Heading to the Big Island? Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an absolute must! Here’s our guide to one day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park filled with information about the park, the best things to do, and more!
One of the biggest highlights during our trip to the Big Island was visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park! As National Park lovers (this park was #20 for us!), visiting this park was an absolute must and shows you a whole different side of the island.
After spending the first part of our trip exploring beaches and lush rainforest, being at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park felt like a different planet at times. Seeing the many craters, lava, and the steam was such an eye opening and educational experience about the history of the island. It was mind-blowing to see the cracks in the road, walk in a crater, and see lava that is many, many years old.
While we didn’t see everything the park had to offer, our one day in at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (technically a little less than a full day) was such a blast and we felt that we got to see all of the highlights, at least the ones that were open at the time!
In this guide we’ll share our favorite things we did during our one day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as some information about the park, some ideas of places to stay, and a couple things to add on to your day at the park!
Reminder: Leave No Trace
Before starting your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave the places you explore even better than you found them.
- Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations, prepare for different weather conditions, and pack the 10 essentials.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Travel on designated trails and camp at designated sites at least 200 ft away from water sources.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry ALL trash with you and dig a 6-8″ cat hole for human waste, 200 ft away from water.
- Leave what you find: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
- Minimize campfire impacts: If fires are allowed, use established fire rings. Keep fires small and put out fires completely.
- Respect wildlife: Do not approach or feed wildlife, keep pets under control, and store your food properly.
- Be considerate of others: Yield to hikers going uphill and keep noises down.
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
About Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of two national parks in the state of Hawaii, the other being Haleakala on Maui. The entire island of Hawaii (Big Island) is home to five volcanoes and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two of them, both of which are some of the world’s most active: Kilauea and Mauna Loa.
The park goes from sea level to the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet, which is considered the largest volcano in the world. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984 and according to the USGS, “Mauna Loa eruptions tend to produce voluminous, fast-moving lava flows.” Below is a map that shows the history of Mauna Loa’s lava flows from Mauna Loa.
If you heard about the eruptions happening on the Big Island in 2018, you have likely heard of Kilauea. In 2018, there was a new eruption of Kilauea that changed the park and the island. Between May 2018-August 2018, large lava flows occurred through the southeast part of the park, destroying 700+ homes and forcing thousands to evacuate, as well as tens of thousands of earthquakes inside of the park and a collapse of the Kilauea caldera.
One very important thing to know before visiting the park is that at the time of our visit (November 2019) and as we write this guide, there is no lava flow or glow to see inside the park. If you have visited the park before 2018, a lot of things will be different. Many of the top sights are closed indefinitely. And if you have yet to visit, things will look different than the images you see online from earlier years in the park.
While you can’t see the famous lava flow or glow that many used to be able to, the park is still worth visiting. Not only will you get to see the aftermath of 2018’s eruptions, you’ll get to see the current state of the park, which will be different than the park in the future. As the Ranger we listened to at the Visitor Center said: “I love working here because I will never get bored. The park is constantly changing.”
The park costs $25 per car to enter and the pass works for up to 7 days. However, we highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass, which gets you access to all National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, BLM land, and more for only $80/year. If you love the National Parks, it’s totally worth the cost!
Getting to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located in the Southeastern part of the Big Island in a region called Puna, right by the appropriately named town of Volcano.
If you’re coming from Kailua-Kona, the drive to the park is around 2 hours and if you’re coming from Hilo, the drive is around 45 minutes. While there are tour groups that can take you to the park, we highly recommend renting a car so you can enjoy the park (and the island) at your own pace!
Where to stay at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
While most people will visit the park for the day from Hilo or Kona, if you want to stay right by or inside the park, here are a bunch of options, including quite a few unique places!
Looking for places to stay in Hilo or Kona? We list a ton of suggestions on our 7 Days on the Big Island Guide!
Volcano House: Volcano House is a hotel located inside the park, right across from the Visitor’s Center! If you want to be in the heart of the action (and have a great view of the Kilauea Crater), this is a good spot to call home for your Hawaii Volcanoes adventure.
There are two campgrounds within the park if you want a more outdoorsy experience:
- Nāmakanipaio Campground has 16 campsites, as well as restrooms, water, picnic tables, and BBQ pits. This campground doesn’t take reservations and is first come, first served.
- Kulanaokuaiki Campground has 9 walk in campsites, which have picnic tables and tent pads. There is no water at this location, only a vault toilet, and no fires allowed. This campground also doesn’t take reservations and is first come, first served.
You can also go backcountry camping! There are 8 backcountry campsites and to camp there, you’ll need to get a permit at the Backcountry Office inside of the park.
Here are some Airbnb options close to the park!
Unique places to stay
If you’re looking for something a bit more unique and fun, check out these options! From treehouses, to tiny homes, to a glass pyramid, these spots are SO cool!
- Tiny home on a lava field
- Another tiny home on a lava field
- Treehouse– more affordable option
- Treehouse– midrange option
- Treehouse– higher end option
- Glass Pyramid
PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!
6 Things to do at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you have one day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, here is a list of the best things to do in the park! Doing all of these things would likely take up the whole day, but if you want to have extra time to visit some of the “additional activities” at the bottom of this blog, we suggest prioritizing the Kilauea Iki Trail, Visitor Center, Volcano House balcony, Crater Rim Drive walk, and the Holei Sea Arch. We started early and did all of those, with time to visit Punalu’u Black Sand Beach after!
Hike the Kilauea Iki Trail
The Kilauea Iki Trail was our favorite thing we did at the park! This hike is about 3 miles round trip and a 688 ft elevation change. The parking area has a good amount of spots, but the hike does get busier as the morning goes on, so start the hike early to beat the crowds and the heat (the crater part of the hike has zero shade!). If you don’t want to hike you can see the crater from Pu‘u Pua‘i Overlook
You start the hike at the top of the crater and then make your way downhill, which is a pretty steady decline and not too challenging. You walk through tons of lush vegetation at the beginning, which really surprised us! We were expecting all lava, but loved having some sun cover in the trees.
You exit the trees as you reach the crater floor, which is absolutely crazy to see up close! We spent some time just admiring the view from the edge of the crater floor before walking across it. When we did the hike, we only saw two other people until our hike back up, which means we had the whole crater floor to ourselves!
We walked along the path, which is marked by rock cairns, where you’ll see tons of cracked lava, including some with plants growing in it, which was super poetic in a way we can’t seem to describe. You’ll also walk by some steam vents, including some on the trail that you can get close to and feel the heat.
After exploring the path on the crater floor, you’ll head back up to the top of the crater, which is a constant uphill climb. All in all this hike took us about 1.5-2 hours, with a lot of stops. It was surreal getting to walk on this crater and it is something you must-do when at the park!
Swing by the Visitor’s Center
We originally stopped by the Visitor’s Center at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park just to get our customary patch and postcards, but as we walked up, a park ranger was in the middle of explaining to a pretty large group the history of the island and volcanoes. We missed the first 5-10 minutes of his talk, but we ended up standing around and listening for 20+ minutes. It was SO interesting!
He told us about all of the volcanoes on the island, his childhood on the island, his own experience with eruptions, and the possible future of the volcanoes. I (Kathryn) am not a big museum go-er or the best at absorbing history, but the ranger was so entertaining and engaging to listen to that we were all so hooked on what he was saying. And so was everyone else! All 30+ people stood around the entire time listening to him, which says a lot about how awesome he was.
While we typically do not attend ranger talks at the park, we couldn’t recommend it more at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was a great way to learn about the park!
See the view from Volcano House
Right across the Visitor’s Center is Volcano House, which is a hotel with a beautiful balcony overlooking Kilauea. We stopped in here because we needed coffee and it was the only place we could find with coffee, but ended up staying a bit because of the view!
This is a quick stop, but if you do need caffeine like we did, or want to see Kilauea Crater, which is harder to see with park closures, definitely swing by here! They also have two gift shops inside, which were much bigger than the one at the Visitor’s Center.
Walk the Sulphur Banks Trail
If you want to see lots of steam vents and colorful mineral deposits, which are signs of volcanic activity, walk along the short Sulphur Banks trail! This trail, which is also called Ha‘akulamanu, is 1.2 miles roundtrip, and is full of gases consisting of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, which mayyyy smell a bit like rotten eggs. 🙂
Walk along Crater Rim Drive
Although you can no longer drive the entire Crater Rim Drive, you can walk some of it! This road is now closed to vehicles due to the earthquakes that happened in 2018, but you can either bike or walk along the road to a certain point. While at the Visitor’s Center, the park ranger recommended driving to the Desolation Trail and then walking along Crater Rim Drive to Keanakakoi Crater. Along the way, there are viewpoints to see Kilauea Crater, as well as chances to see the cracked road due to earthquakes.
Drive Chain of Craters Road
Chain of Craters Road is an 18.8 mile road with an elevation change of about 3,700 ft that takes you from near the Visitor’s Center to the Hōlei Sea Arch along the coast. Lava had covered parts of the road, destroyed villages, and buried archeological sites since the first part of the road was built in 1928.
Along the road, you can see signs that say what year the lava flows were from, which puts into perspective how much lava activity has happened throughout the years. You also get lots of views of the ocean and the southern part of the island!
There are quite a few stops to make along the way to the Hōlei Sea Arch and you can see the whole list here, but here are some popular ones. We only went to the Kealakomo Overlook and Hōlei Sea Arch, but hope to see more next time!
- Mauna Ulu / Pu‘u Huluhulu: 2.5 miles round trip
- Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs: 1.4 miles round trip
- Kealakomo Overlook: a super quick pull off!
Currently Closed Activities at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
As we mentioned earlier, due to the volcanic activity in 2018, certain popular attractions are no longer accessible. While we are unsure if/when they will reopen, we wanted to mention them just in case things are different when you visit. We will try our hardest to keep this guide updated, but you can see the most updated openings and closures at the park here!
- The rest of Crater Rim Trail: While you’re able to walk on a portion of the trail right now from Volcano House to Kīlauea Military Camp, the majority of the trail is not open currently.
- Nāhuku – Thurston Lava Tube: This was one of the things we wanted to see the most! This 400ft lava tube formed 550 years ago and was open to visitors to walk through. The park had lights in the cave from 10 AM-8 PM to make it easier to see as you explore, but you were also able to go into the caves at night or early in the morning using your own light source. To visit another lava tube that is actually open, check out Kaumana Caves in Hilo!
Extra Activities Near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you need some extra ideas of things to do while near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, here are a couple things we recommend!
- Have lunch at Cafe Ono (Closed Mondays) or Aloha Mix Food Truck (Closed Mondays and Saturdays). Cafe Ono is 5 minutes from the park and Aloha Mix Food Truck is 30 minutes from the park, but close to Punalu’u Beach.
- Visit Punalu’u Beach, which is a beautiful black sand beach only 20 minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s full of palm trees and if you’re lucky, turtles! We saw 5 turtles total on the sand, as well as a couple turtles swimming in the ocean. There is free parking and the beach is a hop and a skip from the parking area, making it much easier to access than some other black sand beaches on the island!
- Visit the newest beach in the Pacific! Isaac Hale Beach Park (also called Pohoiki) is a new black sand beach formed from 2018’s volcanic activity.
Ready to spend one day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?
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