Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Guide to The World’s Most Active Volcano

woman standing on hill in islet

Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park attracts over a million outdoor adventurers, nature lovers, and volcano enthusiasts each year. This fascinating destination is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse environments and is home to many unique plants and animals found only in Hawaii.

The park also contains the world’s most active volcano and is one of the best places on the planet to witness the creation and destruction associated with volcanic activity. These sublime landscapes are rooted in Polynesian mythology and hold spiritual importance for Native Hawaiians, making the park a fantastic place to learn about Hawaiian culture.

Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes takes some planning due to the park’s remote location, but it’s well worth the effort. We’ve got you covered with everything you need to know to plan an amazing trip. Keep reading below to find out what to do, when to go, how to get there, and much more.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

History

Native Hawaiians have lived on the Hawaiian islands for hundreds of years. Estimates of their arrival range from around 1,700 years ago to 800 years ago. Although there was some connection between the Hawaiian Archipelago and Polynesians on the Society Islands, Hawaiians experienced nearly 400 years of isolation until the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778. This isolation allowed a unique Hawaiian culture to develop and flourish on the islands.

Long before Hawaii Volcanoes became a national park, it was a sacred place for Native Hawaiians. For hundreds of years, Hawaiians worshiped, studied, and lived on the Big Island’s volcanoes. According to Hawaiian tradition, the volcano deity Pele created all of Hawaii’s volcanic landscapes. Lava and volcanic activity are embodiments of the goddess’s energy. Additionally, the Kilauea volcano and its Halemaʻumaʻu crater were considered Pele’s home. Native Hawaiians would come to the crater and offer gifts to the volcano goddess.

In 1823, American missionary Asa Thurston and English missionary William Ellis became the first non-native people to visit the Kilauea volcano. They described witnessing the eruption as “sublime and even appalling.” Word spread about this spectacle and the area’s fascinating landscapes, and the volcano became a tourist attraction in the 1840s. Local businessmen began opening hotels at the crater rim, including the original Volcano House, which opened in 1846.

More and more tourists traveled to the park to see the dramatic geological features and landscapes. In 1866, author Mark Twain ventured to Kilauea to see the eruption and stayed at the Volcano House. He wrote about his travels in Hawaii for an American newspaper and described Kilauea as “a scene of wild beauty.”

The volcanoes continued to attract many visitors throughout the rest of the 19th century. In 1906, Lorrin Thurston (a newspaper publisher who was the grandson of Asa Thurston) launched a campaign to protect the area as a public park. He published editorials in his newspaper, the Honolulu Pacific Commercial Advertiser, advocating for the idea. Several congressional delegations visited the area in the following years. Despite some opposition from nearby ranchers, legislation to make Hawaii Volcanoes a park eventually passed.

On August 1, 1916, US President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that formally established the area as Hawaii National Park. To celebrate the official opening, 250 people went to the Halemaʻumaʻu crater for a dedication ceremony. They gathered on July 9, 1921, and paid their respects to the goddess Pele. The park was renamed Hawaii Volcanoes in 1961, and an additional 115,788 acres (469 square km) were added in 2004.

Key Facts about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Size: 505 square miles (1,308 square km)

Number of visitors: 1.5 million per year

Established on: August 1, 1916

Length of hiking trails: 150 miles (241 km)

Highest point: 13,677 feet (4,169 meters) at Mauna Loa

Lowest point: sea level at many locations in the park

Other interesting facts about Hawaii Volcanoes:

  • The park contains two active volcanoes 25 miles (40 km) apart: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. These are some of the most active volcanoes in the world. Kilauea has been continuously erupting for nearly 30 years.
  • There is a safe lookout point where visitors can observe the volcanic activity, located about 400 feet (122 meters) above Kilauea’s caldera.
  • Hawaii Volcanoes was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
  • In 2018, the park was closed to visitors between May 11 and September 22 due to volcanic activity and earthquakes. Explosions from the Halemaʻumaʻu crater on the Kilauea volcano resulted in toxic ash clouds and road damage.
  • Rising from sea level to 13,677 feet (4,169 meters), Hawaii Volcanoes is extremely diverse and contains seven different ecological zones: alpine, subalpine, upland forest, rain forest, mid-elevation woodland, lowland forest, and seacoast.
  • The national park seeks to preserve traditional Hawaiian culture by protecting landscapes, plants, and animals that are sacred to Native Hawaiian people.
  • Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on Earth and covers around half of the island of Hawaii. It is a shield volcano extending upward from the ocean bottom for about 3 miles (5 km) and then rising another 2.6 miles (4.2 km) from the ocean’s surface.
  • Mauna Loa has been active for around 700,000 years, and its most recent eruption was in 1984.
  • Mauna Loa is over 56,000 feet (17,000 meters) high when measured from its base to its summit, making it taller than Mt. Everest.
  • Kilauea is Hawaii’s youngest volcano and has added around 1,380 acres (5.6 square km) of new land since 1983. The volcano added around 875 acres (3.5 square km) in 2018 alone.
  • For the last 50 years, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has attracted around 1-2 million annual visitors, making it one of the most popular US national parks.
  • December is the wettest month of the year in the park, with around 11.4 inches (290 mm) of average precipitation.
  • The Hawaiian Archipelago is the world’s most geographically isolated island chain. The remote location has resulted in an extremely high number of endemic species in the archipelago and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Over 90% of the islands’ native terrestrial flora and fauna are found only in Hawaii.

Climate and Weather

Weather on the Big Island is known to be somewhat unpredictable and can change very quickly. Additionally, the significant elevation changes within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park result in substantial variations in weather conditions from one area to the next. However, the temperatures in a given location are relatively consistent throughout the year.

Year-round temperatures at lower elevations range from around 66 to 85°F (19 to 29°C), on average. The lower elevations typically experience warm summers and wet, mild winters, but there are several exceptions. The coastal plain toward the end of Chain of Craters Road tends to be hot, dry, and windy, and Kaʻū Desert is hot and dry, especially during the summer.

Temperatures can be chilly at higher elevations in any season, with the 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) summit of Kilauea seeing frequent rain and fog throughout the year. Temperatures at Kilauea tend to be around 12 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (6.7 to 8.3 degrees Celsius) cooler than at sea level. At the summit of Mauna Loa, freezing temperatures, snow, and strong winds are possible any time of year.

February is the coldest month of the year, while August is typically the warmest. November to March is the rainy season in Hawaii, with the north and east shores seeing higher precipitation. The dry season runs from April to October, although there is still around 5 to 6 inches (127 to 152 mm) of precipitation in the park during these months.

Although hurricanes are somewhat rare in Hawaii, they are possible between June and November. During these months, tropical storms can result in strong winds and torrential rainstorms.

When to Visit

There is no bad time to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park remains relatively busy year-round, thanks to the island’s mild climate. Summer is the busiest season, but you should expect potential crowds at popular attractions and on top hiking trails any time of year.

Winter brings many cruise ship passengers to Hawaii as well as travelers seeking to escape colder climates. April, May, September, and October are nice times to visit Hawaii and the national park since these months typically offer pleasant weather, good hotel rates, and fewer crowds.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Recommended Gear

On your visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ll want to bring rain gear and plenty of layers to ensure you’re prepared for varying weather conditions and temperatures within the park. Unless you’re heading to the Mauna Loa summit, you won’t need any heavy winter clothing or technical equipment.

If you’re planning on doing some sightseeing and day hiking in the park, you should be all set with a standard day pack and day hiking gear. You can view our Day Hiking Checklist for a detailed packing list and descriptions of each item. We recommend paying extra attention to the sections on rain gear and reading our post about hiking in the rain. This will help you prepare for a potentially wet trip to Hawaii Volcanoes.

If you’re planning a backpacking trip, check out our Backpacking Checklist to learn more about what to bring on a multi-day hike or overnight in the backcountry.

What to Do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has over 150 miles (241 km) of hiking trails and is a fantastic destination for hiking and backpacking. From easy day hikes to challenging multi-day treks, there are fantastic trails for hikers of all skill levels.

Backcountry camping requires a US$10 fee per trip (in addition to the park entrance fee). This permit is valid for up to ten people and seven nights. There are eight backcountry campsites (Ka‘aha, Halapē, Keauhou, ‘Āpua Point, Nāpau, Pepeiao Cabin, Red Hill Cabin, and Mauna Loa Cabin), each of which has a limit of three consecutive nights. Dispersed camping is also allowed in the park. You can learn more about the rules and regulations for backpacking in Hawaii Volcanoes from the National Park Service.

Best Hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

  • Devastation Trail: This easy 1 mile (1.6 km) hike is accessible to nearly all park visitors. The paved trail passes through areas that were severely impacted by the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption, hence the trail’s name. You’ll get to see landscapes that were buried by lava flow and falling cinder and witness how areas regenerate and recover following a significant volcanic event.
  • Kilauea Iki Trail: On this 5.3-mile (8.5-km) hike, you’ll explore the lush rainforest and walk across the otherworldly Kilauea Iki Crater. Hikers can see unique plant life, including Hawaii’s native ohia trees and tree ferns, or hapuu. Allow around 3-4 hours to complete the hike when starting at the Kilauea Visitor Center.
  • Crater Rim Trail: Experience jaw-dropping views of the Kilauea summit caldera, the world’s most active volcano. The trail begins at Kilauea Visitor Center and is 11 miles (17.7 km) long, but you can hike a shorter section if you’re looking for a more leisurely route.
  • Halema’uma’u Trail: Beginning near the Volcano House off Crater Rim Trail, this 1.7-mile (2.7-km) moderate hike takes you through the Hawaiian rainforest to the floor of the Kaluapele (Kilauea caldera). Enjoy panoramic views of the caldera and see how the rainforest has re-established itself after volcanic devastation. If you’re looking for a longer hike, you can combine this trail with Kilauea Iki, Byron Ledge, or Nāhuku.
  • Kipukapuaulu Loop Trail: This easy 1.2-mile (1.9-km) trail allows hikers to experience rare Hawaiian plants and animals and witness their struggle for survival amidst lava flows and volcanic eruptions. Start at the Kipukapuaulu parking area, and allow around 1 to 1.5 hours to complete the hike.
  • Mauna Iki Trail: This trail is perfect for those looking for a backcountry hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The hike begins in the barren Ka’ū Desert and then rises to the 3,034-foot (925-meter) summit of Mauna Iki. If you continue all the way to Kulanaokuaiki Campground, the hike is 7.9 miles (12.7 km) long.

Camping

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has two drive-in campgrounds. Nāmakanipaio Campground costs US$15 a night and is located at 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) in elevation, 31.5 miles south of Hilo on Highway-11. Kulanaokuaiki Campground is located at 2,700 feet (823 meters) in elevation, around 5 miles (8 km) down the Hilina Pali Road. Both campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Biking

Biking is a fantastic way to experience the park’s volcanic landscapes. There are many roads open to bikes and e-bikes, including the iconic Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. You can bring your own bike, rent one locally, or book a guided bike tour with a local guide.

Eruption Viewing

The island’s unique geology and volcanic activity are features that draw many people to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and viewing eruptions is a highlight for numerous visitors. If you visit during an active eruption, you’ll have the chance to see things like volcanic gas and steam, lava flows, molten rock, a lava lake, and a spatter cone.

You can check the current eruption activity for Mauna Loa and Kilauea on the national park’s official website. Keep in mind that volcanic eruptions can be unpredictable and hazardous, so use caution and stay on marked overlooks and trails.

The World's Most Active Volcano

Birdwatching

The remote Hawaiian Archipelago is famous for its spectacular bird population, with numerous endemic, threatened, and endangered species. Many of the bird species in Hawaii aren’t found anywhere else on the planet, making it a fantastic spot for birders. You can see species like native honeycreepers, Hawaiian goose (also called the nēnē), white-tailed tropicbird (koaʻe kea), and Hawaiian petrel (ʻuaʻu).

Where to Stay

If you want to stay inside the national park, you can stay at one of the two drive-in campgrounds, a backcountry campsite, or the Volcano House. The Volcano House is a historic hotel on the edge of the Kilauea caldera, with gorgeous views of the Halema’uma’u crater.

Outside the park, the best and most convenient option is Volcano Village. The small town is located just beyond the park’s borders in a tropical rainforest. Volcano Village has various accommodation options, including bed and breakfasts, lodges, and vacation rentals.

Visitors can also stay in Hilo, a town located around 30 miles (48 km) northeast of the park. The town has numerous lodging options and is a fantastic place for those who want to explore more of the Big Island. Hilo is famous for Wailuku River State Park, home of the stunning Rainbow Falls.

How to Get There and Getting Around

The closest airports to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are the Hilo International Airport (30 miles/48 km away) and the Kona International Airport (101 miles/163 km away). There is no public transportation or shuttle bus within Hawaii Volcanoes, and ride-sharing companies generally do not pick up passengers in the park. As a result, the best way to get around Hawaii Volcanoes is with your own vehicle or a rental car. There are car rental companies at both the Hilo and Kona airports.

There are also cruises that will take you to the Big Island, with excursions to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Conclusion

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an incredible destination that offers visitors unique and even spiritual experiences. From viewing volcanic eruptions and honoring the Hawaiian volcano deity to spotting rare flora and fauna, there are tons of exciting things to enjoy in this national park.

Did you enjoy this guide to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure.

 


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