I am walking on the surface (the “caldera”) of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. Around me puffs of steam from the still active volcano are sending sulfur-smelling smoke signals into the air.
No, I’m not a daredevil nor am I an escapee from an asylum. This is an experience countless numbers of people experience as they travel through Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. It’s surreal, thrilling, fascinating, filled with wonder and a ‘don’t miss’ experience.
Our visit began as we drove to the park on Hawaii (the ‘Big Island’) from our base in Hilo. When making plans to visit the park it’s important to know that Hilo is the closest city to the park entrance, about 25 minutes. Hilo isn’t the most traveled side of the Big Island (which is about the size of New Jersey). The Kona or west side of the island is the hot spot for most tourists, but it’s more than a two-hour drive to get to Volcano National Park from there so we opted for staying in Hilo. It’s the old side of the island and it shows its age. But, there are enjoyable aspects and it has a charm to it that the newer spots on the other side of the island don’t have. For us, its proximity to the volcanoes is key.
If you think about traveling to a volcano you might have in mind a steep climb. But Kilauea – and its neighbor volcano Mauna Loa – is accessible via a gently sloping Highway 11 (Kanoelehua Avenue). For its size, Hawaii has few main roads so getting around is easy and getting lost is not likely. Before we know it we arrive at our destination, somewhat surprised that we haven’t had to climb higher. It may not seem like you are at a high elevation, but Mauna Loa is at 57,000 feet above sea level – that’s 27,000 higher than Mount Everest – with Kilauea only slightly lower. Yet, the drive is very easy.
The park entrance is easy to see and we drive in without a hitch or any wait. The cost for entrance is $10 per car (or $5 per hiker). We’ve been in U.S. national parks before and have our annual pass so we don’t have to pay anything at all here. The first thing we notice is the sulfur smell. Even though the day is cloudy and cool, the odor is distinct. We know we’ve arrived at the land of volcanoes.
The park is very easy to navigate. Crater Rim Drive forms a large circular road that takes you around Kilauea and back up to the park entrance. However, because of recent eruptions part of the road is closed. In fact on the day we visited (Fall, 2014) the town of Pahoa was under siege by Kilauea’s most recent lava flow. Another road, the Chain of Craters Road, extends from the visitor’s center all the way to the ocean to the south. It too is iffy do to recent volcanic activity. It’s wise to check online before your visit to find out what current conditions are.
In the well-equipped center you’ll find the proto-typical gift store with a variety of items, some native to Hawaii. There’s also a theatre where a historical film about the volcanoes is shown regularly. Park rangers are plentiful to answer questions and there is a fine collection of artifacts, maps, historical information and more to view.
Jagger And First Sighting of Kilauea
The Jagger Museum is much like the Visitor’s Center – with the ubiquitous gift shop – but different in that it has a much larger exhibit of the history of the volcano, replete with a working seismograph that shows the level of recent activity. Adjacent to the museum is the U.S. Geological Survey’s research center, but it’s not open to the public. We’re thinking it would be great to talk to the scientists, but that’s not to be.
Walking Through A Lava Tube
We head back toward the park entrance because Crater Rim Road is closed (we vow to return some day to take the complete tour of the road) so for now we’ll take Chain of Craters Road south to see the Thurston Lave Tube and Kilauea Iki (the caldera that formed as a result of Kilauea’s most recent major eruption in 1959). We park in one of the several turnouts along the road and take an easy hike along the volcano rim’s well-worn trail. Again we are amazed at the view of the caldera surrounded by the reformed tropical forest. What is even more surprising is the sudden realization that down below are people walking on the caldera.
We climb up from the tube exit, through the tropical foliage and head back along the trail to our car. Exiting the park and crossing Highway 11 you’ll find the entrance to Mauna Loa. The park entrance can be hard to find; overgrowth sometimes hiding the sign so its easy to miss. The drive up Mauna Loa road is replete with fascinating stops from the Red Hill Cabin, the bird sanctuary, the majestic koa forest and, of course, the Mauna Loa caldera itself. You should gauge you’re your time carefully. It’s difficult to take in all that Kilauea has to offer and do a thorough job of trekking through Mauna Loa all the same day. Two days will offer a better and more thorough experience.
We found everything about our visit to Hawaii’s Volcano National Park to be everything we expected and more. The sheer magnitude and power of this most incredible exhibit of nature’s power is breathtaking. It’s something that should be on everyone’s bucket list.