The indomitable power of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is apparent to all who come here. Mark Twain, enchanted by his sojourn through Volcanoes in the 1860s, quipped, “The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.” Wherever you stop to gaze, realize that you are standing on a thin skin of cooled lava in an unstable earthquake zone atop one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Established in 1916 as the 13th U.S. national park, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park now covers 333,000 acres. Established in 1916 as the 13th U.S. national park, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park now covers 333,000 acres. Based on its scientific and scenic value, the park was named an International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1980 and given World Heritage Site status in 1987 by the same organization, giving it greater national and international prestige. This is one of the top visitor attractions in the state.
With a multitude of ways to access the park—by foot, by car, by bike, and by helicopter—Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park truly does offer something for everyone. Even non-nature lovers are impressed by the environmental oddities offered there, such as the vastly different landscapes situated next to each other. Within moments one can pass through a tropical rainforest to what appears like a moon landscape. Even if this doesn’t impress, it will be hard to tear yourself away from the lava flow or glow. It’s surreal.
In conjunction with a visit to the park, you’ll surely pass through Volcano Village, known for the cadre of artists and scientists that live there. With wineries, farmers markets, restaurants, and galleries, it can feel like the Sonoma of Hawaii and not just somewhere to pass through on the way to somewhere else.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
Practically speaking, you’ll find the main entrance to the park off of Highway 11 near mile marker 28; however, the park itself extends far to the north and the south of the main entrance. The upper end of the park is the summit of stupendous Mauna Loa, the most massive mountain on earth. Mauna Loa Road branches off Highway 11 and ends at a foot trail for the hale and hearty who trek to the 13,679-foot summit. The park’s heart is Kilauea Caldera, almost three miles across, 400 feet deep, and encircled by 11 miles of Crater Rim Drive. At the park visitors center you can give yourself a crash course in geology while picking up park maps, information, and backcountry camping permits. Nearby is Volcano House, Hawaii’s oldest hotel, which has hosted a steady stream of adventurers, luminaries, royalty, and heads of state ever since it opened its doors in the 1860s. Just a short drive away is a pocket of indigenous forest, providing the perfect setting for a bird sanctuary. In a separate detached section of the park is ‘Ola‘a Forest, a pristine wilderness area of unspoiled flora and fauna.
Crater Rim Drive circles Kilauea Caldera past steam vents, sulphur springs, and tortured fault lines that always seem on the verge of gaping wide and swallowing. On the way you can peer into the mouth of Halema‘uma‘u Crater, home of the fire goddess, Pele, and you’ll pass Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which has been monitoring geologic activity since the turn of the 20th century. Adjacent to the observatory is the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, an excellent facility where you can educate yourself on the past and present volcanology of the park. An easy walk is Devastation Trail, a paved path across a desolate cinder field where gray, lifeless trunks of a suffocated forest lean like old gravestones. Within minutes is Thurston Lava Tube, a magnificent natural tunnel overflowing with vibrant fern grottoes at the entrance and exit.
The southwestern section of the park is dominated by the Ka‘u Desert, not a plain of sand but a semi-arid slope of lava flow, cinder, scrub bushes, and heat that’s been defiled by the windblown debris and gases of Kilauea Volcano and fractured by the sinking coastline. It is a desolate region, an area crossed by a few trails that are a challenge even to the sturdy and experienced hiker. Most visitors, however, head down the Chain of Craters Road, down the pali to the coast, where the road ends abruptly at a hardened flow of lava and from where visitors can glean information about current volcanic activities from the small ranger station and try to glimpse the current volcanic activity in the distance.
Driving north on Highway 11, you will pass by the park’s entrance before reaching the main part of Volcano town (if you are driving from Hilo, you pass the town first). Although there are residential communities on both sides of the road, the mauka side is where the center of Volcano town is. Nearly every restaurant and shop is on the short Old Volcano Road—the inner road that parallels Highway 11 through town. The golf course area, where the Volcano Winery is also housed, is on Highway 11 between mile markers 30 and 31 just south of the park.
Planning Your Time
It’s best to decide ahead of time how much time you want to spend at the park and whether you’re visiting by car, by foot, or by bike. Regardless of your plan, your first stop should be the visitors center to check with a park ranger about any new closures in the park, new safety advisories, or a special program going on that day. Start early. The park looks entirely different in the early morning—the colors are different and it is much quieter before the busloads of tourists start to arrive. Lastly, pack a lunch. The food options in the park are nearly nonexistent. Better to bring a great sandwich with you so that you don’t have to return to town midday to get fed.
It is possible to see the park’s “greatest hits” in one long day if you drive from sight to sight on Crater Rim and then Chain of Craters Road. You’ll even have time to get out and walk around, have a leisurely dinner, and then come back to catch the glow at night. There are a handful of fairly easy hikes that only take 2-3 hours. If you’re planning on doing one or more of those hikes (such as Kilauea Iki), you might want to give yourself an extra day in the park. Two days at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park will allow you to see all the major sights and accomplish at least two beginner- to medium-level hikes. At least three days in the park will be necessary to get into the backcountry and then maybe more importantly, to get back out.
In this age of Internet, you can see the park without physically being there. If want to check out conditions before you head into the park (i.e., is it worth driving to the park at night), there are several useful websites you can use to check on lava status for the viewing area in Puna, for the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum viewing area, and trail closures.
The National Park Service also offers the free Your Guide to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park app for iPhone users for download from iTunes.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.