Although I currently call Honolulu home, I was actually raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the sleepy little town of Hilo. Growing up, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park wasn’t something I gave much thought to; it was just someplace in our backyard that I could count on visiting several times a year. It’s only now, as an adult, that I’ve come to appreciate the unique wonder of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If witnessing one of the world’s only active volcanoes isn’t reason enough to convince you to visit this summer, here are 7 other reasons that just might change your mind:
1. Thurston Lava Tube
Where else in the world can you walk through a massive 500-year-old lava tube? Lava tubes are formed when flowing lava rushes beneath the surface of a previously hardened lava flow. Thurston Lava Tube trail begins in a lush tree fern forest and winds through a dark and damp lava tube illuminated by lanterns. Inside the tube, the ground is flat and level, but cool water seeps from the ceiling and collects in muddy pools along the floor, adding to the eeriness of the experience. While there are other lava tubes and caves on the Big Island, Thurston is the most easily accessible (and safest) by far.
2. Devastation Trail
This 1.6 mile roundtrip trail takes you through a stark expanse of rugged beauty–the remains of a 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki that left the area buried in cinder. Lone trees and barren stumps stand solemn against reddish-brown cinder mounds, evoking an eerie sense of otherworldliness. Perhaps what is most poignant about this path, though, is not the destruction that is so readily evident but the resurgence of plant life and native birds that serve as testament to the power of life.
3. Kipukapuaulu (Bird Park) Trail
This easy 1.2 mile loop flies under the radar of most guidebooks and visitors, but it’s one of our favorites. For as many times as we’ve walked this loop, we’ve never run into more than one or two people on the trail. Our oldest son is a birder, and Kipukapuaulu is one of the best places we know of to spot native (and endangered) Hawaiian bird species. Take a stroll through the lush forest–those with patience will reap the reward of hearing beautiful apapane and iiwi birdsong. Binoculars and a keen eye will help bring these delicate and brilliantly colored songsters into focus. And as tempting as it might be to keep your eyes peeled to the treetops, there are also francolins and pheasants to be admired in the shrubs.
4. Holei Sea Arch
Located at the very end of Chain of Craters Road, Holei Sea Arch stands 90 feet tall, formed only within the last several hundred years by the powerful forces of lava and water. Everything about standing at the overlook makes you acutely aware of how small and insignificant we are. Here, the ocean crashes against the lava cliffs, reminding us of its power to both give life and destroy. The ancient lava cliffs represent a similar dichotomy: even as lava destroys everything in its path, it flows steadily to the sea, creating new land–and new life. Above all, Holei Sea Arch serves to remind us of life’s transience. It is a temporary formation–beautiful, yet fleeting.
5. Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail
Also located on Chain of Craters Road, this 1.4 mile easy to moderate hike takes you over a field of pahoehoe (smooth) lava to a boardwalk that straddles some of the best-preserved petroglyphs in the state. Pu’u Loa is considered a sacred site. While it is believed that the ancient Hawaiians used these petroglyphs to record their travels and history, Pu’u Loa is believed to be sacred because it also served as a burial site for umbilical cords after childbirth. This practice carried deep spiritual significance and ensured long life.
Walking the wooden boardwalk is fascinating, but getting there can be a challenge for those with mobility issues. Crossing the hardened pahoehoe lava field translates to many small hills with uneven surfaces. Hiking shoes, or at the very least, tennis shoes are your best best; too many tourists attempt this hike in flip flops or sandals, which tend to get caught in lava crags. Pahoehoe might be smooth, but it is still lava rock, and it will definitely hurt if you fall! The uneven terrain also means this hike might take longer than you’d expect; it’s always a good idea to bring water with you.
6. Crater Rim Trail
This 11-mile trail follows the circumference of Kilauea’s summit caldera. The beauty of this hike is that it can be easily accessed from several locations along Crater Rim Drive, allowing you to hike as little or as much as you’d like. One of our favorite portions of Crater Rim Trail is the Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks area. With all of the surrounding forest area, it can sometimes be easy to forget you’re at an active volcano. The Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks let you know in no uncertain terms that the land is indeed alive. Those who have visited Yellowstone will be familiar with the inimitable smell of sulphur; it’s an odor kids love to hate. No matter how many times the kids gag their way through this trail, they always ask to stop at the Sulphur Banks whenever we visit.
A word of caution: those with asthma or breathing issues will want to steer clear of this area. Gases and vog (volcanic dust and gases) are present throughout the park (and throughout the Big Island, occasionally spilling over to the other islands), but are especially thick in this area.
7. Halema’uma’u Crater
Located within Kilauea’s summit caldera, Halema’uma’u Crater is home to some of the best volcanic fumes and glow to be seen within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Best of all, you don’t even need to traverse any sketchy lava fields to be able to see this awesome display. Simply head up to Jaggar Museum to snag your spot along the rock wall at sunset and prepare to be dazzled. The last time we went, we found ourselves jockeying for position with several bus-fulls of tourists. Shouts in Japanese, Cantonese, and Italian could be heard across the museum as each group competed to be heard over the noisy din. We didn’t hold out much hope for a meditative night-viewing experience, but the moment the sun started to set, it was as though a sacred and collective hush fell over the group. Shouts faded to whispers as everyone stood in silence, sharing the powerful sight before us. It reminded me once again of how the National Parks have a way of dissolving barriers and uniting us in wonder.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has so much more to offer than first meets the eye. Whether you’re seeking the spectacular wow-factor of a lava night show or the quiet solitude of a stroll through Bird Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is sure to delight you and your family!
Tell me: When was the last time you visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? What was your favorite Big Island experience?