Among the most extraordinary units in the National Park Service, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ranks easily among the Big Island’s must-dos. Indeed, many would argue it’s right there up at the top of the list.
This roughly 500-square-mile park, after all, encompasses not one but two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. It stretches from sea level up past 13,000 feet, cloaked in everything from surreal cinder wastes and raw lava flows to lush rainforest and verdant shrubland. It’s a geologic wonderland, a showcase for Hawaii’s unbelievable biological uniqueness, and an ancient, meaningful cultural landscape. And beyond its national-park status, Hawaii Volcanoes ranks as an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The remarkable variety of sights in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park corresponds to a fabulous range of different activities and experiences on offer. Whether you’ve got an hour or two to take in some scenic overlooks and drives, or you’re looking for a multi-night wilderness adventure, this place delivers.
A Snapshot History of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Native Hawaiians have lived for thousands of years in what is today Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This landscape remains culturally—and spiritually—important to the Hawaiian people, and bearing that in mind at all times is important.
The first recorded visit to the area by Europeans came in 1794. That’s when Archibald Menzies, the onboard naturalist on Captain George Vancouver’s Discovery expedition, trekked up to Mauna Loa’s summit. His notes record the eruptive behavior of nearby Kilauea Volcano as viewed from Mauna Loa.
The dramatic volcanic activity of Kilauea in particular became a well-publicized attraction for scientists and adventurers as well as missionaries in the 19th century. By the middle of that century, American sightseers were increasingly traveling here. The earliest incarnation of Volcano House—the famous hotel up on Kilauea’s crown—dates back to 1846. (Mark Twain stayed in the 1866 thatched edition of Volcano House, and wrote up Kilauea’s amazingness.)
In the early years of the 20th century, calls increased to establish a national park on and around Kilauea. Among the foremost boosters for such a park was the lawyer/politician-turned-businessman Lorrin A. Thurston, who mustered support from such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. Also instrumental in getting a park established was geologist Thomas Jaggar, who became the director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1912.
Not at all a sure thing, the national park was finally realized in 1916 with the creation of Hawaii National Park. That was, in fact, the same year that saw the birth of the National Park Service itself, though America’s first national park (and the world’s) had been established at Yellowstone several decades before.
Originally, Hawaii National Park included not only the 35,865-acre Kilauea Section, 17,920-acre Mauna Loa Section, and a connecting strip between, but also Haleakala on Maui. That Valley Isle parcel became its own national park (Haleakala National Park) in 1961, and the Big Island acreage became Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The 323,431 acres of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park make a strikingly irregular outline. The western portion of the park, including the Kahuku Unit, lies on the summit and sections of the slopes of Mauna Loa. Moving southeastward from this block, the park narrows to a thin strip connecting to the Kilauea Caldera. This eastern part of the park runs south and southeastward from the Kilauea summit to the Pacific coast. Near the Kilauea Caldera, a roughly square-shaped disjunct unit of the park protects the mostly undeveloped Olaa Forest.
The main part of the park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Kahuku Unit, though, is closed Mondays through Wednesdays, and open Thursdays through Sundays from 8 AM to 4 PM.
Particularly if you’re a first-time visitor, your initial stop in the park ought to be the Kilauea Visitor Center near the entrance station, which is open daily. Here you’ll find informative exhibits, a well-stocked bookstore, and information desks helmed by rangers and park staff who can suggest activities, update you on eruptive activity, and otherwise field any questions.
During the days and hours, the Kahuku Unit is open, you can also get information and pick up books and souvenirs from the Kahuku Visitor Contact Station.
Volcanoes & Eruptions
The two outstanding shield volcanoes in the park geographically and topographically overlap, but are essentially completely separate “fire mountains.”
The older—and vastly bigger—of the two is Mauna Loa. This is a spectacular landform, to put it mildly. It’s the planet’s biggest subaerial (that is, rising-above-the-sea-surface) volcano. Though it looms “only” to 13,679 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa’s summit stands roughly 55,700 feet above its base down on the seafloor, severely depressed by the volcano’s bulk. That bulk translates to 85 percent or so of the entire area of the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined.
Roughly 4,000 feet tall, Kilauea pops out like a nub on the southeastern flanks of Mauna Loa, but its underground molten “plumbing” is entirely distinct. More youthful than its giant neighbor, Kilauea is almost entirely blanketed by lava flows less than 1,000 years old. Kilauea’s defining feature is its eye-popping summit caldera (Kaluapele), which includes the fitful pit crater called Halemaumau within. Native Hawaiians consider Halemaumau, which often supports a lava lake, the abode of the mighty volcano goddess Pele.
Both Mauna Loa and Kilauea are notably active volcanoes considered on a global scale. Indeed, Kilauea is, by some measures, the most active volcano anywhere. Geologists reckon this volcano to be in its “shield-building” phase, essentially still bulking up. Kilauea erupted continuously between 1983 to 2018 and resumed steady activity in 2020. Views of its molten glow and steam, while inherently unpredictable, are the number-one attraction at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The caldera itself may hog the spotlight, but other Kilauea realms—including Kilauea Iki, which hosted a truly spectacular eruption in 1959, and the cones and craters of the East Rift Zone—are awe-inspiring as well.
Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984 but is absolutely expected to shudder to life again. That ‘84 eruption produced lava flows that came within a mere 4.5 miles of Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city. In other words, that utterly gigantic mountain is most definitely worthy of respect.
Unsurprisingly, geology takes center stage at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Mauna Loa’s enormous well, Kilauea Caldera’s intimidating expanse, yawning pit craters, cinder cones, barren lava flows, the little volcanic wisps called Pele’s hair, sea arches. It’s a thrill to see nighttime lava fountains, sure, but even the solidified remnants of the area’s epic volcanic activity are remarkable. In other words, even if a visible eruption isn’t ongoing—and it often is, given Pele’s dynamism here—this is a landscape worth experiencing firsthand.
Then there’s the ecological fabric. From hardscrabble ohia saplings growing straight out of basalt to the rainforest’s towering tree ferns and tropical canopies, the plant communities here tell a story about Hawaii’s yin-yang dance between creation and destruction. Mauna Loa silversword at high elevations presents an iconic sight. Birdlife ranges from spectacular honeycreepers and other endemic forest birds to Hawaiian hawks, nene geese, and various seabirds. Along the coast, visitors might spot sea turtles or spouting humpbacks.
Cultural & Historical Attractions
Native Hawaiian sites abound in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. These range from the Kaawea dance platform and hale on the Kilauea rim to the Footprints Area of the Kau Desert (where human tracks are preserved in volcanic ash) and the Puuloa Petroglyphs. The rangelands of the Kahuku Unit still summon visions of 19th-century Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo).
The Volcano House hotel, the current incarnation of which dates from 1941, continues a tradition of welcoming visitors to the Kilauea summit. The 1877 version, meanwhile, now serves as the Volcano Art Center.
Among the park’s standout infrastructure, we’d be remiss not to mention the Jaggar Museum, until recently one of the main visitor hubs. Set on Uekahuna Bluff, the museum, as well as the adjoining Hawaiian Volcano Observatory building, sustained major damage during Kilauea’s 2018 eruption and are currently closed to the public. They are likely to be replaced by buildings situated at a safer sites.
Things to Do in the Park
The park website, social media, and the staff at Kilauea Visitor Center provide up-to-date information on ongoing eruptions and visible volcanic activity in the park. As of this writing, the lava lake in Halemaumau Crater is well seen from Uekahuna Bluff, an overlook near Keanakakoi Crater, and the Crater Rim Trail at Kupinai Pali (Waldron Ledge).
Those with limited time or mobility might consider a scenic drive in the park—along Crater Rim Drive, say, with its views of Kilauea Caldera and associated features, or on the Chain of Craters Road through lava lands down to the Pacific coast.
Many great day hikes are situated along the aforementioned drives. Marvel at the Sulphur Banks and Steaming Bluff of the caldera walls, or trek across Kilauea Iki. The Kipukapuaula Trail leads through a kipuka—a pocket of rainforest surrounded by lava flows—brimming with birdlife. The Puuloa Petroglyphs Trail shows off some of the most remarkable rock art in Hawaii.
Much of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, meanwhile, is backcountry—and even designated wilderness, in the form of 123,000-odd acres. Experienced trekkers and backpackers can explore from the wild Kau District seacoast to the high country of Mauna Loa, with eight backcountry camping areas available to use by permit. (The Backcountry Office issuing these permits is a stone’s throw from the Kilauea Visitor Center.)
Experience Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Some of the Big Island’s most beautiful—and most utterly dramatic—scenery, as well as precious ecosystems and amazing cultural sites, await you at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Even an hour or two is worth it here, though we recommend giving it as much time as you possibly can!