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.

Easy Drive

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.

Visitors Center

Visitor CenterCredit: The Writin CowboyOur first stop is the park’s visitor center, not far from the entrance. There’s a large parking area that accommodates most visitors. However, when volcanic activity is high (especially at night when tourists and locals alike come to the park to see the spectacular night views), you can expect larger crowds. The cool, gentle mist belies the fact that we are on top of a volcano. It’s both calming and eerie.

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

Steam VentCredit: The Writin Cowboy

Steam VentCredit: The Writin CowboyNext we head out, going counter-clockwise along Crater Rim Drive towards the Thomas Jagger Museum. Along the way we stop at a couple of the ‘steam vents.’ These are fascinating because they are real volcanic vents that send out puffs of sulfuric steam. Standing alongside the vents you get the feeling of being in a steam bath, the warmth a sharp contrast to the surrounding cool air. You can see the remnants of beer or liquor bottles, along with coins on the rocks inside the vent, part of the Hawaiian folklore that suggest a ‘sacrifice’ be made to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano. The practice is frowned upon, but it persists.

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.

The CalderaCredit: The Writin CowboyPerhaps the best part of the museum is that it sits on the very edge of the Kilauea caldera. This is our ‘oh wow’ moment. We are actually looking down – no more than a few hundred feet away – on the business end of Kilauea. Steam bubbles up, the sulfur smells are strong and there are throngs of visitors lining the edge to get the best look and the best camera shots. I pause to reflect on the fact that I am standing atop one of the most powerful of nature’s phenomenon. The cloudy day masks some of the vastness of the caldera and the volcano’s surrounding area, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Were we there at night the orange glow would be visible. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for – a stone’s throw away from the volcano and the experience doesn’t disappoint. The sulfur smell is even stronger here, and the clouds of steam are everywhere. What’s also amazing is the tropical forest that has regrown around the volcano; nature taking over its territory. Yet, in other parts of the park and adjacent areas, where lava flow was more severe you see the barren land and marvel at the contrast.

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. The surfaceCredit: The Writin CowboyWe had no forewarning that this was possible and at first we thought we were seeing some kind of animal life or optical elusions. But as we proceeded along the trail and the view cleared our suspicions – as well as my desire to experience it – were confirmed. This is yet another ‘oh wow’ moment. The descent to the crater is not easy; it requires careful footwork but it’s not overly arduous, especially when the weather is cool as it is today. Just remember, you are at a high elevation so the air is somewhat thin AND climbing down means you’ll have to climb UP as well. Also, the omnipresent humidity of this tropical area is sure to sap your strength if you are not used to it. This is not for the unfit. That said, one can’t adequately explain what it feels like to be walking in a volcano. It’s more of a mental or emotional high than merely a physical experience. It’s a lake of hardened – or should I say hardening – lava and that’s not to be taken lightly. It’s also not something to take lightly that this is a sulfur infused area and therefore it’s not a bad idea to wear a breathing mask.

Inside the lava tubeCredit: The Writin Cowboy

Once I climb out of the caldera our next stop is across the street to visit the Thurston Lava Tube. The name soft-pedals the fact that this is a tube through which lava flowed and we are going to be walking right through it. The tube was formed by extremely hot lava flowing through the center as the outside cooled rapidly into rock. As the hot lava flowed out, it left the crust, which is very thick and strong. The tube is a short walk but a fascinating one, one that truly informs you about the power of a volcano and its resultant lava flow.

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.