Looking for tips and the best activities in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Here are our top 10 picks for things to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This National Park is located on the Big Island of Hawaii, about 45 minutes from Hilo Airport and 2 hours from Kona Airport. While Volcanoes National Park is renowned for its two active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, it is crucial to know in advance that it is highly unlikely that you will see eruptions or lava flow during your visit to Volcanoes National Park. (Last updated August 12, 2017.)
This isn’t a bad thing (do you really want to be around an erupting volcano?), but we note it up front because the National Park Service stressed it throughout the park and clearly many guests had the expectation of seeing lava based on promotional images for Hawaii that they had seen. In fact, I didn’t see lava during my first visit to HVNP, so we returned when there was a lava flow. I wrote about our experience hiking out to the ocean entry point in our Lava Viewing Tips for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park post.
Don’t worry if you’re visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park when there is no lava flow. The volcanoes, especially Kīlauea, which actually glows at night, are the main draw of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park any time. No surprise there, as the park is named after them. However, and to my surprise, there was a ton to do in Volcanoes National Park. My goal is to experience every National Park, so I was expecting that seeing Kīlauea would essentially be it for this National Park, with maybe a little hiking to round out my visit. There are several National Parks like that, with one main draw (I call these “One Hit Wonder Parks”) but not much in the way of a supporting cast. I quickly learned that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not one of these parks.
Whether you’re looking for a scenic drive, to hear from NPS Rangers, to go hiking, stargazing, or looking for wildlife and wildflowers, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has you covered. This post offers my top picks for Volcanoes National Park, but it should not be read as an exhaustive guide to everything worthwhile in the park. I only ended up spending 2 days in Volcanoes National Park (for most visitors to the Big Island of Hawaii, I think 1-2 days is about the right amount of time here), but you could a full week in the park if you wanted.
For whatever reason, the planning guides we’ve read about Hawaii were all woefully inadequate when it comes to Volcanoes National Park. We do recommend Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed (definitely get the Oahu version if you’re also going there), but it’s not great for the National Park. There is some information online on the National Park Service’s website to get you started and give you an idea of what you’ll want to see. Ultimately, I found the best thing to do was go to the Visitor’s Center in the Park and actually talk to a Ranger. The Ranger with whom I spoke was extremely knowledgeable on current conditions and gave me several ideas (including things I hadn’t heard about elsewhere) based on what I said my interests were.
There are a lot of awesome things to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park–here’s my take on the absolute must-dos!
10. Dinner at Volcano House Dining Room
I’ve stayed at Volcano House and absolutely loved it, but it’s not for everyone. If you enjoy National Park lodges, definitely book a night or two here. If you’re just doing a day-trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can experience Volcano House by dining there. I had breakfast and dinner here, and both were fantastic.
The lodge’s Dining Room, “The Rim,” is a restaurant featuring inventive Hawaiian cuisine, featuring seasonal specials with ingredients sourced from local ranchers and farmers. It’s a fine dining experience (nothing says “National Park” like fine dining, right?!), but it’s well worth the money. You can see current menus here. The Rim overlooks Halemaumau Crater in Kīlauea, so the view is incredible at night. I recommend making reservations for the last seating.
9. Jaggar Museum
A combination of beautiful art, plus geological and cultural educational displays, Jaggar Museum is not to be missed. If you time it right, you can also see a National Park Ranger presentation, which I found to be worthwhile. (The Ranger I saw was very enthusiastic about the National Park and had a fun personality.)
The overlook here offers the closest view of Halemaumau Crater in Kīlauea, so you’ll be stopping here anyway at some point!
8. Napau Trail to Pu’u Huluhulu
To get to this trail, you head down Mauna Ulu road to the parking area. This one might rank higher for me if I hiked it on a clear day and was actually able to see Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Pu’u ‘Ō’ō, and the Pacific Ocean. However, I went on a day when visibility was awful.
Still, it was cool seeing the craters along the way, which give this hike the edge over a couple of other shorter hikes I did. The coolest of these craters are only about a mile from the parking lot, so if you’re there on an overcast day or just don’t want to hike all the way to Pu’u Huluhulu, you can always check out the craters and turn back.
7. Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
Off the side of Chain of Craters Road on the way to Holei Sea Arch is a nondescript sign for the petroglyphs with a small pullout. From there, it’s about a .7 mile hike (give or take depending upon your path) along a loosely marked “path” to a boardwalk area flush with petroglyphs. I was expecting maybe a handful of petroglyphs, but there were literally thousands (23,000+ per the National Park Service).
These were pretty interesting, with many of families plus repetitive circles and lines. The prevailing interpretation of the petroglyphs (as I understand it) is that they were used to document travel around the island, and also as something of a birth site, pertaining to the umbilical cord at the birth of a child. That’s cool, I guess. I didn’t spend as much time here reading the signs as I would have liked, because it started pouring so I had to run back to my car so my camera didn’t get too wet.
6. Steam Vents
There are two ways to see the steam vents. The easier way is to just park at the Steam Vent stop along Crater Rim Drive and walk a short distance from your car. There are a number of these vents leading all the way up to the edge of the rim, where you can see Volcano House (as pictured above) behind the vents.
The other–better–way is to start at the Kīlauea Visitor Center parking lot past the Volcano Art Center Gallery and do the 1 mile round-trip hike on Ha’akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) Trail. It is a super easy hike and you will constantly encounter steam vents.
5. Watch for Nene and Other Birds
The endangered Nēnē (Hawaiian Goose) is Hawaii’s state bird, and is fairly common in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park…or at least as common as you’d expect an endangered species to be. There are signs up throughout the park reminding drivers to be careful, and this is excellent advice. These guys seem to be drawn to the roads (perhaps partially explaining their ‘endangered’ status). I spotted three different groups of Nene on Chain of Craters Road one morning. The grassy areas (which are few) on this road seem to be the best spots for spotting these birds.
I saw a few different breeds of other birds on Devastation Trail, but I don’t know what types of birds these were, nor do I know whether I just got lucky, or if they’re actually common to that area. So…the only really advice I can offer with regard to those birds is “keep an eye out for them.”
4. Hike Kīlauea Iki Trail
This is by far the best of the 5 hikes I did, I presume the most popular hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It starts at the Kīlauea Iki Overlook, and descends 400 feet through a rainforest, passing eruption damage and wildlife and wildflowers along the way, before arriving down to the crater floor. There are some spots on the crater floor that are steaming, and it’s interesting to see how the crater was formed as you progress on the trail.
After going along the crater floor for a while, you go up the other side, and loop back around, finally arriving on the other side of the Overlook where you originally started. The trail is about 4 miles total, and I’d say it’s about moderate in difficulty due to the strenuous ascent 400 feet back up the rainforest. Otherwise, it’s easy. For this hike, I highly recommend picking up a trail guide, as it really enriches and enhances the experience.
3. Thurston Lava Tubes
This was an interesting experience. From the parking area, you begin walking down through a dense rainforest before encountering a cavern entrance that leads you into the lava tube, which is basically a cave in tube form (as lava used to travel through it). If it weren’t for the handrails, lights, and steps, I would not have been shocked in the least if a Velociraptor pounced out of the trees at me, as this area felt like something out of a Jurassic world.
The hike down and going through the Thurston Lava Tubes is pretty easy and only takes about 30 minutes, but there are additional areas to hike from here if you want to extend the experience.
2. Holei Sea Arch
Holei Sea Arch is located, essentially, at the end of Chain of Craters Road. Going to see the Holei Sea Arch allows you to kill several birds with one stone as you’ll be driving along the entirety of the gorgeous Chain of Craters Road, and can make stops at some of the other locations listed above along the way. Plus, you’re likely to see Nene out here.
Holei Sea Arch itself is a pretty sight, but my favorite aspect of the experience was seeing the volcanic rock at the edge of the ocean. Obviously, you’re aware that you’re on an island surrounded by ocean when you’re in Hawaii, but much of Volcanoes National Park feels like remote rainforest, or a bizarre desert. Seeing the volcanic rock and the ocean together really brings home the idea that this is how the island is expanding.
While you’re out here, walk the half mile or so past the “Road Closed” signs to see where the lava flow eliminated the road. it’s pretty neat.
1. Sunset at Halemaumau Crater
Halemaumau Crater in Kīlauea is such an obvious pick that I’m almost embarrassed to give you the “tip” to see it. Of course you’re going to see it. I think this tip brings something unique to the table, though. Kīlauea is visible from a multitude of locations in the National Park, so recommending sunset “at” it is a bit of a misnomer.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that you carve out about an hour and a half of your day, starting the half hour before sunset and concluding the hour after sunset, to grab a spot and sit, and just watch the show coming out of the fuming vent.
During the daytime, it just looks like there’s smoke coming out of the vent–human eyes pick up on the light because it’s overwhelmed by daylight. However, starting at sunset, we can begin to see the color, and it becomes more and more impressive with each passing minute.
The vast majority of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park guests will go to Jaggar Museum to watch the crater at sunset. Jaggar Museum provides the best view, but even on a lightly crowded day in Volcanoes National Park, it is PACKED. You can go to this spot later in the evening for a close-up view of Halemaumau Crater in Kīlauea (also make sure to check out the awesome museum).
Instead of fighting the crowd, I went to Kīlauea Iki Overlook (Stop #5 on the Crater Rim Drive Tour–also the trailhead for the Kīlauea Iki Hike mentioned above) where I was the only person, sat and watched in peace. The reason I recommend sitting and relaxing as you watch for an hour and a half (or so)?
The first photo and the last photo in this section were taken from the same location an hour and ten minutes apart. Notice the progression from no visible color in the crater in the first photo to color in the crater and star trails in the last photo? Well worth taking the time and relaxing with nature, in my opinion.
There are plenty of other things to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park than just what we have listed here, especially if you like hiking. However, these are my highlights! I also recommend heading out into Volcano Village, the park’s border town. There are some cool restaurants and art galleries there.
These photos of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were all shot with my Nikon D600. For lenses, I used a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens, Nikon 28-300mm VR, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, and a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, plus a tripod. I carried a lot of other gear, too. To get some more Hawaii Volcanoes National Park photo ideas, check out my Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Photo Gallery.
Have you visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Interested in visiting? Where are your favorite places and things to do in HVNP? Which of these would you most like to photograph? Any questions? Share any thoughts you have in the comments!