Many who visit the islands consider visiting the volcanoes a “must do” and plan accordingly. Yet, I’ve lived in Hawaii my whole life and have only visited the volcano once, way back in the 80’s when the eruption first began. Back then we traveled with my grandparents who were visiting from Pennsylvania, and I remember very little about the helicopter flight we took over the lava fields. Long overdue for a repeat visit and using my brother’s recent enrollment at UH Hilo as an excuse, I roped Todd and my friend Wendy into spending a day exploring the volcanoes with me.
Since we only had a few hours to explore the park, we started with a loose itinerary following the advice at the Kilauea Visitor Center, and allowing us a little leeway to wander on our own. We arrived just in time to catch a couple of short informational videos, then a ranger-led walking tour called “Exploring the Summit.” The 45-minute walk took us just a short ways from the Visitors Center on “Earthquake Trail” and ended with a lookout over the Kilauea Caldera from the crater rim.
Next we took a short detour out to the nearby town of Volcano in search of lunch (and coffee!) before continuing on. We ended up at Kiawe Kitchen, which offered thin crust pizzas, sandwiches, and salads. We split a delicious, fresh white pizza and a Greek salad. There was a cute take out coffee window outside as well as a selection of local beers and wine to go with our meal.
We also headed to Volcano Garden Arts to visit the beautiful and eclectic mix of gift items and artwork by Ira Ono and other local artists. The lush grounds outside were beautiful and meditative, allowing us to wait out the rain shower that seemed determine to ruin our outdoor time at the park. As the clouds began to clear, and we continued back onto Crater Rim Drive, taking a few stops to walk around the Steam Vents and Steaming Bluff.
At the Jaggar Museum, I was really impressed by the way the park has embraced technology. When we first arrived there was a placard which listed a phone number you could call to hear recorded information about some of the stops along Crater Rim Drive. I also noticed QR Codes around the museum, which allow smartphone users to easily pull up web pages with further information.
The park also has various webcams placed around the park so you can catch a glimpse of the most current activity in real time. So cool! The museum itself held a number of interesting displays, including a working seismograph which tracks the footstep activity inside the building. If you jump up and down, you can actually watch it record your “mini-earthquake.” (Yes, I made Todd and Wendy jump up and down like crazy. Ha!) It had become cold and rainy again by the time we left the museum, but I had enough time to catch a glimpse of a rainbow from the lookout.
Due to the hazardous sulfur dioxide gas from Halema’uma’u crater, Crater Rim Drive is closed past the museum, so we backtracked to the Thurston Lava Tube and the nearby Kilauea Iki crater. The short walk down to the lava tube was beautiful, with the lush green trees shrouded in a light mist and bird songs filling our ears and we walked through the rainforest. Being able to walk through the natural lava tube carved out by streams of molten lava was surreal! It was cool and damp walking through the tube and we seemed to have the place all to ourselves, which intensified the effect.
We were already wishing that we had more time to explore the park by this point, realizing we wouldn’t have time to drive down the Chain of Craters Road towards the ocean before having to return back to Hilo. The hike down to Kilauea Iki also was tempting us, and we eventually decided to just go a short ways down to see how long it would take us to reach the crater floor.
By the time we got about 20 minutes into the hike we’d passed quite a few families (even with small children) walking back up the trail, which gives you an idea of the level of difficulty. While we did work up a bit of a sweat, I wouldn’t call it strenuous at all, and the view once we caught a glimpse of the crater floor was totally worth it. We could see people below and we knew we’d have to continue down to see it for ourselves.
When we arrived at the crater floor we were blown away. I know I will definitely return to visit the park again because I’d love to hike the loop trail which would have taken us across the crater floor and up the other side. In hindsight, I also wish we’d planned for a picnic and more drive time through the rest of the park. I can see how camping in the park or staying in nearby Volcano would have been a good idea in order to explore other trails and lookouts as well. But I guess there’s always next time…
If you’re planning a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
It’s always a great idea to stop at the Kilauea Visitor’s Center for the latest information, including updates on the current lava flows, closures, and sights around the park. The park rangers are extremely helpful and free, ranger-led tours are offered daily. Informational videos and various exhibits about the history of the park as well as its flora and fauna are available for you to peruse. Tip: If it’s a rainy day you can pick up a poncho for $3 at the gift shop, which also houses a collection of books and souvenirs.