Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Story and photos by Jen Peng

There are not many places in the world that you can easily witness the powerful forces of creation and destruction as you can at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, it’s home to two of the five volcanoes on the island: Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano and Kīlauea, the world’s most active volcano, with continual eruptions since 1983 – fitting for a volcano named “spewing” in Hawaiian. Kīlauea is also one of the most accessible volcanoes in the world, since you can drive right up to it. 

Start at the visitor center, where you can find the latest information on current volcano conditions, especially important given the constantly changing nature of volcanoes. You can also sign up for ranger-led hikes and other activities.

Afterward, take the Crater Rim Drive around the Kīlauea Caldera, with scenic stops to see steaming bluffs, sulphur banks and caldera and crater overlooks. It’s worth hiking some of the trails around the caldera: walk the Crater Rim Trail to get a closer look a the aftermath of 2018 eruption and summit collapse; on the Kīlauea Iki Trail, descend through lush rainforest to the still-steaming crater floor, the surface of what was once a lava lake; walk through a 500-year-old, 600-foot-long lava tube at the Thurston Lava Tubes; and see the landscape starting to recover from the 1959 Kīlauea Iki eruption on Devastation Trail.

A drive along the 19-mile Chain of Craters Road is another highlight. Plan to leave yourself plenty of time to stop at the many old pit craters from prior eruptions and lookouts with sweeping views along the way. Don’t miss more than 23,000 petroglyphs at the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs. At the end of the road, enjoy views of the ocean, vast lava fields and the Hoelei Sea Arch, where waves and time have cut a large arch into the lava rock.

Kīlauea gets most of the visitor attention at the park, but there’s plenty more to see and explore, including the massive Mauna Loa, the Ka’u Desert and the Kahuku Unit, a former cattle ranch. More than half the 335,000-acre park is designated wilderness and backcountry hikes are the best way to experience it, including the difficult but rewarding multi-day hike to summit the 13,678-foot Mauna Loa. 

Of course, what everyone wants to see is the lava, which isn’t always flowing. The latest Kīlauea eruption started in September 2021 and is centered in Halema’uma’u Crater at the Kīlauea summit, and said to be the home of Pele, the volcano goddess. It’s best to visit at night to see the eerie red glow against the night sky.

You can see plenty of the park’s highlights in just one day, but there’s certainly enough to see and do to justify spending more time. There are two drive-in campgrounds and eight backcountry campsites within the park. The Volcano House, where Mark Twain once stayed, is the only lodging option inside the park, and overlooks Halema’uma’u Crater, site of the current eruptions.