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Early morning lava viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island

The ultimate guide to visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the few places on Earth where you can stand on the rim of an active volcano, but unlike other volcanoes – this one is exceptionally easy to access.

You can literally drive up to the crater rim and see the sulphuric clouds rising off molten lava. It’s an awe-inspiring sight and a Hawaii experience that is truly unique to the Big Island.

It’s the kind of place that’s hard to comprehend without having actually gone there to see it for yourself. The amazing things will you see when you visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park include a monstrous crater filled with hot lava (hopefully!), dramatic charred landscapes from past eruptions, unique geological formations only seen where lava has passed through, and steam rising out of deep fissures in the ground.

If you want to know all the best things to do at Hawaii Volcanoes, here’s my suggestions on what to see and do in what is absolutely one of the USA’s most incredible national parks!

Driving through lava flow on Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Driving through lava flow on Chain of Craters Road

How to get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

You can access Hawaii Volcanoes National Park by driving from Hilo or Kona. Hilo is closest at just a 45 minute drive. Kona is around 2 hours drive away. We drove from Kona to Volcano then stayed for a few nights before driving onward to Hilo.

The national park is open 24 hours and costs $30 USD per vehicle to enter. Most people enter during the morning and spend the day inside the park, but you can also come in and out after hours for lava viewing without having to show your receipt.

If you won’t be renting a car in Hawaii, you have the option of taking a day tour from Kona or Hilo to visit the national park.

Lava in the Halemaumau Crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Lava in the Halemaumau Crater

When to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

It’s obviously tempting to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park when the volcano is erupting, though you probably won’t have a choice in the matter as that is very much up to the volcano and not up to you! Hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to travel during an eruption phase, or maybe you could plan a last minute trip once you hear that an eruption has started to increase your chances of seeing the volcano in action.

You can still visit the national park when the volcano is not in an eruption phase, and it will still be very awesome! The impacts of past eruptions and the epic landscapes are awe-inspiring at any time.

At 4,000 feet (about 1,200 metres) above sea level, the temperature at the top of Kīlauea is significantly cooler than at sea level. The weather changes frequently around the volcano, so be prepared for anything including sun, rain, or fog. We carried rain coats, sunscreen, a hat, waterproof shoes, a jacket, water and snacks as we explored the park and used just about all of those items.

Airbnb cabin in Volcano, Hawaii
Airbnb cabin in Volcano

Where to stay at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

We stayed in an Airbnb cabin called Volcano Hot Lava Retreat in the town of Volcano (very appropriately named), which is just 5 minutes drive down the road from the national park entrance. We loved it there. The cabin was set amongst dense trees and felt very private.

Other options are to choose accommodation providers in Volcano or to stay inside the park itself. This can be done by booking a room at the historic Volcano House, which has an incredible outlook over the crater. This would be a popular option so make sure you book well in advance.

Things to do at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Map
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park map

V – Volcano town centre
1 – Park entrance
2 – Kīlauea Overlook & Kau Desert Trail
3 – Steam Vents & Steaming Bluff
4 – Sulphur Banks
5 – Kīlauea Iki Trailhead
6 – Thurston Lava Tube
7 – Old Crater Rim Drive
8 – Chain of Craters Road

Halemaumau Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Halemaumau Crater from Kīlauea Overlook

See the Halemaumau Crater

I think the best way to start a day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is to get a good look at the impressive Halemaumau Crater! I’d suggest parking at Kīlauea Overlook and walking about 5-10 minutes further along the Kau Desert Trail to access the next viewpoint along the crater rim. Keep in mind that bad weather can obscure the views so it’s best to visit these locations when it’s reasonably clear.

We were lucky enough to be visiting while the volcano was in an eruption phase, which meant that we could see the lava lake from here! In the daytime we could see sulphuric steam rising from the lake’s surface, but it’s only at night that the glow from the lava lake is visible. Because of this, we revisited the viewpoints after sunset one evening to get a good look at the lava glow.

Steaming bluff in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Steaming bluff

Steam Vents + Steaming Bluff

Just down the road from the overlooks are the Steam Vents and Steaming Bluff trails. This area is where moisture from cracks in the Earth is heated up and evaporates out as steam. It was pretty neat to look down into the vents and feel the warm mist rising out.

Sulphur banks in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Boardwalk curving through the sulphur banks

Walk through the Sulphur Banks

The Sulphur Banks are similar to the steam vents but instead of water vapour, it’s sulphur leaking up through the Earth. This area has some otherworldly colours to the rocks and of course – that funky smell that comes with sulphur in the air.

Be careful to stick to the paths around this area (or anywhere in the national park for that matter). The volcanic ground can be dangerous and unstable. Don’t venture off the tracks or venture off the path for any reason – not even to get a good photo!

Entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube

Discover the Thurston Lava Tube

The Thurston Lava Tube is a short drive away from the park entrance. It’s a very cool underground tunnel which was once a channel for molten lava to pass through. The trail takes you right through the tunnel! Take waterproof shoes as the inside of the tube can be very wet with pooled water on the ground.

Kīlauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Kīlauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
The Kīlauea Iki Trail

Hike the Kīlauea Iki Trail

This was honestly one of the most awesome hikes we’ve ever done! After a short descent through rainforest to the crater floor, you can walk along the base which is a solidified lava lake from an eruption in 1959. The crater floor looks very otherworldly, like something out of a sci-fi movie, with cracks and waves of lava on all sides of the trail.

The entire hike is a 5.3km (3.3 mi) loop from the Kīlauea Iki Trailhead. Be sure to wear appropriate footwear that can handle uneven rocky terrain and mud as the rainforest sections can be wet.

Views out to the ocean from Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Views out to the ocean from Chain of Craters Road

Drive down Chain of Craters Road

Chain of Craters Road is about a 45 minute drive one way (1.5 hours return) that takes you from the national park entrance to the coast. The road is named as it passes by many small craters (which I found somewhat underwhelming after seeing the massive Kīlauea Crater) and is famed for having lava cover parts of the drive throughout numerous past eruptions.

I found the second half of the drive to be the most spectacular part, as you literally travel through vast lava flows on both sides of the road. There’s a scenic overlook that is really neat as you can see where the lava flows have travelled down the mountainside to meet the ocean. The lava cliffs with a sea arch at the end were also very cool to see.

We skipped the petroglyphs which are right near the end as we’d had enough hiking already, but they also may be worth stopping for if you have the energy.

Early morning lava viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Early morning lava viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

See the lava at night

It all depends on the eruption activity at the time of your visit, but when we were there, the lava could best be seen from the opposite side of the crater to the visitor center and overlooks. For this reason, we set a 4:40AM alarm and woke early to do the 20 minute walk along Old Crater Rim Drive to access the viewpoint that had been set up by the national park rangers.

It was totally worth it! After parking at the Devastation Trail parking lot and walking 20 mins along the closed off road in the pitch black darkness with only our smartphone torches to guide us, we were treated to a view of bubbling lava from a distance that felt safe but close enough for the action to be visible. I took my telephoto zoom lens to get some good photos (it might also be worth taking binoculars with you). There were plenty of other people at the viewpoint before dawn (around 30 or 40) but we were still able to get a good view. I imagine it’s probably busier after sunset.

Tuk Tuk Thai food truck in Volcano, Hawaii
Meals from the Tuk Tuk Thai food truck in Volcano

Where to eat in Volcano & Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Inside of the national park, there are very few options for grabbing food. It’s best to stop by the Kilauea General Store in Volcano first to pick up some snacks to take into the park with you – they have the usual general store goods such as trail mix, crisps, as well as a few baked goods (I was really into their pumpkin bread!).

The only place that you can get a meal inside the park is Volcano House, but it can be hard to get a table. We tried to book for dinner one night and were told that they had no availability for at least a week! This might be different for breakfast and lunch though, as the appeal of dinner at the restaurant is being able to see the lava glow in the evening. Volcano House does also have some water and other drinks in the gift shops inside the lobby area.

There are a handful of places to get a decent meal in Volcano town. On our first night we grabbed some veggie burgers from Lava Rock Cafe. They were perfectly adequate, though not worth writing home about (my burger expectations are ridiculously high after eating in Sydney’s Inner West which has unbelievable burger options).

On our second night we had a sit down dinner at Ohelo Cafe, which is quite possibly the nicest restaurant in town and is open for dinner Thursdays–Mondays. Their Italian-inspired menu had a few really great veggie options. I loved the wood fired cauliflower in bechamel sauce, though Rob thought his pasta had a few too many ingredients and could have been more simple. We both agreed that the house-made pesto was top notch (I had it on the burrata).

We also stopped in at the Tuk Tuk Thai food truck which is open Wednesdays–Sundays. Volcano is not the kind of destination that I would have expected to find amazing Thai food, but this little side-of-the-road take out service was actually great. It’s super popular so expect to line up and then wait around 30 mins for your order. Also try not to get there too late in the day – we made this mistake on our first night by arriving just after 5PM (they close at 6PM) and they had already sold out of rice and pasta! Best to go for lunch or pick up your order mid afternoon to reheat later.

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