with on the official web page of what’s open and what’s closed inside the national park and (2) stop at the visitor center upon entrance to the national park to finalize your itinerary. Remember, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is centered around a highly active volcano. As such, it will always adapt to the current environment. Closures and re-openings are frequent events, so planning and flexibility are required on your part.
Logistics: to maximize your time on this side of the island (days 4+5), I strongly advise to either stay within the park grounds or book an accommodation in and around Hilo. There is not much in terms of food options within the park so bring with you a packed lunch, snacks, and water. Be prepared for changing weather, with sweat-repelling clothing, rain gear, something warm for after sunset, comfortable hiking gear (walking poles and binoculars are optional). Be aware that toxic vog is present in the air and may cause respiratory problems for some. It is best to always start your visit at the visitor’s center and check on weather/road conditions while stocking up on brochures. Entry fee to the park is currently $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days.
Note that you could spend multiple days in the national park, hiking, camping and exploring. However, the itinerary presented here allows you to experience the very best of the park in a single full day. It is also worth mentioning that currently, you cannot get close to the lava flow from within park grounds. But not to worry, on day 5 we’ll wrap up your visit to the Big Island with this exceptional experience.
Kona to Volcanoes National Park
Get a very early start on this day and aim to be on the road by no later than 8 am. It’s a 2.5-hour drive from Kailua-Kona to the park’s entrance and there is one stop to be made on the way. Note that if you’re heading this way on a weekend or holiday, there will be some traffic, especially in one-lane sections of the road. Reaching the park by 11 am is perfectly OK as you’ll hang around here until after sunset.
The only worthwhile stop en route is at the tiny village of Punalu’u. It is here that you can buy the Big Island’s best malasadas and sweetbread at Punalu’u Bake Shop, and grab awesome sandwiches to-go at Hana Hou Restaurant.
Kilauea Iki Hike
After stretching your legs at the visitor’s center, checking on road/weather conditions and stocking up on brochures, I highly recommend to officially commence your visit with the Kilauea Iki hike. It is the most rewarding and longest highlight of the day so it’s best to do this first. If there’s one hike to be done in the park, it is this one – a moderate hike that basically takes you to the moon and back (4m or 6.5km loop).
Park at the Kilauea Iki Overlook and catch a glimpse of what’s ahead – truly a spectacular view. The trailhead is on the side of the overlook, a well-marked path leading to the crater floor via a misty rainforest.
Once you begin the descent down to the crater – the ancient lava lake – things really start to get interesting. Down here, the look and feel is that of an alien landscape, filled with active steam vents, strange rock formations, and a smooth crater floor made of packed volcanic ash.
After walking the length of the crater floor, you begin the ascent back to the car park, actually reaching the entrance of the Thurston Lava Tube – our next stop.
Thurston Lava Tube
This is one of the most popular stops within the park and if you are traveling with children – this is a must. This 480-meter long lava tube was created when the flow of lava ended and all that was left was the exterior ‘pipe’. The tube’s entrance is reached via a flight of steps in the thick rainforest. Once inside, you’ll feel like a proper miner, except this underground cavern is courtesy of mother nature. This is a quick 30-minute (max) stop, after which you will return to the car and begin the scenic Chain of Craters Road.
Chain of Craters Road
This scenic 20-mile drive is another must-do activity in the park – a paved road dropping down the slopes of Kilauea right to the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean (90 minutes return without stops). On the way, there are many stops to be made as you pass several small craters, but the scenic highlights begin with the gradual descent via a not-so-ancient-lava-field. The views are surreal and you can stop and walk on parts of the lava field for close inspection.
Towards the end of the road, you’ll see signs to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. This is a very short and easy hike (2.5km return) that brings you to a viewing area where ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs decorate the basalt boulders.
At the very end of the road, you’ll clearly see steam rising into the air in the far distance. This is the current Kilauea lava flow meeting the Pacific Ocean. It is possible to hike very close to that spot from right here (10 miles each way), but it is best to do it from ‘the other side’ – something we’ll do tomorrow.
From the end of the road, it’s a very short walk to the Holei Sea Arch, an impressive rock formation shaped by millennia of waves. From here, you can often spot humpback whales (in season). There is also a small ranger station, toilets, and a modest snack bar.
Jaggar Museum Lava Viewing Area
By now it is late afternoon and almost time for sunset. Head back up the Chain of Craters Road towards the Jaggar Museum. On the way, stop at the steam vents and warm up a bit, courtesy of Mother Nature (you seriously cannot miss them).
Park the car at the Jaggar Museum and prepare for sunset. The museum itself is a very interesting stop on its own, clearly and visually explaining the park’s geological and mythological history, as well as educating on matters relating to the volcanic activity. It is here that I learned of an underwater volcano not too far from the present-day coastline of the Big Island that will one day rise and add a new ‘chunk’ to the already massive landmass.
In March 2019, the Jaggar Museum and its post-sunset viewing area were closed. Stay up to date with on the official park website to see what’s open and what’s closed inside the national park. Inquire at the visitor center for alternatives, if needed.
The museum is also the closest you can presently get to the Kilauea Caldera and the Halema’uma’u Crater – the residence of the fire goddess Pele and the only viewable lava flow within park grounds. So grab a spot (you will not be alone), take out a pair of binoculars (really makes a difference) and soak in spectacular views that are best described as a massive battlefield. And one more thing: though it’s been a long day, do not be tempted to leave until it is fully dark. On a clear day (and even on a cloudy one), the night sky is illuminated by a pillar of lava tossed into the air by Pele!