Tree Fern

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – The Basics

Welcome to the newest place on earth!

There is a lot to see here and your $10 entry fee gives you the right to come/stay for seven consecutive days. But if you don’t have that much time, here are the must-sees:

  • Check in at the Visitor’s Centers. Staff there will tell you about the current conditions and what’s good to see today. Also, the 20 minute film, Born of Fire, Born of the Sea provides an excellent orientation of the islands.
  • Be awed by the view of Kilauea Crater from Volcano House.
  • Hike trough Thurston Lava tube.
  • Visit the Jagger Museum to see Pele’s hair and tears and to understand the geology of what you are seeing.
  • Drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road and stand on land that is younger than you.
  • Stay into the evening and see red, glowing lava.

If you have the time, go on one of the short, ranger-guided hikes. You will learn some fascinating details, like the fact that the yellow wool on a tree fern is as soft as a baby’s butt, that will help you enjoy your visit to the park more.

Disclaimer: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is always changing. I went to a visitor’s center in 1977 that is no longer there because it is now covered by lava. Eruptions move, and a shift in the wind can force large areas of the park to be closed because of dangerous gases. Check the web site for current conditions.

Niksnut's photo of specially adapted plant life in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Perfectly evolved for its environment, this plant can “hold its breath” when the sulfur levels get too high. Photo by niksnut.

Hiking in the Park

The visitor center has a brochure called Day Hikes, which lists ten of the best hiking options in the park. Here are a few of my favorites:

Anyone will tell you, if you only do one big hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park it should be Kilauea Iki. This 4 mile/6.4 km loop will take you through lush rain forest on your way to Kilauea Iki crater. Then you’ll have the chance to walk across a caldera, a hardened lake of lava. We enjoy this trail so much that we did it twice on our last visit to the park.

Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail, a short hike near the end of Chain of Craters Road takes you to a board walk around a field of petroglyphs offering insight into the native Hawaiian culture. While your down here at the end of the road – hike out to the edge (where the trail is marked) and look at the sea arch.

For something a little different, head up Mauna Loa road to see tree molds (imprints of tree trunks in the lava) and a completely different kind of forest from what you see on the other side.

Brewbooks' photo of a tree fern.

One of many tree ferns. Photo by brewbooks.

Don’t be an idiot!

Wearing our tee-shirts and hats, we headed out to the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone and then decided to continue on to the Makaopuh Crater. I was slathered with sunblock and carrying plenty of water. It was sunny so I left my jacket in the car. We were somewhere west of nowhere when the weather suddenly changed. Rain poured and a cold, driving wind ensured that we were soaked and freezing. And completely unprepared. As we dragged our soaked asses back towards the trail head we began to see other hikers setting out. After we passed them, we would put them into one of two categories based on their clothing; smart people or idiots like us.

In addition to instantly and drastically changing weather, there are other dangerous trail conditions. Lava tubes are hollow and can collapse under you. Always stay on marked trails. (Trails are usually marked by lines of piled lava.)

Eli Duke's photo of lava in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Terrain in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is always fascinating, though not always easy to walk on! Photo by Eli Duke.


Staying in the hotel at Volcano House was beyond my budget, but there are some more affordable options within the park:

Kulanaokuakiki Camping Area: Free tent camping (free is a very good price) is available at Kulanaokuakiki, off of a side road about ¼ of the way down Chain of Craters Road. There are tent sites, a pit toilet, picnic tables and BBQs. There is no water at the site. Also, be warned. We pitched our tent, staked it down, and had two suit cases sitting inside and a gust of wind picked it up and flipped it over.

Namakanipaio Camping Area: A few miles Kona side of the park entrance, Namakanipaio offers tent sites, bathrooms, drinking water, picnic tables and BBQs. The price is $10 to $15 depending on the site.

Camping Cabins: Also at Namakanipaio, the cabins have beds for four including daily clean linens. The shared bathroom includes hot showers. There is electric lighting, but only cabin #3 has an outlet. Cabins cost $90 per night.

One nice perk about staying at Namakanipaio is a convenient half-mile trail that leads directly to the Jagger Museum, current location for night-time lava viewing.

Outside of the park, I’ve had a good experience at the Holo Holo Inn (hostel) in Volcano Village. Amenities include a kitchen, free coffee and tea, hot showers, internet, TV room and laundry area. Dorms run $24 and private rooms are $60. Park at the Japanese School next door.

Alan L's photo of an eruption at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The red glow (only visible at night) makes it worth staying the night in the park. Photo by Alan L.

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