Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Location: Hawaii

Park Tally: 57/59

Orientation: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is located on the southern part of the Big Island, in the Islands of Hawai’i. The park is a known for its geothermal activity, volcanic history, rare wildlife and unique ecosystems. Though most known for its fiery nature, Hawai’i Volcanoes has 7 established ecological zones – alpine, subalpine, upland forest, rain forest, mid-elevation woodland, lowland, and seacoast.

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Hawai’i Volcanoes’ landscape is constantly changing due to lava flow and resurfacing from two active volcanoes within the park. These include Mauna Loa – the most massive subaerial volcano in the entire world, and Kilauea – one of the most active volcanoes in the world. These volcanoes are sacred to natives of the Islands of Hawai’i, who enjoy sharing the legend of Pele – the Hawaiian goddess of nature’s greatest forces: fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes. It is said that if you anger Pele, you will have bad fortune for all of eternity.

Hawai’i Volcanoes’ main section can be found nearby the Kīlauea Visitor Center, Jagger Museum and Crater Rim Drive. There is the option to camp at the Nāmakanipaio Campground, though many visitors choose to stay in the nearby town of Volcano where there is more lodging, restaurants, gas and a small grocery store.

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Most iconic view:  You can’t beat the view of the Halema’uma’u Crater on the Kīlauea caldera at dusk. Visitors can watch the sun go down and peer into the glowing crater from the Jagger Museum overlook, only 100 feet away! The lava activity can be enjoyed best at after sunset as the explosive red magma bursts with life under a blanket of stars. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset as crowds quickly grow as people vie for a viewing spot.

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Accessible activity:  There are numerous easy-to-access and family friendly activities in the park. One of our favorites was Chain of Craters Road. This 18.8-mile long road begins off of Crater Rim Drive and covers a change in elevation of 3,700-feet. This scenic drive provides a glimpse of the slow advance the lava has taken to cross the coastal plain. In fact, parts of Crater Rim Drive have been destroyed by lava on numerous occasions. Be sure to stop at the Hōlei Sea Arch – a coastal arch of dried lava.

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Another laidback adventure is the Thurston Lava Tube trail (1/3 of a mile, paved). Visitors are treated to the rare opportunity to walk through a 500-year old lava cave, formed when an underground channel of molten lava drained from its cooled walls. Hikers also get to experience a tropical rainforest as they enter and exit the lava tube.

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For the adventurous: Trekking out to see the lava in person is quite the adventure, and definitely an activity to be considered with caution. Before setting out on a hike it is recommend to drop into a visitor center to enquire about wind direction and levels of volcanic gas. Hiking to active lava flow in the park is allowed, but it’s not for everyone. Leaving from the end of Chain of Craters Road, hikers can trek 10-12 miles (roundtrip) on rough terrain and hot temperatures to view active lava flow. Be sure to wear closed hiking shoes, long pants, and take a flash light plus plenty of water.

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Due to conditions, with opted to hike from the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area (east of the park boundary). We rented bicycles and rode approximately 3.5-miles down a dirt road, then hiked 2 miles out to the lava (total distance of 7 miles on bicycle, 4 miles on dried lava). It wasn’t easy but 100% worth the trek to get up close and personal to active lava flow. Note – down that same dirt road you can also view the lava entering the ocean (from a distance).

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Best photo opportunities: Our two favorite photography spots were sunset/dusk at the Halema’uma’u Crater, and then our close-up encounter with the lava flow. Both were challenging shooting conditions (moving subjects, dark conditions, wind, heat, humidity) BUT spectacular nonetheless.

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Quick facts

  • Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was established in 1916, making it the 11th national park in the United States and the first in an American territory (at the time).
  • Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980, and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
  • Elevation in the park varies from sea level to 13,667-feet, at the summit of Mauna Loa.
  • Lava in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park flows at an average rate of 800-1,300 gallons per second. Since Kīlauea began erupting in 1983, it has added 500 acres of new land to Big Island. Kīlauea produces 250,000-650,000 cubic yards of lava per day!
  • Rangers of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park report that they receive countless packages in the mail of rocks and lava, from people who after taking a “souvenir” have been stricken with bad luck and fear the legend of Pele.
  • There are 59 endangered species living in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. These include the Hawaiian goose, Hawaiian hoary bat, Hawaiian petrel, hawksbill turtle, and more.
  • In 2016, Hawai’i Volcanoes had 1,887,580 visitors according to the National Park Service.

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