Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of our favorites because it is one of the most unique parks we’ve visited. Where else can you see a living, breathing mountain that spits fire? We spent just a half day at this national park, but we’d recommend a full day to do it comfortably. We were too rushed with just a half day.
This national park consists of two major volcanoes, and two scenic drives. The first area nearest the entrance of the park is the area around the caldera rim of Kilauea volcano. There are several lookout points down into the crater, and a small Visitor Center with some of the friendliest rangers we’ve met. They got us started on the Junior Ranger program and oriented us to what to do and see in the park. Make sure to ask them the best spots to see into the caldera when you visit.
Crater Rim Drive
There are two scenic drives in the park, a short one and a long one. The Crater Rim drive along the north rim is just two miles, and we recommend doing it first. As you stop at the lookouts, you get an idea of how truly vast the crater of Kilauea is. The stop that we enjoyed most was at the steam vents. Though they aren’t pretty, and foolish guests have thrown things into the vents, you can stand right in the steam and feel the heat of the volcano as it vents from the ground. This is also a good place to smell the volcano. We enjoyed our stop at the Steam Vents as well as the Kilauea Overlook. If possible, we recommend visiting the overlook after dark when the mountain is glowing!
Chain of Craters Road
The second road is much longer at 22 miles. The Chain of Craters Road takes about 45 minutes to drive to the end of the road, and that’s without stops, so plan 1.5 hours of driving. This road takes you down through the lava fields, and they are really impressive. Large chunks of spewed lava, and gentle slow ridges of ancient lava surround the road. There are pullouts for a few smaller craters, too.
Eventually, the road drops 4000 feet all the way down to the level of the sea, which crashes against the south shore of Hawaii. There are a number of hikes along this long and winding road, which you can read about below. This drive is beautiful and we loved the scenery from volcano to ocean.
Mauna Loa is the second volcano in this park. When we visited, there had been some volcanic activity at Mauna Loa, so that road was closed and we were unable to venture to the area around this volcano. There is a Mauna Loa lookout, as well as a trail we were considering hiking. Kipukapuaulu is a 1.2 mile roundtrip hike that is listed as great for bird watching. Make sure to ask at the Visitor Center if this area is open. Mauna Loa did erupt one month after we visited (November 2022), so the volcanic activity they were sensing was spot on.
We visited Hawaii about 10 years ago without kids and spent some time near Hilo where Hawaii Volcanoes is located. One of the coolest things we did was go to a night observatory gathering at the top of Mauna Kea. There is a huge observatory there because the nights are so dark and because the volcano is so high. We didn’t get to go all the way to the observatory since it was nighttime (and that road is only open during the day), but we met up at the Visitor Center with some college students who shared about the night sky and let us look at the moon, and other objects in the sky using their telescopes. Mauna Kea is technically outside of the area of Hawaii Volcanoes National Monument, but it is a neat stop we wanted to share a little info about it here, and it’s right next door. For more information about visiting the observatory and the free astronomy nights, check out their website.
There are some amazing hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We hiked four trails in the half day that we had in this park, and each destination was unique. One trail looked down into the caldera of the volcano. Another is a simple walk to some amazing petroglyphs. We also visited a sea arch among the crashing waves on the south end of the island. And our favorite was a walk through a lava tube. Make sure to plan time for at least these four hikes if you visit the park. Read more about these trail on their individual posts:
- Holei Sea Arch
- Thurston Lava Tube
- Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
- Keenakako’i Overlook (Old Crater Rim Road)
Tips for Families
Our boys have been to a lot of National Parks, and they rated Hawaii Volcanoes very high on their list. If you want to see a bit of Hawaii that isn’t the beach, give this park a try. Definitely stop in the Visitor Center for current information and recommendations on what to do. You can also check out the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website to find updated volcano activity. We can’t wait to return and spend more time exploring!
Here are some tips that we recommend when visiting:
- Wear close-toed shoes. Lava rocks are sharp and hurt. Flip flops would not be comfortable here.
- Bring lots of water. Hiking on the black rocks is HOT!
- Wear a hat and sunscreen. The sun is reflected off all that lava, so keep your face protected from sunscreen.
- Check in at the Visitor Center for the most current info and best places to enjoy the volcano.