Big Island Volcanoes: Everything You Need to Know

Hawaii is famous for many things. Shave ice. Jurassic Park film sets. Forming over millions of years as the result of hotspot volcanism.

Okay, maybe not that last one. But volcanoes? For sure. Hawaii is known for the many active volcanoes across the island chain, formed by the Pacific Plate moving over a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle – an area where magma plumes funnel upward from deeper in the Earth’s mantle, unleashing eruptions and lava flows.

Today, Hawaii is one of the best places on Earth to view volcanoes up close and personal, often as they are actively erupting. This is especially true of the Big Island, the largest and most geologically active spot in the entire island chain.

Want to know more? We’ve got you covered.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Big Island volcanoes so that you can plan an unforgettable trip today!

How Many Volcanoes Are There on the Big Island?

There are six active volcanoes in the Hawaiian chain. Four of these are located on the Big Island: Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Hualalai. Mauna Kea is sometimes labeled dormant since it hasn’t seen an eruption for around four millennia, but others designate it active. (There is a fifth major volcano on the island as well, Kohala, but that one is extinct.)

Off the coast of the Big Island, about 22 miles to the southeast, is another active volcano. Although it used to be called Lō‘ihi Seamount, it now goes by the name Kama‘ehuakanaloa and is completely underwater, submerged more than 3,000 feet beneath the surface. It is the Hawaiian archipelago’s only active submarine volcano at present.

The last active volcano in the island chain is Haleakalā on Maui. While its most recent eruption was somewhere between 400 and 600 years ago, it’s still considered active as well.

Which Big Island Volcanoes Are Most Active?

If you dig lava and eruptions, then Hawaii is a great place to visit. The Big Island has no shortage of volcanic activity, nor any lack of ways to view it. Before we talk about that, though, let’s take a look at the most active volcanoes and how each is currently expressing its fiery nature.


The youngest volcano in the chain except for Kama‘ehuakanaloa, Kīlauea is also the most active. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), it erupted almost continuously at the vent Pu‘u‘ō‘ō between 1983 and 2018, as well as other vents nearby.

Also on its list of volcanic achievements was a lava lake within the summit’s Halema‘uma‘u crater between 2008 to 2018, after which followed the biggest eruption and summit collapse the volcano had seen in 200 years. Since 2021, Kīlauea has erupted continuously within the same crater.

How much of a volcano’s surface is covered with fresh lava is another measure of how active it is. Today, 90 percent of the surface of Kīlauea is covered with lava that is less than 1,100 years old, which is a mere blip in geological time. Considering the volcano’s age ranges in estimates from 200,000 to 600,000, 1,100 years is nothing!

Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on Earth. On average, it erupts once every 5 years. Since 1843, it has erupted 33 times, so there’s a decent chance your visit will sync up with some activity. However, its eruptions aren’t to be trifled with, so officials will sometimes close the summit during times of “heightened unrest” and earthquake activity, which often predates more serious events.

That said, Mauna Loa is in the same park as Kīlauea, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. You can visit both of them, whether they’re currently showcasing visible activity or not, easily in one day – it is only a 45-minute drive between the two of them.

When Was the Last Big Island Eruption?

This is a question many tourists have, but it’s a little tricky to answer for the simple reason that Kīlauea Volcano is always kind of erupting. Therefore the lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu crater is always under observation by the USGS.

Both types of lava from this volcano (aa and pahoehoe) are basaltic, however, which means they are smooth and runny and tend not to explode. As such, the caldera is often safe for visitors to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, who can access viewing points via car or on foot.

The last truly devastating eruption on the Big Island was also Kīlauea, back in 2018. Its significant effects included fissures opening amongst inhabited lands, 60,000 earthquakes of various magnitudes within a several-month period, large lava flows and the loss of more than 700 homes. Yet again, Kīlauea has shown us that every force of nature can be both beautiful and terrible.

Although such a loss of real estate is tragic, the bright side is that such activity makes Kīlauea a very desirable tourist destination. This funnels money into the Big Island’s economy, so never feel bad for wanting to make a stop to see volcanoes in action yourself.

Can You Visit Active Volcanoes?

Every Hawaiian tourist has the same questions: Can you visit volcanoes? Which ones? Can you see lava? How about eruptions? And will you die in the process? The answers to these questions are yes, several of them, yes, yes and no. Happy?

Fine, we’ll fill you in a little bit more. Let’s take a look.

Which Volcanoes Can You Visit?

As discussed above, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea are both located in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. This gorgeous preserve covers more than 335,000 acres of the Big Island – about 520 square miles. It extends from the Mauna Loa summit out to the sea, and boasts amazing scenery, impressive volcanic landscapes, and flora and fauna of rare types. It is also a good place to visit traditional Hawaiian cultural sites.

Parts of the park are sometimes closed off due to eruptions. The last time was in 2018, when Kīlauea exploded violently, spewed toxic ash into the air, caused earthquakes and broke up roads. The visitor center was closed and the area was cordoned off to protect inhabitants and tourists alike. While we can agree that’s not a good time to be visiting the park, it is, unfortunately a chance you’ll have to take when booking a trip to Hawaii.

Never fear, though! There are plenty of other sights to see while you’re on the Big Island. For instance, you can still visit other volcanoes.

Hualalai is one. Although Hualalai is technically active, its last eruption was centuries ago, so you won’t see any activity there. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit, though! With a summit of 8271 ft, it often attracts climbers and hardcore hikers who want to take in the miles-wide views of the Big Island. If you fit that particular outdoorsy profile, this volcano might prove a good stop!

Mauna Kea is also completely safe from volcanic activity, having rested quietly for the last 4,000 years. It too proves excellent (but challenging) for hiking. The Mauna Kea hike starts at an elevation of 9,000 feet, taking you close to the summit of 13,803 feet. The view from near the top is stunning, but note that you can only get to the true summit with a 4×4.

Mauna Kea in Hawaii

What’s a Tour Like?

You can see volcanoes in a variety of ways. Driving and hiking are both options for all four of the Big Island’s volcanoes.

Other choices include:

  • Boat tours: Many tours exist that will take you along Hawaii’s volcanic shorelines. While you can’t see volcanoes up close, there’s plenty of spectacular volcanism where the lava meets the ocean.
  • Helicopter tours: These showcase Hawaiian volcanoes from the air. This is one of the best ways to see the island’s sights without having to exert yourself a lot!
  • Guided trips: If you’re looking for a more inclusive experience, guided trips will take you from volcanoes to restaurants to coffee farms and beyond.

If you’re more of a self-reliant traveler, your best bet is to take a look at some of the tour itineraries and then plan the trip yourself. Note that you’ll need to get park passes to visit some of the best volcanic locations.

Volcano Time on the Big Island

Forget island time … we’re on volcano time now, baby, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Well, maybe not that bumpy. After all, Hawaiian tourism is very conservative when it comes to volcanic dangers, and there are plenty of companies whose entire raison d’être is ensuring you have a safe and enjoyable time.

If one of the above volcanoes has caught your attention, make sure to do a little research about tour companies and book one today. From helicopter rides to boat tours to guided hikes, you can see the volcanoes up close in a variety of ways – but they fill up fast, so don’t wait to stake your spot.

And, of course, if you have questions, you can always let us know. For now, enjoy your island dreaming and mahalo for reading!