Hawaii’s volcanoes have their own unique vocabulary. The lava that resembles ropy swirls of brownie batter is called pāhoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy); it results from a fast-moving flow that ripples as it moves. The chunky, craggy lava that looks like someone put asphalt in a blender is called ‘a‘ā (ah-ah); it’s caused by lava that moves slowly, breaking apart as it cools and then overruns itself. Newer words include vog, which is smog made of volcanic gases and smoke, and laze, which results when sulfuric acid hits the water and vaporizes, and mixes with chlorine to become, as any chemistry student knows, hydrochloric acid. Both vog and laze sting your eyes and can cause respiratory illness; don’t expose yourself to either for too long. Since Halemaumau began spewing its dramatic plume of smoke in 2008, vog has been more frequent, particularly on the Kona and Kohala coasts, thanks to wind patterns. The state Department of Health (www.hiso2index.info) lists current air-quality advisories for the Big Island, based on sulfur dioxide levels.
This national park is a wilderness wonderland. Miles of trails not only lace the lava, but also cross deserts, rainforests, beaches, and, in winter, snow at 13,650 feet. Trail maps (highly recommended) are sold at park headquarters. Check conditions before you head out. Come prepared for sun, rain, and hard wind any time of year. Always wear sunscreen and bring plenty of drinking water.
Warning: If you have heart or respiratory problems or if you're pregnant, don't attempt any hike in the park; the fumes will bother you.
Trails in the Park
Kilauea Iki Trail -- You'll experience the work of the volcano goddess, Pele, firsthand on this hike. The 4-mile trail begins at the visitor center, descends through a forest of ferns into still-fuming Kilauea Iki Crater, and then crosses the crater floor past the vent where a 1959 lava blast shot a fountain of fire 1,900 feet into the air for 36 days. Allow 2 hours for this fair-to-moderate hike.
Halemaumau Trail -- This moderate 3.5-mile hike starts at the visitor center, goes down 500 feet to the floor of Kilauea Crater, crosses the crater, and ends at Halemaumau Overlook.
Devastation Trail -- Up on the rim of Kilauea Iki Crater, you can see what an erupting volcano did to a once-flourishing ohia forest. The scorched earth with its ghostly tree skeletons stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the lush forest. Everyone can take this .5-mile hike on a paved path across the eerie bed of black cinders. The trail head is on Crater Rim Road at Puu Puai Overlook.
Kipuka Puaulu (Bird Park) Trail -- This easy 1.5-mile, hour-long hike lets you see native Hawaiian flora and fauna in a little oasis of living nature in a field of lava. For some reason, the once red-hot lava skirted this miniforest and let it survive. At the trail head on Mauna Loa Road, there's a display of plants and birds you'll see on the walk. Go early in the morning or in the evening (or, even better, just after a rain) to see native birds like the apapane (a small, bright-red bird with black wings and tail) and the iiwi (larger and orange-vermilion colored, with a curved orange bill). Native trees along the trail include giant ohia, koa, soapberry, kolea, and mamani.
Mauna Loa Trail -- Probably the most challenging hike in Hawaii, this trail goes 7.5 miles from the lookout to a cabin at 10,035 feet and then 12 more miles up to the primitive Mauna Loa summit cabin at 13,250 feet, where the climate is subarctic and overnight temperatures are below freezing year-round. This 4-day round-trip requires advance planning, great physical condition, and registration at the visitor center. Call tel. 808/985-6000 for maps and details. The trail head begins where Mauna Loa Road ends, 14 miles north of Hwy. 11.
Crater Rim Drive Tour
Stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center (daily 7:45am–5pm) to get the latest updates on lava flows and the day’s free ranger-led tours and watch an informative 25-minute film, shown on the hour from 9am to 4pm. Just beyond the center lies vast Kilauea Caldera, a circular depression nearly 2 miles by 3 miles and 540 feet deep. It’s easy to imagine Mark Twain marveling over the sights here in 1866, when a wide, molten lava lake bubbled within view in the caldera’s Halemaumau Crater, itself 3,000 feet across and 300 feet deep.
Though different today, the caldera’s panorama is still compelling. Since 2008, a towering plume of ash, visible from miles away, has billowed from Halemaumau, the legendary home of Pele. The sulfurous smoke has forced the ongoing closure of nearly half of Crater Rim Drive, now just a 6-mile crescent. The fumes normally drift northwest, where they often create vog., to the dismay of Kona residents. (Scientists monitor the park’s air quality closely, just in case the plume changes direction, with rangers ready to evacuate the park quickly if needed.) In the evening the pillar of smoke turns a rosy red, reflecting the lava lake that rises and falls deep below. You can also admire Halemaumau’s fiery glow over a drink or dinner in Volcano House , the only inn in the park.
Less than a mile from the visitor center, several steam vents line the rim of the caldera, puffing out moist warm air. Across the road, a boardwalk leads through the stinky, smoking sulphur banks, called Haakulamanu in Hawaiian, and home to hardy ohia lehua trees and unfazed native birds. (As with all trails here, stay on the path to avoid possible serious injury, or worse.)
Shortly before Crater Rim Drive closes to traffic (due to the current eruption), the observation deck at Thomas A. Jaggar Museum offers a prime spot for viewing the crater and its plume, especially at night. By day you can also see the vast, barren Kau Desert and the massive sloping flank of Mauna Loa. The museum itself is open daily 8:30am to 7:30pm, with free admission. The museum shows video from days when the volcano was really spewing, explains the cultural significance of Pele, and tracks earthquakes (a precursor of eruptions) on a seismograph. There’s also a gift shop here.
Heading southeast from the visitor center, Crater Rim Drive passes by the smaller but still impressive Kilauea Iki Crater, which in 1959 was a roiling lava lake spewing lava 1,900 feet into the air. From here, you can walk or drive to Thurston Lava Tube, a 500-year-old lava cave in a pit of giant tree ferns. Known in Hawaiian as Nahuku, it’s partly illuminated, but take a flashlight and wear sturdy shoes so you can explore the unlit area for another half-mile or so.
Continuing on Crater Rim Drive leads to the Puu Puai Overlook of Kilauea Iki, where you find the upper trailhead of the aptly named half-mile Devastation Trail, an easy walk through a cinder field that ends where Crater Rim Drive meets Chain of Craters Road.
Pedestrians and cyclists only can continue on Crater Rim Drive for the next .8 mile of road, closed to vehicular traffic since the 2008 eruption began. The little-traveled pavement leads to Keanakakoi Crater, scene of several eruptions in the 19th and 20th centuries and yet another dazzling perspective on the Kilauea Caldera. Turn your gaze north for an impressive view of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the world’s two highest mountains, when measured from the sea floor.
Chain of Craters Road
It’s natural to drive slowly down the19-mile Chain of Craters Road, which descends 3,700 feet to the sea and ends in a thick black mass of rock from a 2003 lava flow. You feel like you’re driving on the moon, if the lunar horizon were a brilliant blue sea. Make sure you have food and water for the journey, since there are officially no concessions after you pass the Volcano House; the nearest fuel lies outside the park, in Volcano Village.
Two miles down, before the road really starts twisting, the one-lane, 8 1/2-mile Hilina Pali Road veers off to the west, crossing windy scrublands and old lava flows. The payoff is at the end, where you stand nearly 2,300 feet above the coast along the rugged 12-mile pali (cliff). Some of the most challenging trails in the park, across the Kau Desert and down to the coast, start here.
Back on Chain of Craters Road, 9 3/4 miles below the Crater Rim Drive junction, the picnic shelter at Kealakomo provides another sweeping coastal vista. At mile marker 16.5, you’ll see the pullout parking lot for Puu Loa, an enormous field of some 23,000 petroglyphs—the largest in the islands. A three-quarter-mile, gently rolling lava trail leads to a boardwalk where you can view the stone carvings, 85 percent of which are holes known as cupules; Hawaiians often placed their infants’ umbilical cords in them.
At the end of Chain of Craters Road, a lookout area allows a glimpse of 90-foot Holei Sea Arch, one of several striking formations carved in the cliffs by the ocean’s fury. Stop by the ranger station before treading carefully across the 21st-century lava, “some of the youngest land on Earth,” as the park calls it. In the distance you may spot fumes from the Puu Oo vent, steam clouds in the ocean, or a red glow at night. Bear in mind it’s a slow drive back up at night.
Campgrounds & Wilderness Cabins in the Park
The only park campground accessible by car is Namakani Paio, which has a pavilion with picnic tables and a fireplace (no wood is provided). Tent camping is free; no reservations are required. Stays are limited to 7 days per year. Backpack camping at hiker shelters and cabins is available on a first-come, shared basis, but you must register at the visitor center.
Kilauea Military Camp (www.kmc-volcano.com), a mile from the visitor center, is a rest-and-recreation camp for active and retired military personnel. Facilities include 75 one- to three-bedroom cabins with fireplaces (some with a Jacuzzi), cafeteria, bowling alley, bar, general store, weight room, and tennis and basketball courts. Rates are based on rank, ranging from $67 to $205 a night. Call tel. 808/967-8333 on the Big Island, or 808/438-6707 on Oahu.
The following cabins and campgrounds are the best of what the park and surrounding area have to offer:
Halape Shelter -- This backcountry site, about 7 miles from the nearest road, is the place for those who want to get away from it all and enjoy their own private white-sand beach. The small, three-sided stone shelter, with a roof but no floor, can accommodate two people comfortably, but four's a crowd. You could pitch a tent inside, but if the weather is nice, you're better off setting up outside. There's a catchment water tank, but check with rangers on the water situation before hiking in (sometimes they don't have accurate information on the water level; bring extra water just in case). The only other facility is a pit toilet. Go on weekdays if you're really looking for an escape. It's free to stay here, but you're limited to 3 nights. Permits are available at the visitor center on a first-come, first-served basis, no earlier than noon on the day before your trip. For more information, call tel. 808/985-6000.
Namakani Paio Campgrounds & Cabins -- Just 5 miles west of the park entrance is a tall eucalyptus forest where you can pitch a tent in an open grassy field. The trail to Kilauea Crater is just a half-mile away. No permit is needed, but stays are limited to 7 days. Facilities include pavilions with barbecues and a fireplace, picnic tables, outdoor dish-washing areas, restrooms, and drinking water. There are also 10 cabins that accommodate up to four people each. Each cabin has a covered picnic table at the entrance and a fireplace with a grill. Toilets, sinks, and hot showers are available in a separate building. You can get groceries and gas in the town of Volcano, 4 miles away. Make cabin reservations through Volcano House, P.O. Box 53, Hawaii National Park, HI 96718 (tel. 808/967-7321); the cost is $40 per night for two adults (and two children), $48 for three adults, and $56 for four adults.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.