AAA Travel Tips / Top Things to Do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Top Things to Do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
By AAA Travel Editor Katie Broome
January 31, 2022
On the Big Island of Hawaiʻi — about a 45-minute drive from Hilo and a 2- to 2.5-hour drive from Kailua-Kona — lies Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, one of the most popular visitor attractions in the state of Hawaiʻi. It’s one of five Hawaiʻi national park sites on the Big Island and the largest of them all (covering more than 325,000 acres).
With two active volcanoes within its boundaries and unique sights like pit craters, steam vents and lava lakes, it’s no surprise that more than 2 million people each year make the journey to visit Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Wiltschko

So what can you see in the park? Quite a lot. Here is an overview of the top things to do in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park:
• See the red-orange glow of a lava lake at night
• Drive the scenic Chain of Craters Road toward the sea
• Explore the Thurston Lava Tube made of 500-year old lava
• Hike to see ancient petroglyphs made by early Native Hawaiians
• Cross a lake of hardened lava on the Kīlauea Iki Trail
• Get a panoramic view of volcanic craters from the Kīlauea Overlook
• Watch steam and volcanic gases rising from the ground at Sulphur Banks
To see the best of the park, our best recommendation is to arrive as early as you can and plan to stop at the Kīlauea Visitor Center first. Helpful rangers and volunteers will give you tips about what is open, current weather conditions affecting eruption visibility and how best to organize your day. (You can also get visitor information by phone at (808) 985-6011.) They can also remind you about the park rules concerning leaving no trace during your visit. (Leave plants, rocks and other natural materials in the park as you find them. Even the stacking of rocks can be offensive and against the law.)
A tip for how to see lava: While you can no longer see molten lava flows from overlooks open to the public, you may be able to catch views of the molten lava lake as it casts a reddish orange glow into the night sky. When conditions are just right, the glow of the lava lake within Halemaʻumaʻu Crater can be seen from the south rim along Old Crater Rim Drive (requires a moderate hike) and occasionally from the Kīlauea Overlook. During the day, many spots offer the chance to see the eruption’s volcanic gas and steam.
Read on for an overview of popular hikes, driving tours, things to do with kids and activities for couples in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Most Popular Hikes

More than 150 miles of hiking trails lie within the boundaries of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Before starting out on a hike, stop at the Kīlauea Visitor Center to learn about current trail conditions, parking availability and the status of volcanic eruptions.
One of the easiest and most accessible hiking trails you can tackle is the Crater Rim Trail. This volcano hike follows the north edge of the Kīlauea caldera, the large depression at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano. Reach the trail from several spots along Crater Rim Drive, including from Volcano House, the Steam Vents, Kīlauea Overlook and Uēkahuna (at the western end of Crater Rim Drive).
A wheelchair-accessible and stroller-friendly portion of the Crater Rim Trail starts across from the Kīlauea Visitor Center. This portion — called Kūpinaʻi Pali, or Waldron Ledge — offers a panoramic view of the Kīlauea Caldera and Halemaʻumaʻu crater. Expect the Waldron Ledge trail to take about 45 minutes to an hour to complete (it’s 1-mile roundtrip).
Walk along the Devastation Trail to see a barren landscape caused by the 1959 Kīlauea Iki eruption. The paved trail is both wheelchair- and stroller-accessible.
Another easy hike is Ha‘akulamanu, or Sulphur Banks. About 1.2 miles roundtrip from the Kīlauea Visitor Center, the Sulphur Banks trail includes boardwalks and has views of steam and volcanic gases rising up from the ground. The volcanic gas, a mixture of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, has a strong smell often described as rotten eggs or a struck match. (Note: Avoid this trail if you are pregnant or traveling with infants, young children, people with heart or respiratory conditions or those who are pregnant. If volcanic gases are particularly strong during your visit, you may want to avoid certain areas of the park.)
If you’re up for a more moderate or challenging hike, consider the Kīlauea Iki Trail. You’ll cross a lake made of hardened lava on this 3.3-mile loop from the Kīlauea Overlook.
Another moderate hike is to the Puʻuloa Petroglyphs. The 1.4 mile roundtrip hike is accessible from Chain of Craters Road. You’ll cross a lava field more than 500 years old to see etchings made by Native Hawaiians.
If your main reason for visiting Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is to see volcanic lava, you’ll need to visit when conditions are right and the sky is dark. If a nighttime hike sounds doable, plan to hike to Keanakākoʻi Crater. The one-mile hike is across uneven terrain, so bring a flashlight and good walking shoes. You most likely won’t be able to admire the lava itself — it’s in a lake deep inside the crater — but if conditions are right, you may be able to see the red-orange glow of lava reflecting off the gases and clouds hovering above the crater. Check with park rangers at the Kīlauea Visitor Center about current weather conditions and lava visibility before making the trip.

Kid-Friendly Things to Do in the Park

If you’re visiting Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park with kids, make your first stop the Kīlauea Visitor Center. There you can pick up booklets and badges for the Junior Ranger program (for kids ages 12 and under), and chat with park rangers about current trail conditions and activities. The visitor center also has a nice gift shop and educational exhibits to get you up to speed on all things volcano.
A top kid-friendly destination in the park is Nāhuku, or the Thurston Lava Tube. An easy, short trail through the Hawaiian rainforest leads you to the 500-year-old lava tube, a natural feature created by a river of molten lava that once ran through it. The interior of the tube is lit up during the day, and there are restrooms near the entrance. (Tip: It’s recommended to visit the lava tube before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m., as the parking lot fills up quickly.)
Another fun sightseeing stop for families is Wahinekapu, or the Steaming Bluff. Just west of the visitor center, the Steam Vents are easily spotted, as you’ll see hot water vapor billowing from the ground. The shallow cracks in the earth are not quite deep enough to emit hazardous volcanic gases — unlike the conditions at nearby Sulphur Banks — so it’s safer to visit this location than Sulphur Banks if you have young children in your group.
Kids may also enjoy getting out of the car and exploring the lava rock at pullouts along the scenic Chain of Craters Road. A particularly good view is at the end of the road, near the overlook for the Hōlei Sea Arch. Be sure to keep an eye on children at all times while in the park, as deep cracks in the earth, unstable terrain and volcanic gases can create hazardous conditions.

Best Activities for Couples

It’s no surprise that the island of Hawaiʻi is a popular destination for couples and honeymooners. There are a variety of romantic things to do in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park for every type of traveler — and every budget.
For the best views of the Kīlauea volcano and lava flows, consider Hawaiʻi volcano tours by helicopter. Sightseeing tours depart from nearby Hilo International Airport and offer a unique vantage point to see the massive Kīlauea volcano from above and admire waterfalls and tropical rainforests typically unreachable by car. You’ll find various tour packages offered online, with options for sunset tours and doors-off flights so you can get the best photos.
A little easier on the budget is a drive or hike through the park. Spend a few hours cruising Crater Rim Drive, where there are numerous pullouts to explore lava rock and the barren landscape. For a hike with less crowds, consider venturing into the park’s Kahuku Unit, where you can see grassy meadows, cattle ranches and volcanic craters in the shadow of the Mauna Loa volcano.
If you’d like to see the glow of the lava at night, consider staying at Volcano House for a night or two. The hotel, located within the park boundaries, has been around in some form or another since 1846. Many guest rooms have a view of the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, and there is a restaurant and lounge on site. Additional accommodations are located just outside the park in Volcano village or in Hilo, a 45-minute drive from the park.

Most Popular Driving Tours

Unlike some places in Hawaiʻi, you won’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get around in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. A two-wheel drive vehicle will work just fine, as the park roads are paved and relatively easy to navigate.
The main route through the park is Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile, one-way route that partially encircles the summit of Kīlauea Caldera. (The road forms a backward “C” around the caldera, connecting the most popular points of interest in the park.)
If you follow Crater Rim Drive east around the Kīlauea Caldera, you’ll reach the point where it intersects with Chain of Craters Road. By far the best road to explore in the park, Chain of Craters is nearly 19 miles long and winds its way down to the coast, descending more than 3,500 feet. You’ll pass volcanic features like splatter cones, pit craters and remnants of past lava flows along the way, as well as the rock carvings at the Puʻuloa Petroglyphs, which are reachable after a hike. At the end of Chain of Craters Road, you can walk a short distance to see the Hōlei Sea Arch, a unique rock formation.
Keep in mind that there are no gas stations, water or food along the Chain of Craters Road. Pit toilets are available at the halfway point and at the end. Cell service may be spotty in some areas.

Book the Hawaiian Adventure Vacation from AAA

Many of these popular experiences are included in the 10-day Hawaiian Adventure vacation package from AAA. The pre-planned trip visits three Hawaiian Islands and includes accommodations, activities, transportation, a tour guide and many of your meals.
Learn more about the Hawaiian Adventure vacation package organized by AAA Member Choice Vacations and start building your customized tour today with a AAA Travel Agent.