7 Reasons to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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

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Entrance, 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.

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Tree Fern Forest, Thurston Lava Tube
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Thurston Lava Tube

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.

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Devastation Trail
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Signs of life; Devastation Trail
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Signs of life; the return of ohia lehua

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.

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Kipukapuaulu Loop, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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Stop and listen, Kipukapuaulu
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Bird Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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.

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Holei Sea Arch, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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Power of the ocean at Holei Sea Arch

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.

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Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
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Boardwalk, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

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.

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Crossing a pahoehoe field, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

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.

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Hmm, what’s that rotting egg smell?
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Sulphur Banks, Crater Rim Trail

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.

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Overlooking the caldera, Crater Rim Trail
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Stark beauty along the Crater Rim Trail
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Steam Vents, Crater Rim Trail

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.

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Sunset, Halema’uma’u Crater
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Fumes and Glow, Halema’uma’u
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Halema’uma’u Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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?

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15 thoughts on “7 Reasons to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park”

  1. I am so happy you wrote this post! My family and I absolutely love the Big Island. My hubby and I first went there on our honeymoon and fell in love with the place. We’ve gone back a number of times even celebrating my 40th there. As for the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, my hubby and I have only walked a little of the Crater Rim trail and my daughter has never been there. So, I am very excited to have this info to help guide us for our next visit to the Big Island. Thank you so much! Great post and pictures as always, I especially love your pictures of the Halema’uma’u Crater.

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    1. This makes me so happy to hear! Especially because it feels like the Big Island never gets the same love and attention as Maui or Oahu. Love that you’ve celebrated so many milestones there–and plan to return again! If you ever get a chance to post, I’d love to hear more about your time there. I’m always curious about what people see and do while on-island–so many spots I still don’t know about, even though I grew up there. (I came into outdoorsiness a little late in life, lol!) Always looking for new spots to explore with the kids. I’ll try to write more about other fun activities on the Big Island, too!

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      1. I’m the total tourist! I have no shame. I’m a happy camper just snorkeling and eating shave ice all day. I think the Big Island has a vibe or attitude that we really relate to and embrace when we’re there. Interesting idea to post about our Big Island experience… Hearing more about fun activities on the island from a native Big Islander – now that would be interesting!!

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      2. Love it! Shave ice all day long, yesss, lol! (And ALL the condensed cream ever!) Hey, no shame here–my first job in high school was working on a shave ice truck, so I’m totally with you on that one. You know what’s really embarrassing? I’ve never gone snorkeling in Hawaii. Like, ever. (I feel like someone’s going to pop out and revoke my Hawaii card for saying that, lol.) And I hear you about the relaxed Big Island vibe; I feel like I can just breathe and be myself when I’m home.

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    1. This is wonderful to hear! Love being able to connect previous travel experiences and learning with new places. We’d hoped to stop through Craters of the Moon last year but ran out of time. Your post has me excited to try to make it there soon!

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  2. This will be great information to save for the day we finally get the chance to visit Hawaii. Since we are currently living and traveling in our RV, it’s hard to imagine getting there. It’s the only state we can’t drive the RV to, lol! But I recently told my husband that I would like to go there for my 50th birthday which is in 3 years.

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    1. What a fantastic way to celebrate! Keeping my fingers crossed that you’ll be able to make it to the islands. Totally agree with you; if I had any complaints about living here, it would be not being able to drive to other states. Luckily, living in Hawaii is pretty great, though I’d love to live and RV travel like you someday!

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