7 Tips for Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the #1 visitor destination on the Island of Hawaii (or the Big Island). And, no wonder why: Kilauea, the wold’s most accessible volcano, has been erupting nearly constantly since the mid-1980s! Since May of 2018, the lava lake in the Kilauea caldera has drained and the resulting stunning and months-long volcanic and seismic activity has dramatically altered the park. Re-opening on September 22, 2018 for the first visitors to gaze into the now gaping and enlarged chasm of the caldera, the work of nature is a sight to behold. Don’t think the adventure is over at Volcanoes National Park…it’s just beginning.

The 2018 eruption is a reminder to us that the Island of Hawaii is alive and your visit to Volcanoes National Park will allow you the opportunity to witness this amazing force of nature firsthand with wonder and amazement.

The park is huge – over 300,000 acres – and you’ll run the risk of not getting the most out of your visit without a plan. Things will be changing rapidly in the first weeks of Fall 2018. None the less, here are our top tips to help get the most out of your trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

  1. Plan to visit more than once. Your park admission is $25 (as of this update in September 2018) and sadly, most people spend only part of a day exploring this immense National Park. Park admission is good for seven days…get out of the car and get into the park and explore this other-worldly place! Plan one day for orientation and ranger guided activity, then maybe stop by again after dark one night on your way back from Hilo to the condo, and take another day for hiking on one of the many wonderful trails in the lesser visited portions of the park.
  2. Start at the Visitor’s Center. If you arrive in the morning, our suggestion is to get oriented to the park with at least one of the films (they’re short and very informative) and then join for a ranger-guided walk. This will help you understand the history, geology and layout of the park. Plus, we always learn something new on these walks.
  3. The weather will be different – and possibly cold! We’ve been to VNP in May and seen morning temperatures around 50 degrees with light mist – on many occasions. It’s much colder here than at sea level. Layers are key as are good walking shoes. Slippers (flip flops) are great at the beach but wear something more substantial when you go to the park.
  4. Visit Thurston Lava Tube (not currently open) in the morning or evening. The majority of people come for just one day and they pack in as much as they can into one day – usually in this order: visitor’s center, caldera, Thurston lava tube, Chain of Craters Road. So, traffic moves in waves through each place. If they leave Kona at 7 AM, make a few stops, they’ll arrive at the park around 9 – 10 AM. Traffic seems to start peaking and stays strong around 11 AM from what we have seen. It starts to taper off again around 4 PM. If you’re staying at our condo, and you’re close to the park, you’ll be (hopefully) visiting more than once. The Lava Tube is a popular stop, avoid crowds by stopping early in the morning or later in the day after other people have started their long drive back to Kailua-Kona or Kohala.
  5. What are the “don’t miss” spots in the park? In whatever order suits you, be sure to do all of these things: visit the caldera overlook – VNP Visitor Center, Sulfur Banks / Steam Vents Trail, Chain of Craters Road, Thurston Lava Tube. If you are up for a moderate hike, don’t miss Devastation or Kilauea Iki trail – you’ll hike from rain forest to a desolate lava field and back up through rain forests again! If you want an easy hike, Devastation Trail is a winner. The petroglyphs at Pu’u Loa trail is across lava, and hot, but worth strong consideration as you are on your way to the sea arch.
  6. Dining in the area. Volcano Housesm is in the park and was recently renovated and has received rave reviews. We’ve not eaten there since it reopened, but, even if you want to get your meal elsewhere, you can go inside and warm up with a coffee or tea and sit along the panoramic windows to view the Kilauea caldera. There’s also a nice gift shop here. In nearby Volcano Village, there are several choices for dining. Several we enjoy are the Kilauea Lodge (great for lunch), Ohelo Cafe (great lunch or dinner) and I like the Thai restaurant, Christen is not so much a fan of Thai food. There are several other choices.
  7. What is that camp I pass when coming into the park? Neat, isn’t it? That’s Kilauea Military Camp. Active and retired military can stay in those quaint cottages and it’s still an active facility. It has a bowling alley, theater, PX (post exchange), gas station…bar and restaurant…all the amenities needed for relaxation. It briefly served as an internment camp and (later) a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Secret visitor tip: You can use many of the facilities in the park – the restaurant has a Friday night luau dinner buffet and there’s a reasonably priced gas station in the back corner (credit cards only). The bar has a weekly Friday night hula show.