By far the most famous attraction on the Big Island is Volcano National Park, home of TWO active volcanos at the moment. Kīlauea (pictured above) is the most active one, and has been continuously erupting since 1983 (!). Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984, but is still considered an active volcano because it may erupt again.
Most people advise spending more than one day at Volcano National Park. Although it’s technically possible to see most of the sites in one day, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time in the car and very little time actually hiking and enjoying the scenery. You can save asome time if you actually stay in the town of Volcano, which is only a five minute drive from the park. It beats driving 90 miles from Kailua-Kona, or even 30 miles from Hilo. You can even stay at the lodge inside the park, Hawaii Volcano House, which has comfortable features like wifi, a restaurant on site, and super convenient access to the park.
We chose to spend close to two days at the park, staying at Kate’s Volcano Lodge in the tiny town of Volcano.
Kate’s lodge was lovely, though tricky to find at night (it’s in this remote, wooded street with no lights!). The inside was quaint, warm, and really cozy. Kate was warm and friendly and offered us a ton of advice about local restaurants and hikes. It felt like a bed and breakfast, just without the hot breakfast (though there is cereal, oatmeal, and coffee in the cabinets). For those who love feeling like you’re tucked away in the wilderness, you’ll love this place. The area is surrounded by a ton of rainforest and it’s really quite beautiful. Bryan didn’t love it because he preferred modern conveniences like a stronger internet signal (the wifi was pretty spotty and slow). He looked longingly at the bustling lobby of Hawaii Volcano Place, the lodge inside the park which had a restaurant, bar, and people milling around in the evening.
Speaking of that lodge, our first evening we ate at the restaurant at Hawaii Volcano Place, Crater Rim Restaurant. It faces the active volcano and thus you can see its eerie glow at night. Unfortunately, it was raining the night we arrived, so we couldn’t see a thing.
The food at the restaurant was enjoyable – perhaps not quite as good as the best meals we had in Maui or Honolulu, but considering we were out in the middle of nowhere, it was fine. We started with the Hawaiian Avocado Dip with Island Chips ($11), taro chips with a dip made from Johnson Farms avocados and mangos mashed with red onions, limes, cilantro, and jalapeños. I ordered the Volcano House Sashimi Sampler ($19), which consisted of Kona farm raised kampachi, Ahi poke, seaweed salad, soba noodles, infused soy, pickled ginger and wasabi. Bryan got the fresh Market Fish, which was ono served with jasmine rice, grilled baby red bananas, Waimea bok choy and lilikoi (passion fruit) butter sauce.
The next morning we drove back into the park (yay, 5 minute drive!) and started exploring the park via automobile. The first drive, Crater Rim Drive, basically takes you around the crater with different vantages of the active volcano. We couldn’t drive all around the crater because part of the road was closed due to dangerous levels of ash. After stopping by the Visitor’s Center, we headed out to Jaggar Museum, the best viewing spot for the volcano.
During the day you can’t really see the glow (heh, they don’t let you get close enough!). I think the only way to really look down into the volcano is to take a helicopter tour, which I’m sure is pretty awesome. It’s still pretty neat to see the steam constantly rising from the crater, though.
Here’s a close up, taken with Bryan’s crazy 200mm lens (plus a 1.4x extender!).
At the Thurston Lava Tubes, you take a short but fascinating hike through rainforests and then into an actual lava tube (discovered in 1913!) created by lava years ago.
The Devastation Trail is another short, 30 minute hike through the cinder outfall of the 1959 eruption of Kīlauea Iki. It’s sobering to see the damage caused by the eruption and how, after more than 50 years, life is just starting to re-emerge from the land.
Most of it still looks vast, empty, and dead.
Because there aren’t that many dining options in the park, we opted to pack sandwiches from the Cafe Ohia, one of the few cafes that was open at 7AM (which is when we were leaving Volcano to enter the park). We enjoyed our sandwiches at a park bench before starting the second drive of the day, the Chain of Craters Road.
The road begins at Crater Rim Drive and goes down the volcano all the way to the sea.
The views going down are stunning, as you see newly formed lava fields full of very young land that was created not that long ago.
Sometimes, you can drive to the end of the road and see active lava hitting the ocean. Unfortunately, a lava flow that started on June 27, 2014 from Kīlauea Volcano’s Pu’u’ Ō’ō vent caused the last portion of this road to be temporarily closed.
This is as far as we could go via car. We still got to the ocean and saw the beautiful arch, but we didn’t see any lava flows. After driving back up, we were surprised we still had a couple hours left before sunset, so we decided to tackle a trail.
We chose the Mauna Ulu / Pu‘u Huluhulu Trail, a 3-mile moderately strenuous hike that included walking over the lava flows of the 1973 and 1974 eruptions as well as beautiful views from the summit of Pu‘u Huluhulu. It was a beautiful hike, though we sort of went a bit further than our original intent, ending up on another trail heading towards Napau Crater. We regretted not downloading the trail map before heading out, but thankfully found out way back with the help of my Runkeeper App, which was using GPS to keep track of our path!
On this trail, it was cool to look into the distance and see steam rising from the mountains.
The landscape looked almost otherworldly.
After finding our original trail, we still had time to climb to the top of Pu‘u Huluhulu to see the vistas below. Success!
That evening we had dinner in the town of Volcano at Kilauea Lodge & Restaurant. There are only a handful of restaurants in the town of Volcano that are open for dinner, so the options are definitely limited. Kate highly recommended this place, which was only a mile away. Because Christmas was coming in a few weeks, they were having a wreath contest. Each member of the staff submitted a wreath made out of renewable materials and guests voted on their favorite ones. It was fun, walking around the restaurant looking at all these beautiful wreaths and voting. It also added a warm and festive atmosphere to the lodge.
The food was actually pretty good and reasonably priced. Dinner included soup (so unusual these days unless if you’re at a Chinese restaurant!), so we ended up not ordering appetizers since the soup was a perfect starter.
After dinner, we headed out to the Jaggar Museum again to see the active volcano at night. This is definitely something worth seeing. It glows a lot more at night and overall looks much cooler than the steam cloud you see during the daytime. It can get chilly at night, so bundle up!
The next day, we had about half a day to spend visiting the park. We got up super early, picked up sandwiches again at Ohia Cafe before heading out to conquer the Kīlauea Iki Trail, a 4-mile moderate to difficult hike through the crater of the 1959 eruption. The photo above shows the view from the top of the crater. The trail goes halfway around the crater rim, descends to the bottom, traverses the length, and then climbs up on the other side.
The initial descent is steep, with steps leading down through richly dense rainforests.
One you reach the bottom, you leave the fertile rainforest land and enter the old lava lake from the 1959 eruption.
The walk across the lake is pretty fascinating. Imagine, this used to be a bubbling lake of lava! You can still see the shapes of the HUGE magma bubbles. So cool. Can you see tiny me down there?
In some places, you can still see steam coming out from the crater floor.
The final ascent up was much less steep. Instead of stairs, we went up a series of switchbacks before reaching the top.
I’m so glad we gave ourselves an extra half day to spend at Volcano National Park. The Kīlauea Iki Trail turned out to be my favorite trail. I’m so glad we were able to hike it on our second day. If you only have time for one hike, this is the one to do. You get to walk along the crater rim, descend into rich rainforests, and then traverse an old lava lake, all while seeing live steam come out of the ground. It’s really, really cool.
Life slowly begins again on old lava beds
It was sad to say good-by, but it was time to go. After changing and reshuffling our luggage a bit, we drove 30 miles east to Hilo to catch our next flight to our final destination of this trip: the beautiful island of Kauai.
Up next: an unforgettable helicopter ride in Kauai (with no doors!)
This post is part of a larger series on our two week trip to Hawaii. Other posts in this series!