Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: 13 Things To Do That Are Hotter Than Lava, Updated 2021
Pele has put her finger BACK on the Kilauea Volcano lava flow button for Volcanoes National Park! In late-December 2020, scientists detected a new glow coming from the Kilauea Crater. Soon after, a fresh flow began from the crater's northwest side.
Scientists do not currently believe that lava is moving to the more destructive rift zones closer to town. You can currently see the flow from a viewing station near the visitor's center.
So, right now, the lava flow is a very minimal threat to residents and ripe for safe viewing. You'll need to rent a bike at the center and be ready for an adventure, though, it's a little bit of a trek from the visitors center.
Plenty of Things to See at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!
The park just recently reopened, and some facilities remain closed. But, there is still plenty to do and see at HAVO! For the most current information about closures due to COVID-19, lava, construction, or weather, you can check the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park webpage. And, we'll keep our page updated, as well!
Don't forget: If you're going to visit Volcanoes National Park, grab the Shaka Guide Tour to get the most out of your visit!
To help you plan your trip, here are 13 things to do in the park OTHER THAN see lava (however, if you do want to see lava - scroll down to the bottom of the page to see how). We’ll bet you have a hard time squeezing them all into just one day! Let's get started…
1. Kilauea Visitor Center
Kīlauea Visitor Center Exhibits. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park via Flickr
The Kilauea Visitor Center should be your first stop once you enter the Park, because it’s where you can get all of your questions answered. You can even map out your day with the help of a park ranger personally! The inside of the visitors center is currently closed due to COVID-19, but normally, you'd find exhibits, maps of the park, and a gift shop. We'll be sure to update this information as soon as the center re-opens! Or, again, you can keep an eye on the National Park's website for the most up to date info on all closures and openings.
For more COVID-19 Big Island Tips, check out this post!
What else is is there to do at the center?
If you have children under 12 with you, ask about the Junior Park Ranger program. It’s a free program with an activity book that kids can complete while they’re visiting the Park. Speak to a ranger on the Visitor's Center Lānai for more information about the progam. Otherwise, here are some great options for things you can do thoughout HAVO.
2. Chain of Craters Road
Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu along Chain of Craters Road. NPS Photo/A. LaValle. Public Domain.
At 18.8 miles one way, Chain of Craters Road is one of the best scenic drives on the Big Island. You’ll definitely want to make time for it! It starts about three miles south of the Visitor Center on Crater Rim Drive.
Is your camera ready?
Elevation changes about 3700 feet while you’re driving, and you’ll get lots of unforgettable pics.
Oh, and don’t wait until it’s too late.
There isn’t any food, water, or gas along the way, so stock up on what you’ll need before you get started. You can stop in at Volcano Village near the entrance to the Park to grab some gas and food.
The Chain of Craters Road has vault-type toilets a few miles after the start and at the end of the drive if you need to use the restroom along the way, so plan accordingly!
On the Park’s website are the suggested stops along the way. You'll find any closures along the route there, but you can also stop to ask at the Visitors Center for more information.
3. Pu'uloa Ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at Puʻu Loa. NPS Photo, Public Domain.
Okay, okay, so the petroglyphs are technically one of the suggested stops on Chain of Craters Road we talked about just above, but...
Hear us out…
We think it’s worthy of its own mention on this list and definitely worth the short hike you’ll take to see.
Why is that?
This is the largest petroglyph field in the State of Hawai‛i and scientists have geologically dated these petroglyphs all the way back to 1200-1450 A.D.!
Pretty cool, isn’t it?
Now, about that hike, as I mentioned, it’s an easy 1.5-mile roundtrip hike over a level lava field. It may be a short hike if it’s a sunny day, but you may still want to put on some sunscreen before heading out here in Volcanoes National Park!
Why is that?
Because there are more than 23,000 carved images out there to keep you busy, there’s no way you’ll be able to see all of them all! Although it’s still awesome to see a few of these rock carvings made so long ago.
4. Steam Vents throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
At these unique attractions known as steam vents, you can see the result of water making contact with underground lava and magma. Deep underground, the water heats super quickly shooting white steam up into the air in seemingly endless clouds!
Where can you see steam vents in HAVO?
You can see these vents all over the park at different times, depending on conditions, but one of the best places to see them is the Crater Rim Trail, our next attraction!
5. Crater Rim Trail
Crater Rim Trail behind Volcano House (NPS Photo/J. Wei)
This exciting trail circles the Kilauea summit caldera and it’s a fairly easy day hike. You’ll pass steam vents, see beautiful wild flowers, and witness land changes from desert to rain forest.
Before you head out…
Check-in with a park ranger to find out the most recent openings of this glorious trail, but at the time of writing this post, here’s what we have to work with:
- 1st Section is open from Volcano House to Kilauea Military Camp.
- 2nd Section is open from Chain of Craters Road to Escape Road.
- 3rd Section is open for about a mile from the trailhead at Chain of Craters Road to the south rim of Keanakāko‛i Crater.
You can access the trail from several access points along the way. Just be sure to bring water and snacks with you, and be prepared for rain because sudden showers are common.
Check with the rangers at Volcanoes National Park Visitors Center for more info before heading out!
6. Kealakomo Overlook and Other Scenic Overlooks
Meaning "The entrance path," Kealakomo was once an ancient village. However, in 1864 the village was destroyed and abandoned following a hurricane and subsequent tsunami. In 1969, any remains of the village were completely covered by lava. Now, you can look over this ancient field from up high at the Kealakomo Overlook. While you're there, consider all the history that's occurred on this part of the island alone!
What about other overlooks and viewpoints?
It's a truly surreal view where lava meets the ocean. Many other overlooks are equally stunning such as the Kilauea Iki Lookout and Muliwai a Pele, both of which you can see on the Shaka Guide Volcanoes National Park Tour. Check out the tour's itinerary, here!
7. Day Hikes at Volcanoes National Park
Floor of Kīlauea Iki Crater (NPS Photo/J. Wei)
Okay, looking at things on a more broad plane…Volcanoes National Park is jam-packed with incredible trails with options to suit all experience levels. In fact, there are just too many to list here!
That being said…
The currently accessible day hikes are available on the Park’s website.
So, whether you’re an experienced hiker or a hiking newbie, there’s a full range of hikes for everybody. The easier hikes will take you through old lava tubes and rain forests.
Sounds fun, right?
There are also more challenging hikes and even organized hikes led by Park Rangers. Just ask at the Volcanoes National Park Visitors Center and a ranger can help you pick the right hike for your skill level and how much time you have for the hike. Easy peasy.
8. Volcano Art Center
Since 1974, the Volcano Art Center has been a mecca for local visual artists displaying their artwork that embraces the beauty and power of the natural world. You will only see the highest quality of artwork in their gallery. Local artists consider it an honor to have their work displayed in this historic setting, and once you set your eyes on the artwork you’ll find here, you’ll see why!
This Center in Volcanoes National Park also has scheduled hula performances, special exhibitions, and cultural classes. You’ll love stepping into this warm artsy environment, and if you don’t watch the clock you may just be there all day.
The Volcano Art Center is one of the few indoor attactions open inside the park, so you're all good to check it out now!
9. Sulpher Banks
Known to ancient Hawaiians as Ha‛akulamanu, this is an easy 1.2 mile walk through a volcanic thermal area.
You’ll see steam coming up from the ground and colorful mineral deposits. Because of the underground heat, you won’t see many trees around.
What’s that smell?!?!
No, that’s not rotten eggs you’ll smell here. Although it stinks just as bad! It’s actually a mixture of sulfur gases. Gross smell, sure, but don’t worry, they aren’t harmful on a short walk. However, I should warn you, if you have heart or respiratory problems like asthma, you’re pregnant, or have young children with you, it’s better to skip this walk.
10. Hike the Kahuku Unit
Ranger Noah Gomes explains the importance of ‘ōhi‘a lehua in native forests / NPS/Sierra McDaniel
The Kahuku Unit is the name given to a rolling stretch of pasture situated on the world's largest volcano! This beautiful grassland is a nice break from all the basalt and lava rock. At 116,000 acres, these enormous fields have plenty to explore.
Yes, the park is that big.
The Kahuku Unit of the Park is accessed on Hwy 11 in Ka‛u near mile marker 70.5 about an hour south of the main park entrance. Check out the park's gallery for some of the different types of scenery you can experience here!
How can I explore this area?
There are several trails through this part of the park ranging from .5 to 2.5 miles such as Pu‘u o Lokuana Cinder Cone Hike which is a very short but strenuous scramble. You can also check out Pu‘u o Lokuana Trail for a longer but easier hike in the same area. The Palm Trail, which you can also bike, offers some of the most panoramic views in Kahuku.
You can get a full list of The Kahuku Unit trails here.
What else can you see here?
Kahuku has many plant and animal species that are winning the struggle to survive.
Did you pack the binoculars? If you’re lucky, you just might spot endangered birds like the Hawaii ‘akepa or akiapōlā‛au.
11. Footprint Trail
Here’s your chance to take a peek at ancient human footprints fossilized in the Ka‛u desert ash.
You heard right…
Fossilized human footprints! Now if that’s not exciting, I don’t know what is...
There are different legends about who the footprints belonged to. Some say warriors on the way to a battle with Kamehameha I were suddenly killed by an explosive eruption.
Scientists have also found footprints from other time periods in Volcanoes National Park—most likely belonging to unlucky travelers who were killed by poisonous volcanic gas and ash.
You can view the footprints by hiking in from the Ka‛u Desert Trailhead adjacent to Hwy 11, or via the Ka‛u Desert Trail from Crater Rim Drive.
Just do us a favor and stay on the marked trail--this area is fragile. Mahalos!
12. Thurston Lava Tube
Inside Thurston Lava Tube.
Ever wonder how lava gets to the ocean or moves between fissures and eruption zones? Well, lava travels through lava tubes. During the eruption of 1955, scientists were able to study the relationship between fissures and lava lakes at craters. It was soon hypothesized that lava travels through tube-like underground channels such as the Thurston Lava Tube. When the lava begins to cool, it dries on the top from the cool air first, causing the underground lava to continue flowing all the way to the ocean. When the lava runs out, the tube is left empty like a giant basalt cave!
And great news...
after a year-long closure due to Covid 19, Thurston Lava Tube has officially REOPENED!
13. Volcano House Hotel and Restaurant
After a long day at the Volcanoes National Park, you just might want to spend the night at Volcano House, or enjoy fine dining in their Restaurant. Of course, the restaurant has some special rules given the current climate, so check out their website before heading over.
The original Volcano House was built in 1846 as a place for visitors to rest back when people would ride horses to see the Volcano. It took days just to get to the summit!
Here's a fun fact for you: one of the earliest famous visitors was the author Mark Twain.
From the restaurant, you’ll have awesome views of Halemaumau Crater. The chefs use the freshest seafood, fruits and vegetables, and grass-fed beef from Big Island ranches and farms.
You’ll love it.
Ready To Head To Volcanoes National Park?
You picked a great time! Now’s your chance to REALLY explore the Volcanoes National Park in all its glory.
Many visitors have come to see only the lava, and ended up missing out on the natural beauty surrounding it.
When you’re in Hawaii, we ask that you act respectfully towards the locals, land and wildlife. Please pick up your trash; never touch any marine life, plants, or other animals; and avoid spots that are unsafe. Hawaii’s natural resources are precious, it’s up to all of us to help preserve these resources.
We’d love to hear about your visit. Leave a comment about your favorite place in the park or share your pics on Instagram.
Use #ShakaGuide so we can see ‘em too!
And don’t forget to check out our other Big Island driving tours, so we can come along on your next island drive.
Want to know more about Volcanoes National Park?
Listen to Hawaii's Best Podcast with our Co-Founder Andrew Fowers to learn about the legends of Pele!
This post was originally published on April 9th, 2019.