Before tourists came to Hawaii for the stunning beaches, there was the lure of the volcanos. There aren’t too many places on this planet where you can walk on brand new land and see steam leak from deep inside the earth, but the Volcanoes National Park is one of them. It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, it’s a great reminder of the wild power of the earth beneath our feet. It’s geography in action. In another word, it’s unmissable…
The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera
Our Hawaii itinerary initially didn’t include a trip to the Big Island, but using Adventure in Hawaii, we booked a day trip (airfare and car hire) from Honolulu Airport to Hilo (you want to make sure you go to Hilo as it’s only a 45 min drive from the National Park). A word of warning for those driving in and around Honolulu – the traffic can be terrible! A 25-min drive to the airport from Aulani turned into almost an hour, even at 6 in the morning. It’s worth leaving plenty of time to get to the airport just because of the traffic.
Hilo is a sleepy little airport that seems to cater mostly to helicopter tourists! I wish we could have flown over the island by copter, but as there isn’t any live red lava flowing into the ocean at the moment, it didn’t seem quite worth it. We did upgrade to a bright red Jeep (when in Hawaii) and we were on the road a mere three hours from leaving our hotel in Aulani. Now that’s service!
Our bright red jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward
We stopped off at a local Walmart to pick up essentials we couldn’t bring with us on the plane: water, snacks, sunscreen and PONCHOS. This is one of the wettest places on the planet and a theme of this holiday seems to be that whenever I choose to take us on an adventure, it rains! It was tipping it down as we entered the park, and everyone was glad for their wet weather gear. There isn’t much choice for food and drink inside the park either, so well worth bringing your own snacks.
We probably only had around six hours in the park in total, so we had a jam-packed itinerary. We arrived at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre at 10.30am, which was perfect timing as we joined a park ranger guided tour called “Exploring the Summit”. This was the perfect way to kick off our visit, as we learned a lot about the origins of the park itself, the special flora and fauna that we would see (I love the Ohea trees, which can ‘hold their breath’ when a volcano spouts sulphur into the air) and about the huge cultural significance of the volcanoes. Hawaiian myths and legends are deeply intertwined with the land – especially the legend of Pele, the goddess of fire, who makes her home in the Volcanoes National Park. We also got a great view of the Kilauea summit caldera (the giant smoking cauldron you can see in the first picture). He showed us things we definitely would have missed – like strands of Pele’s hair (really, rock that has been blown into strands as thin as hair by the power of the volcano) and the ‘fuzz’ that grows on the great ferns.
Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire
Following the ranger tour (which took about an hour) we drove straight to the start of the Kilauea Iki hike. This was definitely the highlight of the day, despite the driving wind and rain! We headed counter-clockwise around the Kilauea Iki crater through lush rainforest and a few steep steps, until stepping out onto the crater floor itself. Despite the rain, it felt like we had arrived on another planet. The lava itself was surreal – it looked like the top of freshly baked brownies, or the inside of an Aero bar! (Or maybe we were just hungry…) The lava changes from crumbly spatter to a smooth lava lake. Steam vents burst out of the ground, making the lava feel hot to the touch – and this was enhanced by the cold, windy day we had (there were some benefits!).
Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor (Photo by David Alward)
It looked like the surface of another planet (photo by David Alward)
Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater
The hike finished with a stop at the Thurston lava tube, much different compared to the lava tube we walked through on the road to Hana! It was huge and very eerie. In total, with lots of stopping for pictures and a walk through the lava tube, the walk took us about 3 hours.
Thurston Lava Tube entrance – as you can see, I am soaking wet!
Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)
We were pretty hungry at this point, so we drove back out of the park to the aptly named Volcano Village where we stopped at the Lava Rock Cafe for lunch. I had loco moco, which I’m going to describe as Hawaiian poutine! It’s rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy. It looks disgusting and tastes… pretty damn delicious! The perfect comfort food after a long hike :)
Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food – aka Hawaiian poutine
Back out on the road, we drove the impressive ‘Chain of Craters’ road. As the name suggests, this road winds its way down to the ocean through different flows of old (and relatively new!) lava fields. There were lots of places to stop and turn off to get a view of the destruction caused by the lava – it’s hard to believe that a lot of this land was once thick forest – although you can see the evidence in little islands of trees that survived the lava’s onslaught.
Lava flowing down the cliff
This road has been covered by lava and redirected many times! At the moment, the end of the road is for emergency access only, and you have to turn around at the sea arch at the end of the trail.
Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road
Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)
By this time, it was starting to get a bit dark and we really wanted to get to the Jaggar Museum before we had to leave for the airport. Unfortunately, because of our flight timings, we weren’t able to wait to see if the caldera would ‘glow’ as it sometimes does after dark. I would recommend booking the latest flight back to your home island if you’re only doing a day trip out to the national park so you can leave as late as possible.
Pretty coloured lava
In order to maximise our time in the park, we arrived at the airport probably the latest that I’ve ever attempted – maybe 15 minutes before our scheduled boarding time! It worked out absolutely fine at an airport like Hilo because there was no queue for security and you simply stroll straight onto the plane from one of only a few gates (obviously, we had no checked luggage) but I wouldn’t recommend it if being late really stresses you out :)
Overall, I wish we’d had a night in Big Island but the day trip was totally worth it – not too stressful, and we packed a lot in!