A trip to Hawaii’s Big Island is not complete without a visit to Volcanoes National Park!
At the time of our visit, the Kilauea volcano was the only one erupting, and it was really a quite minor eruption. For people interested in much larger eruptions, the recent news of the Mauna Loa eruption is quite exciting. Fortunately, it appears that catastrophic damage has been avoided, but you never know exactly what a volcano is going to do. No matter when you visit, make sure you stop by the ranger station to find out which trails are safe and where you can get the best viewpoints given your particular fitness level.
To set expectations – for many years, between 1983 and 2018, there was very predictable lava flow at this park. This eruption effectively stopped in 2018. The park is still worth visiting, but it’s not like it was a few years back.
Since we were traveling as a multi-generational family, our strategy was to split up for the day. Jeremy and I took our teenage boys to Volcanoes National Park during the daytime when we could do some longer hiking, while my parents decided to explore the south side of the island during the day, and then visit the park in the evening when the red-hot glow would be more apparent. Of course, this would require two cars, so if that is not an option for you, consider how you can make a visit enjoyable for all.
Getting to Volcanoes National Park can be somewhat far from Kona, one of the most popular areas to stay on Big Island. Accommodations close to the park are sparse, so if this is important to you, plan ahead! In our case, the drive from our condo to the Kilauea Visitor’s Center was about 2 hours. If you aren’t able to stay near the park, and this sounds too far for a day trip, consider staying near Hilo, which is only a 45 minute drive.
Fortunately, the south side of the island is beautiful! We thoroughly enjoyed the drive!
The Kilauea Visitor’s Center
On arrival to Volcanoes National Park, we drove straight the the Kilauea Visitor’s Center. While the inside exhibits were closed (I think due to Covid), they had a ranger standing outside giving a talk about the current park conditions.
While we had hoped to do a 6 mile hike that started at the Devastation Trailhead, then continued through Uēaloha (Byron Ledge), the Kīlauea Iki Crater, and Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube), we learned a couple of interesting things that altered our plans. First, we learned that our planed hike would not take us through the most active part of the volcanic activity and, second, that the Thurston Lava Tube was closed due to structural concerns.
In the end, we decided to do several shorter hikes. One that would take us to the most interesting volcanic activity, and another that would take us through the Kīlauea Iki Crater.
Old Crater Road Lookout
Note that volcanic activity changes over time. What was interesting at our time of travel may not be as interesting during your time of travel. That said, we decided to park at the Devastation Trailhead and do a 1 mile hike (each way) down Old Crater Road.
The views were interesting, but not nearly as cool as we had hoped. We could see the steam and some very faint red, but we were really quite far away and the red isn’t super apparent until after sunset. Our Fagradalsfjall volcano hike in Iceland was probably a little more interesting. Of course, with Mauna Loa erupting, there are probably many more hiking/viewing options than we had.
After enjoying the scenery for a bit, we headed back to our car.
Kīlauea Iki Crater Trail
From our parking spot at Devastation Trail, we could have tried to do our 6 mile hike, but since moving the car was easy, we decided to relocate to the Kīlauea Iki Overlook and do the Kīlauea Iki Trail. Note that as evening approaches, these small parking lots will fill up quickly!
We started on the Crater Rim Trail, which felt quite lush.
Fairly quickly, we reached the cutoff to descend into the crater.
The vegetation quickly disappeared and we were left with clear signs of old volcanic activity.
All of us had a lovely time! We felt fortunate that there were some clouds, and even a few raindrops, but no dangerous rain. On a hot day, there is no shade and the hike can be scorching. On a rainy day, the rocks can be quite slick. We felt like we had the best of both worlds!
Eventually, as the rain turned from a few raindrops into something slightly more substantial, we made it to the other side of the crater and entered the lush forest again!
If the Thurston Lava Tubes would have been open, we would have made a detour there, but decided to just head back to the car instead.
The hike on the Crater Rim trail was quite pleasant. If my parents wouldn’t have been able to go in a separate car, it would have been possible to have them walk on that trail while we descended into the crater. But then, they probably would have had to wait a while for us. Splitting up was the best option.
Once back at the car, we decided to drive by a few viewpoints on the Crater Rim Drive, stopping by the Steam Vents and making it as far as Uēkahuna, but decided that our hiking had been the highlight.
We could have driven the Chain of Craters Road, but decided that we had seen enough and that we were ready to head out.
From here, we decided to drive back to Hilo, even though we had been there a few days before. I decided I really wanted some poke (Hawaiian sushi) so we stopped at a very good takeout-only place, then got the boys some food from McDonalds. Everyone was happy!
We wandered around the Liliʻuokalani Gardens again, where the boys enjoyed playing on a small island, then got some shave ice!
Eventually, we decided to drive back to our condo via the saddle road, currently a great viewing point for the Mauna Loa eruption!
While Jeremy, the boys, and I enjoyed a quite evening from our lanai, my parents were having a different experience.
Instead, they were still at Volcanoes National Park and were enjoying beautiful views of the lava. I was a little jealous, but was still very happy with our day hike.
What a wonderful day! If you travel to Hawaii, try to see some volcanic activity!