Hawaii Volcano National Park was the main reason for travelling to Big Island – it’s not everywhere that you can safely see active volcanoes or the creation of new land!
Although there are people who think it only takes a few hours to ‘do’ Volcano National Park, we opted to explore over a few days – you need at least one day to travel along Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road and depending on where your accommodation is located, half a day or more to hike out to the ocean lava flow. Here’s our top three things to do, a round-up of the rest and some tips for your visit.
Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and the Halema’uma’u Crater is both one of the easiest and best places to see active lava. When we arrived at the Jaggar Museum lookout, not much was happening and I was a little bit disappointed. However, there was soon some activity on the lava lake, with a small fountain beginning to erupt. The sense of scale is hard to grasp, the lookout is about 1km away from the crater and what seemed like a small lava spattering, was actually molten rocks and lava being ejected around 20m high!
Shortly after the first bit of action, other parts of the lava lake also started erupting, it seemed like the whole lake could start roiling and boiling at any time. It was mesmerising to watch, making me think of extreme campfire watching, where you just can’t look away from the flames. We met another traveller who had spent ages watching and photographing the lava in the previous days.
We were very lucky with the amount of activity when we visited, there is almost a 5-6 day cycle of activity and the height of the lava lake below the crater walls fluctuates quite a bit (from 15-25m below the rim). Information about the volcano and monitoring techniques is found in the museum and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website also has webcams and reports of recent observations (it’s the most studied volcano in the world). In the next couple of days the photos of the best recent activity on the website were all from the exact time we had been watching!
After checking into our accommodation, we came back to see the evening show and it was spectacular. The whole of the crater was lit up with an eerie red light, there were glowing cracks fragmenting the surface and still lots of spewing lava fountains. It was like looking into angry red eye and quite Lord of the Rings-ish. The guy we met before was still there, loving his volcano watching!
From a bit of a slow start, the Halema’uma’u Crater was better than expected and it’s only a 50m walk from the car park. Go as many times as possible during your stay in the area!
The Lava Flows
I was most excited about visiting the ocean lava flows. There is something primordial about witnessing the creation of new land and you don’t normally see geological process working right in front of your eyes!
There are two routes for access to the lava flows, from the west (National Park side) or from the east (Kalapana side). It is definitely recommended to access from the eastern side – it is shorter, there are options to hire bikes and buy food/drinks, and most importantly it is upwind of the gas plume – a not so friendly mixture of sulphur dioxide and hydrochloric acid.
We decided to walk out, although a majority of people choose to hire a bike. It is around 7km one way and during the journey you can observe the devastation of previous lava flows. The Pu’u O’o vent on Kilauea’s Eastern Rift Zone has been erupting since 1983 and in that time has destroyed 189 buildings and 14km of highways. Most of the path is made from crushed lava, over roads which once served a small seaside housing development. The fighting spirit of the locals is evident, there are a few houses which have been rebuilt on top of the expanses of black lava, with the most important first step being to plant your new coconut palms. I’m not sure how the locals would have felt about the steady stream of tourists making a pilgrimage to the lava, which had previously engulfed their homes.
Once we got to the end of the walking/cycling track we clambered over the recently formed lava to where the rangers had told us there was a skylight. These form where the thin roof falls in and flowing molten lava can be seen below. Even from a safe distance the heat is fairly intense, the temperature of the lava is about 1,160°C. There could also be opportunities to hike uphill to slowly flowing lava near the eruption area (surface breakouts), so even if you have biked down be prepared to walk to see the best parts!
The viewing spot for the lava flows is a couple of hundred meters from where the Pu’u O’o lava tubes enter the ocean, so it’s worth taking some binoculars and a zoom lens. Waves don’t gently lap the shore here – when the lava hits the ocean, there are explosive interactions with flying debris and clouds of hydrochloric acid being formed. The third way of viewing the lava is by boat, which gets you the closest, but this looked quite scary! It was good to see the lava flows in both the day when the huge gas plumes were easy to see and also a night when the flowing lava itself was more visible.
I found watching the lava pour into the ocean at night a very moving experience. Seeing the awesome power of nature, although cliched, really is quite humbling.
Kilauea Iki Crater Walk
The Kilauea Iki Crater walk is a 6.4 km loop walk that starts in a tropical rainforest, then crosses a hardened lava lake. As the crater floor is quite exposed, it’s good to start early before it gets too hot (it will take you a couple of hours).
This was a fascinating walk, essentially crossing over a similar lava lake to Halema’uma’u, albeit now hardened and without spewing with lava fountains! The current crust was formed in 1959 when there were several eruptions and a vent poured hot lava into the previously existing crater – completely destroying the forest, creating a lava lake and new cinder-and-spatter cone, Pu’u Pua’i.
The floor of the hardened crust of the lava lake is full of cracks and buckled areas. Steam still rises from cracks in the crater floor, generated by rainwater percolating down to hot rocks below the surface and then vaporising. It is interesting to observe the plants re-colonising the area, with ferns growing in the cracks and the sides of the crater starting to become ohi’a forests.
We loved looking at all the different volcanic features up close, and being able to touch and feel them. The rock is super light (it’s full of holes) but don’t take any which is not only against the law, but also supposed to bring bad luck from Pele, the volcano goddess!
All the Rest
On Crater Rim Drive, when visiting Halema’uma’u and Jaggar Museum, it is worth stopping at the steam vents and sulphur banks. The steam visibility is influenced by air temperature and humidity so how impressive it is depends on the day, we found it better in the cooler morning. The sulphur banks have deposits of various chemicals from where the volcanic gases have seeped out with the ground-water steam, and a lovely rotten egg smell! Although the sulphur banks look innocuous enough, keep to the path as previous visitors have wandered off the trail into hidden steam vents, ending up badly burnt (or worse).
One of the most popular attractions in the Volcano National Park is the Thurston Lava Tube. All the tour group buses will stop here, so try and go early in the morning when it’s not as crowded. It’s a nice, short walk through the rainforest and then an interesting stroll through the lava tube.
Chain of Craters Road is a 30km trip out to the coast via numerous stopping points to see pit craters, lava fields and look-outs across the Na Pali (volcanic cliffs). The road itself is 12km shorter since 1986 when lava flows from Pu’u O’o buried the last section and there are some great areas where you can see the more recent lava flows – some look like ropes, others very smooth and some completely irregular. It’s also worth taking the short walk to see the Pu’u Loa pertoglythps.
Tips for Your Visit
- Check with the rangers in the Kilauea Visitor Centre for the latest information on lava flows, any potential road closures etc. They provided us with lots of information about the options for hiking to the lava.
- Allow yourself opportunities to view active lava in both the day and night, as the experience is very different and both are spectacular. For example visit Halema’uma’u Crater late in the afternoon or make multiple trips.
- If visiting the ocean lava flow, be prepared whether you are cycling or walking. We saw folks who had ridden down but were unprepared for changes in the weather, had inappropriate footwear once they got to the lava, no torches etc. In general it seemed the hikers were better prepared. Also remember that although it is a downhill cycle with the wind on the way out, it’s uphill against the wind on the way back… We ended up walking back faster than some of the cyclists!
- Stop in at the Jaggar museum to learn a bit about volcanoes and lava before you head out, then you’ll be able to spot the differences between the a’a and pahoehoe lava on the Chain of Craters road (and impress your fellow travellers).
- Volcano is a great place to base yourself for a couple of nights to enable a full exploration of Hawaii Volcano National Park. We stayed in a lovely B&B called Lava Pond Lodge, and there are a couple of decent restaurants in town. If you plan on visiting the lava flows from the Kalapana side, this is a shorter drive from Hilo.