This post is an alternative for those traveling to the Big Island when volcanic activity is minimal. My first trip to the island, this was exactly the case and was a tough pill to swallow as I was expecting something much different. But the power of Pele is all around and active flow or not, you have to stop by and spend a little time in Volcano.
We landed on the Kona side and made the trek to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park first thing. The climate change half-way through the drive was incredible. You begin essentially at the beach and before long it’s cold and rainy and foggy and you forget you’re even in Hawaii! When we arrived at the gates, it was an aesthetic not even Hollywood could create, and as always, pictures couldn’t hardly do justice.
Even as I type this, I’m struggling to find a way to describe it. My memory paints a scene similar to something from Jurassic Park. As you drive through the lush forest/jungle, large plumes of smoke puff from the ground, an eerie reminder of what’s beneath. The smell of volcanic gasses pollute the air. The truth is, you’re not just now arriving at the volcano…you’ve been on it since your flight landed. Now you’re in the heart of it. An experience as surreal as it is a reminder of your mortality.
To get straight to the point, scroll to the bottom of this post for my TOP FIVE to-dos in ONE DAY IN VOLCANO.
We checked into our rooms and headed back to “The Steam Vents,” right at the gates of the park. There are places for parking so that you can hop out and explore. We walked to the steam and ran our hands through it, feeling the warmth. Fields and fields of this all around. Straight ahead, we walked through a field as if we sort of knew where we were going. We’d heard you could see puffs of smoke from the crater itself from our general location so we were on the hunt. Looking back, I have to laugh. When we first peered through the trees and caught glimpse of the glowing orange clouds we really felt like we’d discovered something never seen before. In reality, with a map, we would’ve known exactly where to walk. Nonetheless, there she was! The darker it got, the darker the glow. It was from that point that I became obsessed.
We had dinner at the Volcano house. It was mostly bar food with an unbeatable view of the crater we’d just discovered about an hour earlier (;
From dinner we headed to the Jaggar Museum. This is the most epic view of the park. There’s of course a museum as well, but we went solely for the view of the crater. Our little cabin had a fireplace, and believe me this was a much appreciated feature in the chilly volcano night! We made s’mores and headed our jet-lagged butts to bed early in anticipation of an eventful day!
To get acquainted with the wonders of the area we kicked our day off with a drive down Chain of Craters Road, which winds through lava fields of the past and eventually ends where previous flows met the ocean. There are multiple opportunities to stop and explore, and snap photos along the drive. This part remains my favorite way to start the adventure that is Mt. Kilauea.
I’m not sure how others would describe these cooled lava fields but in my words: Cake Batter. And that alone should be reason enough to check it out.
*This road also leads to the Holei Sea Arch and the potential glimpse of dolphins.*
We finished our drive right around lunch and decided to head over to the Thai Thai Restaurant to grab something to eat. From there we went to a black sand beach for the rest of the day. (This beach is not in Volcano but because the lava was not actually flowing, we had plans of heading back to Hapuna the next day. Being that the island is so large, we wanted to squeeze in as much as possible in a short amount of time. From the black sand beach we headed to KaLae–the southern most point of the United States–for the sunset, and then back to Volcano for dinner.
We woke up pretty early the next morning and hiked Iki Crater before leaving Volcano. This was super cool! We’d expected across the old lava lake to be sweltering in the sun but were pleasantly surprised at how mild the weather actually was. You begin your descent into the crater through the jungle. When you get to the bottom it is a straight trek across, basically the moon. Steam puffs from the ground along the way. It’s pretty unreal and will likely be one of the more unique hikes you do in your life if you decide to go for it. I highly recommend it, it’s not difficult!
ONE DAY IN VOLCANO:
I recommend lodging inside the park so you can seize the day (; We stayed at Kilauea Military Camp in a cabin with a fireplace! If you are active duty/ retired military I would take advantage of this place. Also heads up to my military people…if you have a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass you will get into the park itself for free with a valid military ID. Civilians…check out the Kilauea Lodge or the Volcano House for a room with a view.
This is one for the morning before the sun really kicks in and the tourists flood the gates. It’s a 4 mile hike but it is one of the most unique ones you will ever take. Stepping out onto the hardened lake of lava feels kind of like the closest you will get to going for a walk on the moon. There are few trees once you make it through the initial descent but all in all the crater is not as hot as you would think. From the top it looks like a hike across a giant black top in the beating sun but once at the bottom, there is a breezy relief. However…BRING WATER. LOTS. You can do this hike in about 2 hours but please take your time and stop for photos. Where else are you going to find steam vents puffing out of the ground on which you’re walking??? And yes you can wave your hands through the steam and feel the rocks & yes it is hot.
[This lava-lake is from the eruption of Kilauea Iki Crater almost 60 years ago.] *
& ‘Iki’ means small …haha
- 4 mile hike/ about 2 hrs
- well-defined path (my parents hiked it with me with ease)
- bring water/ sunscreen & a camera/selfie stick!
Thurston Lava Tube.
If you just finished the Iki Crater hike, this is perfect to cool you down. It’s also basically where the Iki hike spits you out. This is one you want to do to say you did it and it will take less than 15 minuets before you head back to your car. The 500-year-old lava tube is a lot like a cave…except it’s a 500-YEAR-OLD LAVA TUBE.
Chain of Craters Road.
This drive was one of my favorite parts of Volcano National Park. The drive itself is about 40 miles but if you do it right, it should take you about 2 hours. Along the way you’ll pass fields and fields of hardened lava from previous eruptions that looks so much like cake batter, you’ll wish you had a giant spoon. You MUST get out and explore. This is not a road trip for flip flops! You should still be in your shoes from your hike if you are following my recommendation and good thing (;
You’re going to want to take some of the lava home. Don’t. If you’ve seen the Brady Bunch, then you already know. Pele is the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. Taking home her lava means taking home Pele’s curse.
This is also where the lava flow meets the water!! The view is absolutely gorgeous…if you’re into that sort of thing (; But keep in mind, the lava is not necessarily actively flowing into the ocean right now… The lava at the end of the drive is from the 1986 eruption. Another thing I had been hoping to see was the lava crossing the road, also not the case. Because the volcano itself is still active, lava flow threatening the town of Pahoa made it necessary to open up the road as an emergency route, thus the flow has been cleared.
*Bring snacks. There is a very small concession stand at the end of the drive..I’m talking chips and drinks. (expensive ones)
You want to hit this around dusk for the coolest aesthetic. These steam vents are at the entry of the park. When we drove through, it had just finished raining and while the white and gray may look like fog, it’s actually hot steam puffing from the ground. The smell of sulphur and the heat exuded are an eerie reminder that you are trekking around on the world’s most active volcano! Stick around as it gets dark and you can see the smoke begin its nightly red glow from the Halema’uma’u Crater.
This is the best place to really experience the ‘volcano’ in its most idealized glory. From this lookout point it’s nothing but humongous clouds of smoke, lit by the orange and red glow of the lava lake churning below. I made a HUGE photographer mistake in this trip when I neglected to bring my tripod. You will want yours if you are visiting to humbly attempt to capture this beast in a photo. I recommend this view for the night, though it would also be worth a daytime visit. The volcanic activity is monitored but it’s also ever-changing. These were the conditions when I first visited but of course, depending on when you are there, you could be in for a real show (;
Feel free to check here for current conditions when you’re planning your trip!
**End with dinner at the Volcano House. They serve great bar food, for the most reasonable prices in the area. If you hit it at the right time, you may get a window seat, overlooking the same crater that is pictured above!**
So what’s #1 on your list??