One of the main reasons we chose the Big Island over the other Hawaiian Islands was to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. My son had seen a brochure about the park at a friend’s house last summer and has wanted to go ever since. Turns out, this was the highlight for all of us. There is so much to do and as an added bonus it is a great learning opportunity. Below are our highlights and suggestions for what to do during your visit.
Where to stay
Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have options to stay both inside and outside the park. Inside the park, options are limited to the Volcano House, Kilauea Military Center or cabins/camping. More options are available outside in the nearby town of Volcano or further afield in Hilo (approximately 30 miles) and it’s surrounding areas. During our visit, we stayed both inside the park at the Namakanipaio Cabins and in Volcano at the Volcano Village Lodge (which was amazing!)
The newly renovated Volcano House is beautiful and well situated directly opposite the Visitors Center and overlooking Halema’uma’u Crater at the rim of Kilauea caldera. This is a great place to center your visit to the park if your budget allows. The rooms are modern, well sized and have beautiful views in all directions.
These newly refurbished cabins are a great budget friendly option in between a hotel and full on camping. You (or mostly the kids!) get the excitement of camping without pitching a tent or sleeping on the rocky ground. The cabins are complete with plush beds (bunk beds for the kiddos and full size for the grownups) with duvet and pillows for your comfort. They are even prepared with a stack of wood for a fire (for an additional $13 fee).
There is electricity and plugs for charging your phones, but no AC or heaters. The shared bathrooms and showers are clean and well kept. This is a fun, family friendly option. The only negative is no WIFI, but you can load up on your internet time for free at Volcano House. The cabins (and camping) are managed by Volcano House.
For a true adventure and for the budget traveler, you can camp at Hawaii Volcanoes NP. Don’t worry if you haven’t brought your camping gear, the Volcano House will provide tents, bedding and all the supplies you need ($40 for rental, plus site reservation of $15 per night.). They will even set it up for you! The campsite is near the cabins above, but have their own bathrooms and parking area.
Kilauea Military Camp
This option is only available for current and retired military personnel and their family. The camp offers adorable cottages with all the necessities you will need for your stay, including a mini-fridge and microwave.
Outside the park, many people choose to stay in small lodges or B&Bs. In Hilo and the surrounding areas, you have an abundance of hotel options as well as Airbnb or VRBO rentals. We stayed in Volcano, at the Volcano Village Lodge, that was set in the lush rainforest. Our suggestion however, would be to stay within the park itself for the least amount of driving each day.
Where to eat
The options for eating are as limited as accommodation, both inside and outside of the park. The only place to eat within the park is at Volcano House. This can get pricey if you are eating all of your meals there. We suggest mixing it up a bit by bringing some easy to carry breakfast foods as well as eating one meal in town. You can also grab a sandwich or fruit from the shop inside Volcano House. The only budget friendly option for dinner outside of the park was Thai Thai. They will cater to your childs tastes, so don’t be scared off. This was one of our son’s favorite meals with grilled chicken, veggies and rice. Another budget friendly optin is the local food trucks. There is also typically a thai food truck on Wright Road near a playground if you want something different. Check out the NP website for other dining options.
If you need some last minute snacks or supplies within the park, head to the general store at the Kilauea Military Camp which is open to the general public. If you are camping or staying in the cabins, you can pick up all the supplies you need for making s’mores here too!
What to do
The best place to start your visit is at the Visitor Center opposite the Volcano House. Inside are helpful park rangers who will give you all of the latest information about where the lava flow is located and if you can access it, which hikes are best for your group and general park information. You next stop should be the auditorium in the visitor center for the 25 minute video played on repeat throughout the day. This was so informative and helpful even for our 4.5 yr old son. It was enlightening hearing about how the island formed, its history and that there is currently another island forming under the ocean as we speak.
Depending on when you visit and where the lava flow or smoke is filtering, some sights might be closed. We were not able to drive the entire 11 mile route often recommended due to road closures. Additionally, the road was closed near the arch due to the lava flows covering the road in the recent past.
From the visitor center, you can set off on your drive through the park or head out on a hike.
Junior Park Ranger Badge
But wait! Before you head out from the visitor center, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. The Junior Ranger programs encourages families with children to explore, discover and learn about the park in a fun way. Even though my son was younger than the recommended age, we picked up the booklet for kids ages 7-12. It was probably one of the more time consuming Junior Ranger booklets we have seen, but my son still enjoyed the activities and learning about each of the stops along our drive through the park. We also took the one for under 7, which was essentially a coloring book that kept our son occupied during meals.
The Jaggar Museum is one of the first stops for many visitors. This is where you can see exhibits on the geology of Hawaiian volcanoes and attend ranger talks. But most importantly to visitors, this is where you can see the constant plume of volcanic gas flowing from the crater. It’s a dramatic reminder of the lava churning below. At dawn or in the evenings, a glowing red cloud from the lava lake is visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook. If you are staying at the cabins or campground, there is a short .5 mile hike to the museum overlook. Look up into the sky as you walk and you will see how the smoke plume turns the night sky red. Our son loved seeing this, as well as being able to do his first night hike. The path is well marked on the return, but a flashlight is still necessary.
Steam Vents & Steaming Bluff
Less than a mile from the visitor’s center brings you to a stop off point, the steam vents and steaming bluff. Warm yourself up in steam coming straight from the middle of the earth, but be careful not to get burnt. It can get hot quick! Ground water seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks returning to the surface as steam. It’s pretty awesome to see.
For another view of the smoldering caldera and more steam vents, follow the trail behind the railed off steam vents for a short walk leading from the parking area to Steaming Bluff. This area is a grassy meadow with steam coming out of fractures in the ground with the crater’s center in the distance.
Sulphur Bank Walk
The Sulphur Bank walk is a short .5 mile stroll from the Steam Vents parking lot (or .4 from the Visitor Center). The concrete trail leads you up close to where volcanic gasses seep from the ground. There is a sign at the start stating that it’s not safe for children or pregnant women. We ignored the sign and carried on, but take caution where you must. Stop for a second and take a good whiff of the air – smells like rotten eggs doesn’t it! These are the gases seeping out from the earth’s core. Along the route you can see sulfur deposits and other minerals on the rocks above the boardwalk. Look for the yellow, white and red stained rocks. Take care to stay on the trail. One of the information placards tells the terrifying story of a person getting off the trail, falling through a steam vent hole and their resulting severe burns.
Kilauea Iki Trail
If you can only do one hike in the park, this is my recommendation. It’s such an amazing trail and really can be done by kids of all ages. My 4 yr old did this hike amazingly well and at a good pace too. We finished in 2.5 hrs without rushing. You could easily spend a lot of more time on it if this was the first thing you did at the park. It’s a 4 mile loop that is best started by going counter clockwise from the parking area.
The trail begins and ends through lush rain forest with the crater floor in between. Hiking across a cooled lava lake that is still steaming from the last eruption in 1959 is the most surreal experience. Don’t forget to check out some of the spectacular views of the crater floor on the ridge as you walk down.
If you have time for only a short stroll or are worried about the kid’s stamina, take a walk on this paved path (.5 mile) through the forest devastated in the last eruption (1959). Notice some of the plants are returning to this barren landscape.
Thurston Lava Tube
This is a must on every visitor’s trip through the park. How cool is it to walk through a 500 year old tunnel made of lava and where lava once flowed through? It’s shorter than you might imagine and unfortunately the second part of the tube that is unlit and more rugged has been closed to the public for a while due to safety concerns. Spend some time walking through the rainforest on the way back up to the parking lot (.5 mile trail), imagining how it must have been with lava flowing underneath your feet in the ground below.
Chain of Craters Drive
This 38-mile (61 km) round-trip drive leads you to the coast and ends at the Hōlei Sea Arch. Allow 90 minutes to two hours round-trip, depending on how often you stop and how far you hike on the stops. Kids will enjoy the final stop at the arch, but the drive down can be boring for them. This is a good drive to do during nap time.
Hōlei Sea Arch
The Hōlei Sea Arch is seen from a viewing area across from the ranger station. The arch has been formed by wave erosion and will eventually collapse. Enjoy the spectacular view over the clear blue ocean with a nice cool breeze. Relaxing here, listening to the waves lap up against the hard lava rock was music to my ears. Take a walk around to observe the different harden lava flows. It’s so interesting seeing the different lava flows (see photo below).
The biggest disappointment for all of us was not being able to see the lave up close. After speaking with the park rangers on site, it seems that it’s often difficult to catch the flow within the park or in an easily accessible area.
We all have images in our minds of how a volcano is supposed to look, but one thing you have to recognize before you arrive is that this volcano is not going to look like that. There are several craters here where the cone top has sunken down. The volcano is slowly rebuilding itself back up, but it could be another 400-600 years in the making!
It took time for all of us to wrap our heads around this and get our bearings about exactly what the smoldering caldera was in relation to the rest of the volcano. This is where the visitor center, Jaggar Museum and attending park ranger talks come in handy.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a definite must see on the Big Island and one that too many people don’t give enough time for. Take your time and really experience all that there is in this ever changing environment, you won’t regret it.
To read more about our trip to Hawaii’s Big Island, check out our write up at Globetotting.com
This post is part of #WeekendWanderlust and #The WeeklyPostcard. Check out other destinations from around the world below.