Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors
Hawaii Volcano Story: Kilauea & Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii County on the Big Island of Hawaii encompasses a dynamic landscape that features glowing lava flow, steaming craters, lush native forests, and panoramic ocean vistas. The park contains two active volcanoes: Kilauea, one of the most active in the world, and Mauna Loa, once believed to be the largest on earth. Although this park is worthy of an extended visit, many of the park's top attractions can be seen within a day. The following itinerary takes in many of the park's highlights, including the Kilauea Volcano.
Before we jump right in, a little background...
As you can tell, this definitely is an active volcano...
The last major Kilauea eruption, called the lower Puna eruption, occurred in April 2018 when the crater floor of Pu'u O'o collapsed and the lava lake level in Halema'uma'u fell significantly, resulting in outbreaks of lava fountains up to 300 ft. high.
This had an incredible impact on the area, as you can imagine, and the island is still reeling from the effects.
Volcanic gas that spewed from fissures in the ground caused by a 5.0 magnitude earthquake forced an evacuation of approximately 2,000 resdients from Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.
The resulting lava flow from the fissures created rivers of lava that flowed across Hawaii Route 137 on the eastern side of Hawaii's Big Island then over cliff edges and into the ocean.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that a molten rock and magma intrusion under Leilani Estates had caused the ground to split in and around the estate.
The Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO) continues to monitor the area for eruptive activity and alert levels have fallen since the 2018 volcano eruption. It's now safe to attend the park, but the HVO notes that Kilauea remains an active volcano and that there will be another volcanic eruption at some point in the future.
Therefore, it's important to check alert-level status before planning your trip and monitor the status closely in the lead up to your arrival.
Now back to the park...
Kilauea Visitor Center
When you visit Volcanoes National Park, you should first get oriented at the visitor center, which is just beyond the park's main entrance. Here, you can learn about the Kilauea Volcano, the dramatic volcano within the park, and you can also view a short introductory movie about the area. Helpful rangers are on hand to answer any questions you might have about the park. The visitor center has accessible bathrooms, drinking fountains and a small gift shop. It's open every day from 7:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
From the visitor center, turn left, and follow the road a few miles to the Kilauea Iki trailhead. If you don't have the time or inclination for a hike, you can view Kilauea Iki Crater from the trailhead area. This small crater last erupted in 1959, and steam issuing from the crater's hardened surface attests to the ongoing volcanic activity here. If you're feeling adventurous, you can hike into the crater. The trail begins in a rainforest and descends to the crater's floor. This loop trail is four miles long and takes two to three hours to hike. The footing can be rough in places, and there is an elevation change of 400 feet.
Here's a cool timelapse of Kilauea Summit from Volcano House:
Thurston Lava Tube
A lava tube is a long cave created by hardened lava. This easy, half-mile loop trail takes you through the rainforest and into the famous Thurston Lava Tube. The lava tube is lit by electric lights, but it can be wet and slippery inside. The parking area for the lava tube is just beyond the trailhead for Kilauea Iki Crater. The lava tube can be visited in half an hour.
Here's a video of lava flowing into the ocean:
Imiloa Astronomy Center
You could spend a rainy day taking in the exhibits on astronomy and indigenous Hawaiian culture in this family-oriented museum and planetarium. Located at 600 Imiloa Place, Imiloa Astronomy Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Imiloa is closed on New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission is $17.50 for adults. Discounts are available for children, seniors and Hawaii residents.
Chain of Craters Road
This area is worth a visit if you have an extra two or three hours to spare. If your time at the park is limited, skip Chain of Craters Road, and continue to the Sulfur Banks or Crater Rim Drive. Chain of Craters Road begins at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet and winds 19 miles down to sea level, passing many old craters and lava fields. Conveniently located parking areas allow you to stop and view the craters. Scenic vista points feature expansive views of the coast.
Check out this video of slow-moving lava within the park:
End of the Road
Chain of Craters Road ends abruptly in the lower east rift zone where lava from a 2003 flow covered the pavement - in fact, the road has had parts covered in lava for 43 of the past 51 years. Pu'u O'o, a volcanic cone in the eastern rift zone of the Kilauea Volcano, has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983, making it the longest-lived rift zone eruption of the last two centuries.
At the end of the road, you can scramble over the hardened lava and imagine what it must have been like to see it in its glowing, molten form as it oozed over the road. In the past, flowing lava has been visible from here, although there was no lava flowing in this area at the time of writing. The half-mile walk from the parking area to the road's end provides a chance to stretch your legs and take in pleasant ocean views, including a glimpse of the Holei Sea Arch. There are accessible restrooms at the parking area near the end of the road.
Here's video of lava flow blocking one of the streets in Leilani Estates:
Park at Kilauea Visitor Center, and follow signs that lead you on a paved trail for 0.3 miles to the Sulfur Banks. In this area, emissions of sulfur and hot water vapors have produced chemical changes in the minerals of exposed rocks, resulting in startling colors. Visitors can view the rocks up close on a wooden boardwalk. However, due to the high amount of sulfur and other gases in the area, pregnant women, young children, or anyone with breathing or respiratory issues should avoid the Sulfur Banks.
Crater Rim Drive
This road, which winds around the edge of Kilauea Caldera, takes you into the heart and soul of the park. At the time of writing, much of Crater Rim Drive was closed due to volcanic activity. However, you can still visit many of the park's signature attractions on the section of the road that remains open. Allow one to two hours to explore this part of the park by car. Or, you might choose to hike on the mostly unpaved Crater Rim Trail, which roughly parallels Crater Rim Drive for 2.2 miles from the visitor center to the Jaggar Museum (now closed). The trail has no significant elevation changes, and frequent lookout points provide views into the enormous Kilauea Caldera. Allow two to three hours for this round-trip hike.
On Crater Rim Drive, approximately half a mile past the visitor center, you'll notice steam rising from the ground. Here, at Steaming Bluff, as this area is known, rain falls into "vents," or cracks in the ground, where it's heated by volcanic activity deep underground. The water is vaporized into steam, which rises out of the cracks. The Crater Rim Trail passes through the Steaming Bluff area. If you're driving, stop at the parking area for the steam vents, and walk a short distance to view them up close.
Check out this timelapse view of Steaming Bluff below:
Continue approximately a mile past the steam vents on Crater Rim Drive or on the Crater Rim Trail. Here, you can take in the view of Kilauea Caldera's vast expanse of hardened lava, where wisps of steam rise ghost-like from cracks in the blackened surface. In the distance, volcanic gases spew from Halema'uma'a Crater, where molten lava bubbles to the surface. The overlook has picnic tables and primitive outhouses. It's a good place to have a snack and view this dynamic caldera. You might see rocks, flowers, or other items on the edge of the caldera.
Here's a cool timelapse of the lava lake glow in Halema‘uma‘u Crater:
Thomas A. Jaggar Museum
If you're interested in the science behind volcanism, you won't want to miss this small but informative museum, which is located on Crater Rim Drive next to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The observatory isn't open to the public, but the museum has excellent displays that explain how scientists study Hawaii's volcanoes. The museum also contains a small bookshop. It's open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, although hours can change seasonally or due to volcanic conditions. There are restrooms at the museum.
Unfortunately the Jaggar Museum is now closed (perhaps permanently) due to structural damage from tens of thousands of earthquakes.
Geomorphologists have determined the ledge on which the museum sits is extremely unstable and therefore unsuitable for future use for the building and grounds.
For more on on-going recovery efforts check the NPS Recovery Efforts website.
Nighttime Lava Viewing
Just outside the Jaggar Museum (now closed), an outdoor overlook area provides a close-up view of Halema'uma'u Crater. At night, you can watch glowing lava illuminating the cloud of gases rising from the crater. Sometimes, park rangers give lectures about the volcano here. Inquire at the museum about ranger lectures and lava viewing conditions.
Checkout this timelapse of a lava lake in Halema'uma'u Crater:
Final Thoughts on Kilauea the Hawaii Volcano
Kilauea is an active volcano that emits "vog," which is a blend of volcanic gases, including sulfur dioxide. Any part of the park may experience high vog levels at any time. Talk to your physician before going to the park if you have a respiratory or cardiovascular condition. Pregnant women should also exercise caution when visiting the park.
Located at approximately 4,000 feet in elevation, the main part of the park near Kilauea Caldera can experience cool and wet temperatures. Prepare for your visit to this area by bringing warm clothing, sensible shoes and rain gear. The lower part of the park, at the end of Chain of Craters Road, is hot and humid. When visiting this or any other area of the park, bring plenty of water, and wear clothing that will protect you from the sun.
The park has a single restaurant, located in the Volcano House lodge near the visitor center. There are no gas stations within the park. The nearby town of Volcano has gas stations, restaurants and lodging options.
Although all information is current at the time of writing, hours of operation and conditions at the park may change at any time because of volcanic activity. Check with park rangers about current conditions in the park.
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“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
— John Muir