There’s nothing as humbling as standing on the precipice of Earth’s most violent and unpredictable nature. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park will remind you of our planet’s origin and the ever-changing primordial forces constantly in motion. Preserving one of the world’s most active shield volcanoes, this emphatic park offers an ecological phenomenon unlike any other in the United States. The park features hiking, driving, camping and recreational opportunities that allow visitors to abscond the politicized rhetoric targeting public lands for an immersive, wild experience.
The park is home to hundreds of protected species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the country. Carnivorous caterpillars, endangered sea turtles, and the country’s largest dragonfly are just a sample of atypical wildlife you may encounter. The island’s position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean offers heavenly night sky views for astronomy buffs, too. With 323,431 acres of history, culture, and mind-boggling landscape to explore, it can be difficult to settle on what to do. If you’re a first time visitor, these are the sights to see first in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park.
Crater Rim Drive Tour
This 11-mile road trip winds along the Kilauea Caldera and includes nine scenic stops for hiking and landscape viewing. Beginning at the Kilauea Visitor Center, you’ll be treated to views of steam vents, volcanic activity, and striking, walkable, lava tubes. One of your last stops, Devastation Trail, is a 1/2-mile hike through remnants of cinder outfall following the 1950s eruption of Kīlauea Iki, resulting in a massive pit crater. Near the Devastation Trail trailhead you’ll have access to the Keanakāko’i Crater, which recently reopened to visitors after an eruptive vent opened in 2008.
One of the only active shield volcanoes in the United States, Kīlauea is a must-see in the park. Best seen along the Crater Rim Drive Tour at the Kīlauea Overlook or Jaggar Museum stops, the volcano is unbelievably accessible — even for a roadside picnic. Volcano House, the only hotel and restaurant located within the boundaries of the park, sits along the edge of Kilauea Caldera, if you’re looking for luxury.
Chain of Craters Road
Arguably even more impressive than the Crater Rim drive, Chain of Craters Road yields a handful of craters, wind cliffs, and sacred ancient petroglyphs dating back to 1450 A.D. The Hōlei Sea Arch puts the finishing touches on the drive with views of the ocean and a sea arch cut into a cliff by ancient lava flow more than 500 years ago. Experts believe the arch will eventually fall away into the sea thanks to erosion, so take the time to check it out.
Historically considered one of the largest and most active subaerial volcanoes on earth in both mass and volume, visitors shouldn’t take Mauna Loa for granted. Translating from “long mountain” in Hawaiian, Mauna Loa is 500 times greater in volume than Mount Rainier. While its last eruption was in 1984, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the volcano has erupted an average of once every six years since data collection began. It’s so large it’s even earned a 17-mile scenic drive off of Saddle Road that takes you up the volcano’s edge.
After Dark in the Park
The phrase “half the park is after dark” is no truer than in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Park officials regularly offer free educational astronomy presentations in the Kīlauea Visitor Center Auditorium.