By Beth Whitman, on October 15, 2013

Volcano hopping in Hawaii

When you visualize Hawai’i, you likely think of pristine beaches, blue-green waves, swaying palm trees, and grass-skirt-clad hula dancers. But what many don’t realize is that the state abounds with rugged rock cliffs, deep canyons, and, of course, volcanoes — after all, it was millions of years of volcanic activity that made the Hawai’ian islands what they are today!

This is most evident on Hawai’i Island. Spending time in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park blew away my preconceptions about what this state was all about. And while a black lava landscape might not be the first image that leaps to mind when you think of Hawai’i, I’ve learned to love its ruggedness and ever-changing nature.

Jaggar Museum Overlook 

View the volcano! The best and most consistent place from which to view volcanic activity is from Jaggar Museum overlook. Perched on the edge of Halema’uma’u Crater, you can watch plumes of gas rise up from the crater during the day from a safe distance. In the evening, watch the glow illuminate both the plumes of gas, as well as the clouds above. Very cool.

Shield volcanoes (not to be confused with explosive volcanoes like Mount St. Helens) are the type found in Hawai’i. Halema’uma’u has been active with “gentle” flows since March of 2008. Previous to that, its last big eruption was in 1924. Travel there soon and it’s fairly certain you’ll see some activity.

Kalapana Viewing Area

At the end of Highway 130, you’ll find Kalapana Viewing Area, which is close enough to warrant a visit, though not located in the national park. From the parking lot, you might be able to spy some lava flow coming from the Pu’u O’o Crater. Of course, lava activity is dependent on Mother Nature and changes daily and sometimes hourly. The viewing area is open from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily. 

Viewfinder Tip: There’s no fee to enter but the Kalapana Viewing Area is undeveloped, meaning no amenities are available

Take a hike!

There are more than 150 miles of trails throughout the park. The National Park Service website has a wide range of hikes, including day hikes, summit trails, and the Chain of Craters Road trails (an eight to nine hour round-trip). When you arrive at the park, talk to a ranger to determine which trails are open and best for you, based on your timeframe and abilities. 

Printed trail guides are available for a couple of bucks and it’s fairly easy to find trails (usually marked with cairns – piled rocks). But if you’d like to do a guided hike, there are rangers on duty every day who lead hikes. All are free with your park admission of $10.

Rough terrain in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Hiking in the park can be difficult due to the rough terrain but it is magnificent – as if you’re on the moon. You’ll need shoes or sandals with a good grip and, if you require it, good ankle support. Depending on where you go, temperatures can vary greatly. Be prepared for hot or cold weather at higher elevations (Kilauea is at 4,000 feet). Bring plenty of water and snacks to sustain you through the hike. 

Get some rest!

Volcano House is the only accommodation available to visitors, though there are several campgrounds that are first-come, first-served, as well as plenty of free backcountry camping. Register just 24 hours in advance and you can snap a spot along the spectacular coastline.

You may also find nearby hotels just outside of the park.

Where’s your favorite volcano?