Volcanoes National Park: discover the active volcanoes of Hawaii

Written by Flo Updated on 05/06/2018

Breaking news: Volcanoes National Park has been closed since 11 May due to the risk of an explosive eruption of Kilauea. In addition, most of the park's infrastructure has been significantly damaged following repeated earthquakes that have continued to occur since the resurgence of volcanic activity. No reopening date is announced, the damage is significant and suggests a long period of closure.

If you are a regular visitor to the site, you may have noticed that we tend to be slightly attracted to "volcanic" countries. Certainly because what animates the soils of the places we visit also animates us.

A bit of goelogy...

After Japan and Iceland, Hawaii is something that trotted through our heads for its geological richness. Far be it from me to give you a lecture on volcanoes in the Pacific zone, but let's focus for a few seconds on the mid-Pacific archipelago.

The Hawaiian islands were born from a single hot spot, the Hawaiian hot spot. As a result of the movement of the Pacific plate, the islands of the archipelago have exited one after the other from the ocean in a southeast/northwest direction. A little google map tour in satellite view, and the effect of the hot spot on the ocean floor is immediately obvious. We immediately notice the alignment of small islands from Big Island (the most southeast island of Hawaii) to the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia (small, wild spot that also thrills us ^^).

This hot spot is always active and active. It continues to expand the southeast of Big Island, whose lava originates from the Kilauea and its very active crater: the Pu'u' O'o.

This is the area that we will talk about in this article, the Volcanoes National Park or Parc National des Volcans d' Hawaii in good French.

An area of ​​all records!

The park holds one, let's say two records with the neighbouring volcano, the Mauna Loa (4170m) which happens to be the most massive volcano in the world, and considered to be still active; and the Kilauea (1246m) which is one of the most active volcanoes on our good old earth. Rather than a long speech, I invite you to take a look at the Kilauea Wikipedia,"eruptive history" section to see the forces in the region. For example, the phenomena observed during the eruption of the Kilauea Iki in 1959, which led to a lava fountain 580m high!

So you will understand that we are dealing with a seriously unstable area under constant surveillance. So don't be frustrated when you visit the park to see that some areas are closed to the public because of soil instability or other toxic vapours.

How long does it take to discover Volcanoes National Park?

The park is quite large and has several points of interest which are interesting to do during the day and at nightfall.

The park is divided into three parts. The main zone is around the Kilauea crater. The main points of interest are served by Crater Rim Drive, a 17 km long road that circled the caldera before it was partially closed due to the danger of excessive danger. The second area descends from the Kilauea to the sea via the Chain of Craters Road, a 30 km long road that crosses many lava flows and ancient craters. Finally, the last part is situated in the north. It is accessible from Mauna Loa road. We won't talk about this part because we didn't have time to explore it.

In order to make the most of the places, we recommend that you spend at least 2 days on the spot, and more if you want to hike longer. You can stay close to the park at Volcano Village, or in Hilo at 45 minutes by car.

Due to a lack of time, we only did the trails that we thought were interesting, accessible and quite short. I will detail all the hikes that we think are worth the detour, and there is something to do with the ten or so Day Hikes that make up the park! See the hikes.

Temporary closures

Unfortunately, during our visit to Volcanoes NP, many areas were closed for toxic fumes with police ribbons. The southwestern section between the Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Road was closed for an indefinite period of time. We did not prefer to play by going beyond the signs condemning access. For more information, we advise you to visit the Visitor Center: you will find interesting information on the geology of the park, some short films to better understand the forces here, and glean information of the day such as the weather, volcanic activity and accessible areas.

Price Tip

If you are planning to discover Maui Island during your trip, it will be more interesting to buy the Hawai?i Tri-Park Annual Pass at $25. It is valid for 12 months and allows a car to enter the Volcanoes National Park as well as the Pu?uhonua? O H?naunau National Historical Park (near Kona on Big Island) and the Haleakal? National Park located in Maui. This pass allows you to save $20 if you want to discover the 3 parks. Remember to ask when you first pass the ticket offices at the park entrance.

If you already own the America the beautiful, know that it also works in Hawaii's "National Park", but the pass is not sold on site.

To see around Crater Rim Drive, near Kilauea

Steam Vents

Here vapour fumes come out of the bowels of the earth. They are located in the immediate vicinity of the road. A path will take you to the edge of the caldera of Kilauea from where you can have a wide panorama (but you will not see the lava lake of the Halemaumau Crater) and discover other emanations.

Kilauea Overlook

Just before arriving at the Jaggar Museum, the Kilauea Overlook gives you another panoramic view of the caldera of the Kilauea and the Halemaumau Crater.

Crater Rim Trail

The Crater Rim Trail allows you to walk along the edges of the caldera of the Kilauea. We didn't find it interesting to use it because the road leads directly to the main viewpoints on the crater. However, if you have time in front of you, this can be an interesting alternative to find yourself "alone" in front of the beauty offered by nature around the Halema' uma' uma' u Crater to reach the Jaggar Museum through the Steam Vents.

Jaggar Museum

The Jaggar Museum is a must do! It is first of all a small museum open every day from 8:30 am to 5 pm. Here you will learn a lot about lava types, the seismic activity of a volcano, and monitoring the area. There are even seismographs that record the seismic activity of the park in real time. So we were able to see that a small earthquake of magnitude 3.2 had taken place the day before! Don't hesitate to ask the Rangers, they will be happy to help you. 

The Jaggar Museum is also the best viewpoint on the lava lake of the Halema' uma' uma' u Crater, at the bottom of the caldera of Kilauea. A show to see during the day, and to rediscover the night. Here we are very close to the house of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. She lives here in Halema' uma' uma' u, so this place is very sacred.

Arm yourself with your most beautiful tripods, telephoto lenses and binoculars to immortalize this unique moment of being able to observe the lava spouting from the bowels of the earth. But above all, enjoy it with your eyes, engrave these images in your memory, take out your plaid if it's a little chilly, and enjoy this show alone or with two of you under a starry sky, I guarantee you will never forget it.

Note that the lava lake level varies from day to day. In fact, we observed that the lava was much higher during the day and that it had fallen well when we went back at night.

Kilauea Iki Trail

This is a 6.4km loop that takes you to the heart of this volcano which was in the spotlight in 1959, when it erupted after 3 months of seismic tremors that went crescendo.  This volcano holds a record high eruption height of lava, or lava fountain, with 580 meters (!) of height reached on December 16 of the same year. Some fumaroles were still active at the bottom of the crater.

The trail descends into the crater from the car park and crosses it from one end to the other, going up into the forest to the north. There's nothing to stop you from starting with the forest and ending with the crater.

Our opinion: we just took pictures from the belvedere next to the car park, and only took the time to read the information panels because the day was already well advanced.  We think that taking an hour and a half to 2 hours to cover the volcano is clearly worth it. It's not every day you walk around in a crater... active!

Thurston Lava Tube

This small loop of 500m will take you to a place that you will rarely have the chance to visit. An ancient lava tunnel of the Kilauea 150m long, lit day and night, one more facet of Hawaii's volcanic activity open to visitors.

In the tunnel formed 350 to 500 years ago, the level of lava that once flowed through it is noticeable. Incidentally, its slope was only 2%. Also look at the ceiling and you will see roots! But before you reach the tunnel, you'll have to cross a rainforest. The trail is paved.

As the area is very busy, we recommend that you discover the tunnel at the beginning or end of the day. If, like us, you decide to venture there at night, don't forget your headlamp (or smartphone lamp) to light up the path to the tunnel entrance.

For the more adventurous, it is possible to ask exceptionally to open the other part of the cave, which is not open to the public, to explore in a more intimate way this mysterious place where the traces of the last flows that took place here are still visible.

Devastation Trail

This short 1.6km round trip takes us to a small desert area leading to the Pu' u Pua' i Overlook, which is normally also accessible by car.

Our opinion: we expected a lot from this trail. Unfortunately for us, the path was closed shortly before the point of view of Pu' u Pua' i Overlook, which we felt was THE point of interest in this area, the path is not exceptional in itself. No sign informed of the trail closing!

From the same car park as the Devastation Trail, it is also possible to take the Halema Uma' u Byron Ledge Trail.

To see around Chain of Craters Road, up to the sea

Along Chain of Craters Road, you will discover a myriad of old craters and more or less recent lava fields. Signs indicate the places, do not hesitate to stop there. As you descend, you will see the smoke plume marking the entrance of the Kilauea lava in the ocean.

Pu’u Huluhulu - Nāpau Trail

Here is actually the departure point of several trails, or at least a long trail, the N?pau trail which serves several points of interest: Pu'u Huluhulu, Mauna Ulu and Nāpau, which follow the same path in their first part, up to Pu'u Huluhulu.

The Pu' u Huluhulu is actually an old crater covered with vegetation from where you can observe the area that extends to the Puuu `Ō`ō, the currently active volcano of Hawaii, when weather permits. Don't expect a grandiose view, it is a promontory at the top of which you can see the smoke from the crater in the distance.

We then joined the Mauna Ulu, the highest volcano in the area, which is an unofficial trail even though the cairns indicate that a path seems to pass through it. The crater's bowels are still released from toxic fumes. Also watch out for the crater's surroundings, which are very unstable.

The access is from the N?pau Trail by making your way through the lava field. From here you will have a 360° unobstructed view of Puuu `Ō`ō, the smoke plume of the lava entrance into the ocean, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea in very clear weather, and the more difficult it is to guess the caldera of Kilauea.

And to finish the Nāpau Trail will take you on or near a succession of volcanoes: Pu' u Huluhulu, Mauna Ulu, Makaopuhi and to finish the Nāpau. You will be here almost alone in the world and as close as possible to Pu`u `Ō`ō`, the area that surrounds it being closed. You are almost in communion (4.5 km away) with the most active volcano on the planet. Unique.

The whole trail will take 19 km to go back and forth, 6 hours of walking, but you can stop at Mauna Ulu which is only 2 km away.

The path is easy to reach Pu'u Huluhulu where numbered terminals will give you information about the consequences of the eruption of Mauna Ulu between 1969 and 1974 (small paid paper guide).

Our opinion: once again pressed by the sunset, we almost accidentally went to the top of Mauna Ulu and enjoyed the view, despite the slight fog, and admired Pu`u `Ō`ō We were alone, amazed by the show in front of our eyes and also a little bit cold, the night arrived quickly on us (we finished the walk with the lamp of the smartphone...). But what a pleasure to be up there far from the crowds, with the scenery of this landscape tormented by the forces of nature. A real crush. We regret that we did not have an extra day to cover the whole hike.

Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs

Just before arriving at the seaside, you can stop to observe ancient petroglyphs engraved by the first civilizations. This is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Hawaii. To discover them, a small loop of 1.5 km allows you to reach the area.

End of Chain Crater Road

See the 2003 lava flow

It is possible to observe the flow that cut the road here in 2003 from the small car park at the end of the Chain of Crater Road where a "mini" Visitor Center awaits you and amenities. You will also find all the information you need to get to the lava flows from the rangers, but don't come too early because before 9am-10am there is no one on site.

Allow about 1 km of walking time before reaching the pour, or 30 minutes to go/return.

Our opinion: we would have liked to have had more time to get closer to the lava flows, unfortunately we could only have done here the H?lei Sea Arch. The round trip to see the lava cover of the road seemed of limited interest to us, having seen this kind of thing on the other side of the park on the same road or in Iceland.

Access to active lava flows

From this point, it is also possible to approach the area where the lava flows into the ocean. The location varies as the flows move. In April 2017, this point was 8 km from the car park, i. e. 16 km round-trip. Note that the area has no shade and the soil is black, so the heat is even more intense. We recommend that you access the area from the other side of the large lava flow, which we did (see below).

It is also possible to browse the area for active surface flows. Before embarking on this long and dangerous adventure, visit the Visitor Center to find out about the visible activity and the areas where it has been observed. When we came here, there was hardly any activity on the surface. Despite our attempts, we couldn't see anything :(

If you want to try the adventure, don't forget to bring plenty of water and a headlamp if you come back after dark. There is no lighting except a flashing light that shows you the path vaguely.

Hōlei Sea Arch

Just after the parking lot at the end of Chain of Craters Road, take a look at Hōlei Sea Arch, a volcanic arch formed by ocean erosion.

Kalapana Lava Flows (out of the park)

See lava flow dipping into the ocean

Located near Kalapana, east of the 2003 flow, the Pacific entrance of the lava is a unique spectacle. If volcanic activity is present, you will see the plume at a distance of about 300/400m (depending on the random orientation of the flow).

It all started in the old town of Kalapana, which was buried after a lava flow in 1990. Today, nature is trying to regain its rights and some people have rebuilt their homes where they used to live. 

It is advisable to come here a little before sunset to enjoy it with daylight, and to contemplate the reddish plume at night, adding a little magic to the scene. Cross your fingers so that the south/south-east wind is in the area to clear the spotless smoke.

The show is magical. Expect to sit for more than an hour to watch the show and occasionally admire a few small streams of lava.

Please take a look at the following video if you would like to learn more about access conditions, the viewing point and hiking in the lava field.

Please note that access to the Kalapana car park is only accessible from 3pm. Parking spaces are limited. First come, first served. Don't delay too long, as there is a risk that you will no longer have room or the possibility of renting a bicycle (see below).

3 options to admire the lava enter the ocean

By foot

It's free, but long, it takes about 2 hours to get there from the car park (6.5km) and beware, there is no shade on the way. Include all the necessary equipment: good shoes, lots of water, binoculars, camera with telephoto lens, blanket and especially headlamp, especially if you want to explore the lava fields at night (orange beacons blink for lost people).

By bike (our recommendation)

At the end of the parking lot, you will find a palanquée of bike rental companies, between 15$ and 30$ per bike, with bicycles more or less well maintained (and more or less all terrain). Don't hesitate to negotiate! Depending on the rental companies, you will also have to return your precious machine before 9pm or 10pm. Allow 30 minutes to cover the 6.5km from the car park. The outward journey goes up a little more than backwards, but overall expect to go up and down the whole route. For the material, same as above. Once you reach the end of the road, leave your bike and continue on foot. The point of view is only a few dozen meters away.

The path leading to the area is wide and covered with small gravel. Dry toilets are installed at the beginning and at the halfway point. Be careful, there's no water point.

By boat

Are you loaded with money? This solution is for you! You can go rubbing against lady nature and approach the flow at best (a few tens of meters only!). You will have to go to Kapoho and pay about $200 per head to have the privilege of being in the front row seats. Be careful though, if the wind is not favourable, you may not fully enjoy the show. Finally, prefer in the evening so that darkness will increase the beauty of the place tenfold.

See lava flows on the surface

Near the lava flows, you can walk through the ancient lava flows that have recently solidified. If you're lucky, you'll even be able to admire fresh flows and see lava in front of your eyes. To do this, walk or cycle to the end of the trail, near the area where the lava enters the ocean (with good facilities). But instead of heading south to the ocean, head north.

Now try to spot active flows, which can sometimes be several hours walk away!  Know that there is no route, just indications on a sign to give you some clues to locate the flows. During the day, pay attention to the noises. At night, you will be able to spot the flows more easily thanks to their red glow.

Also be prepared not to see any red lava, because if, as for us, the activity is low on that day, it is very likely that you will not see anything. But in any case, the walk on the recent lava field will be very interesting.

Please note that excursions are proposed, accompanied by a guide who will take you to the right place (count $60-80/person).

If you wish to go alone, I can only warn you about the dangerousness of the area. It is an area where the ground is unstable and hides many caves of lava that have emptied themselves and are only waiting to collapse under the weight of an adventurous hiker. Gas pockets may also explode. Accidents are rare, but they do exist, so be careful.

Don't worry, you will feel the warmth radiate from the ground before you set foot in a flow.

If possible, follow the tracks of other hikers, or ask for directions to the hikers you will meet in the opposite direction. The advice is not easy to give as the layout of the flows changes from one day to the next, or even several times a day.

Smoke coming out of the ground is already a good indication of the hot spots you may encounter. Since these fumes are toxic, avoid inhaling them as much as possible. Last but not least, if you venture here at night, take care to memorize your trip and at least keep an orange flashing beacon in sight. This will save you from spending the night wandering around in a lava field, even if it will make you feel crisp when you get home!

Have you ever had the opportunity to observe active volcanoes so close up?

The translation may not be accurate. If you detect any errors, please let us know , and we will correct them immediately. Thank you and sorry for this inconvenience. Sandrine & Flo

  1. Author avatar
    Francis D.

    Coucou les toulousains! nous sommes lotois et nous sommes en pleine préparation du voyage à Hawaii du 30 août au 24 septembre; nous avons lu et relu tous vos commentaires et conseils et nous avons planifié 4 îles: Oahu (2 nuits + 3 nuits), Kauai (5 nuits), Maui (5 nuits), et Big Island (10 nuits, 5 à Kona et 5 à Volcano); ça a été un peu dur pour les vols (815€ depuis Paris...), pas trop mal pour les hébergements (25 nuits à environ 85€ par nuit); il reste les voitures... Un grand merci pour tout ce que vous avez mis en ligne! Nous aurons sans doute aussi des petits conseils à donner plus tard...

    • Smartrippers avatar

      Bonjour Francis! Merci beaucoup :-) Septembre est une très belle période, vous avez eu raison! Pour les vols, effectivement l'addition peut être vite salée. Les prix fluctuent beaucoup. Il est possible de trouver des billets moins chers en étant chanceux de tomber sur une promo (mais fin aout c'est plutôt rare), en partant d'une autre ville d'Europe ou en combinants plusieurs compagnies d'alliances différentes, mais forcément, ça augmente la durée du voyage et le risque des correspondances plus complexes. Pour les locations de voitures, on vous conseille de regarder du côté de Discount USA Car Rental. Ils sont généralement les mieux placés en prix pour Hawaii (car l'agence est d'origine Hawaiienne) et vous pouvez annuler quand vous voulez sans payer d'acompte. Côté budget, pensez aussi à mettre de côté pour l'alimentation qui est malheureusement très chère sur place, même en supermarché. Hawaii est une destination absolument magnifique, mais sa localisation géographique la rend onéreuse :'( N'hésitez pas à nous partager votre retour d'expérience :-) On vous souhaite de bons préparatifs et un très beau voyage!

  2. Author avatar

    Coucou les Smartrippers ! Je suis en train de préparer mon voyage prévu pour Juin 2018. Autant dire que je visite votre site 3fois par jour en ce moment ! Alors je laisse des petites infos au passage quand moi aussi j'en ai :) Juste pour vous préciser, si vous voulez actualiser vos infos, que le tri park pass était passé à 30$ en juin 2017 quand nous y sommes allés l'année dernière. Nous avons la chance de pouvoir réutiliser celui de l'année dernière, mais je regarderai quand même à combien il est cette année. Cette année, nous prévoyons de faire l'intégralité du Napau trail, grâce à vos conseils. Le kilauea Iki trail a été notre coup de coeur l'an dernier. On pourra comparer comme ça. SI vous y retourné, ne le manquez pas ! Il prend environ 3h à la cool (on avait fait notre pause dej dans le cratère + beaucoup de photos). Pour ce qui est des coulées de lave en surface, je pense qu'il faudra remettre au moins 3 étoiles à votre système de notation :) :) :) Il est dans mon top 1 des plus belles choses que j'ai vu sur cette planète, avec derrière le Grand Prismatic de Yellowstone :) A+++

    • Smartrippers avatar

      Hello Elodie! Encore un énorme merci pour ton commentaire qui nous est toujours aussi précieux pour mettre à jour nos articles :-) Pour le prix du pass, merci pour l'info! Il faut qu'on vérifie du coup sur les sites officiels car si le prix du tri-pass a augmenté, cela veut dire que le prix des entrées individuelles a dû également grimper. On mettra du coup l'article à jour avec cette nouvelle info!

      Pour le Iki Trail, il nous tarde d'y revenir pour le faire, nous n'en n'avons entendu que du bien :-) Et nous avons aussi envie de refaire le Napau Trail mais cette fois jusqu'au bout! Comme vous y serez avant nous, on a hâte de savoir si cela vaut le coup ;-) J'espère que vous verez un Mauna Ulu fumant comme nous l'avons découvert, cela reste notre plus beau souvenir du Volcanoes NP! 

      Quant aux coulées actives, nous avons bien mis les 5 étoiles à la fin de l'article ;-) mais effectivement nous n'en n'avons mis que 3 pour la portion depuis End of Crater road car celle-ci se trouvait beaucoup plus loin de la coulée que l'accès depuis Kalapana avec les vélos. Après relecture, je pense qu'effectivement on peut être induit en erreur, surtout que la coulée change de place régulièrement. On va donc réécrire ça un peu mieux, et en y apportant aussi un peu plus d'info sur le début du Napau Trail que l'on trouve finalement un peu light en description ;-)

    • Author avatar

      Votre article était très bien écrit, ne vous inquiètez pas. je voulais jute dire que la lave en fusion valait 8 étoiles sur 5, plutôt que 5/5, tellement c’est irréel ;-) à bientôt

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