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Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
  
-----------------------------
 
UPDATE May 2018: dramatic events. Several new fissures have opened in the East Rift Zone and are threatening/destroying homes and roads in the Puna district. Pu'u O'o crater floor collapsed on April 30, which probably triggerd these new events. Meanwhile, the lava lake at Halema'uma'u has receded (by over 900 feet/290m by May 8), and some explosions have occurred. There are fears of larger steam explosions if the lava level drops below the groundwater table. Volcanoes NP was closed at least part of the time. So if you're heading that way at this present time, do make sure to check ahead and follow the current news, and warnings. All other parts of Hawai'i are prefectly safe, however.   
 
-------------------------------
 
One of the highlights of any trip to Hawaii and also an absolute must-see from a dark-tourism perspective. While Hawaii's volcanoes have had their share of destructiveness, the type of eruption is such that it is one of the safest places on Earth to observe ongoing volcanic action from fairly close up, thanks to the nature of Hawaii's lava flows mostly being smooth and constant rather than explosive. 
  
Kilauea at the heart of the National Park is the most active volcano in the world and has been erupting constantly since 1983. It hadn't been all that quiet in the centuries before either and the vast volcanic wasteland it has created is phenomenal to behold, even when actual activity is low.    

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>photos

 
More background info: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was founded in 1916, shortly after the first volcano observatory was set up by Thomas A. Jaggar – see under Jaggar Museum
  
It is one of the world's premier volcano observation areas – and one where even the public can partake in viewing the spectacles in relative safety, due to the mostly non-explosive nature of Hawaii's eruptions – and also due to the fact that these volcanoes are amongst the most thoroughly observed and studied ones. This is basically where modern volcanology started – with the establishment of the Hawai'i Volcano Observatory (HVO) – and it is still cutting edge.    
  
Hawaii itself owes its very existence to volcanism. And an unusual kind of volcanism it is at that. While most of the world's volcanoes are found where tectonic plates collide, e.g. along the Pacific “Ring of Fire” from Japan to New Zealand to Chile and Alaska, Hawaii is thousands of miles from the edges of the Pacific plate it is located on, roughly at its centre. 
   
Instead, Hawaii's volcanism is caused by a “hotspot” in the Earth's mantle where a magma chamber breaks through and volcanoes create new land. As the tectonic plate drifts on, the hotspot keeps creating shield volcanoes that break through the ocean to form new islands … while the older ones slowly erode as they drift further away from the hotspot – see also under Hawaii in general. 
  
Hawaii's Big Island is the newest of these islands and the one where all the volcanic action is these days. In fact, Big Island consists of no fewer than six volcanoes, but only two of them are still active, Mauna Loa and Kilauea
  
Mauna Loa is in fact the most massive active volcano on the planet and can also be considered the Earth's biggest single mountain of any kind. It rises to over 13,650 feet (4169m) above sea level, but if measured from the bottom of the seabed from where it first started to rise, it is another 16,000 feet (5000m), and together this makes Mauna Loa taller than Mt Everest. Moreover, the enormous weight of the mass of the mountain depresses the sea floor by yet another 26,000 feet (8000m) – and if you factor that in too, the total height of Mauna Loa from base to summit is 56,000 feet or 17,000m, or the equivalent of two Mt Everests on top of each other!
  
Mauna Loa is still active, although the last proper eruption was back in 1984 – but scientists consider another eruptive episode well overdue. 
  
Kilauea to the south-east of Mauna Loa's enormous hulk may not be as impressive size-wise, but it is the world's most active volcano. In fact it has been more active than inactive over the past 200 years or so, and the current activity has been going on uninterrupted since 1983.
   
From when Kilauea was first observed by Westerners in 1823, the Halema'uma'u crater within the caldera (the “crater inside the crater”, as it's often called) contained a huge bubbling lava lake for over 100 years until in 1924 violent explosions blasted the crater out – widening it to half a mile across (800m) – and the lava lake drained away. The explosions were probably caused by magma making contact with groundwater. Such explosive events, however, are very much the exception in Hawaii. 
  
For almost the next century Halema'uma'u's activity consisted of regular lava extrusions, sometimes even in lava fountains (e.g. in 1974), but no lava lake reformed. The crater floor was gradually filled with solidified lava to its current depth. 
  
Then in 2008 another explosive episode spelled the beginning of the current phase. A vent inside Halema'uma'u formed and turned itself into a new crater containing a lava lake (so a crater inside the inside of a crater, as it were). Wall collapses created further explosions and widened the new crater.
   
The strong venting of toxic sulphurous gases from this new crater prompted the National Park authorities to close off the southern and western parts of the Crater Rim loop road as well as virtually all trails inside the Kilauea caldera. The former Halema'uma'u overlook directly on the ledge where the new lava lake crater formed was destroyed in the 2008 explosions. 
   
In late April 2015 the lava lake's level reached an all-time high so that splattering lava was visible directly from the Jaggar Museum overlook and the observatory. From early May the lake's level receded again and only the gas venting, and at night the glow from the lava below, were visible when I visited in August 2015.
[UPDATE: the lava lake has drained again in the wake of the new eruption of April/May 2018. whether it will return or not, perhaps be finished for good, remains to be seen]
   
Mostly, eruptions take the form of constant lava flows, largely underground (i.e. underneath a thin layer of cooled down dark lava, rather than under actual "ground"), but gushing to the surface at certain points, with varying ferocity.
   
The most active single vent in recent decades has been Pu'u O'o to the east of the main Kilauea caldera. More recently another new vent has opened up further east. At times lava flows drain straight into the sea, constantly creating new land. Where the hot lava meets the cold ocean, dramatic walls of steam are generated, sometimes also causeing violent explosions.
  
The overland lava flows have also threatened communities, especially in the east of Hawai'i Island. Even Hilo, Big Island's capital (see under Hawaii), once got worryingly close to being reached by a lava flow (from Mauna Loa). 
  
One village just downstream from Pu'u O'o and Kilauea's east rift zone, Kalapana, was not so lucky when in 1990 the lava from Kilauea destroyed a hundred homes here – only a handful of houses were spared and are now like islands in a lava desert.  
   
The road that once ran along the coast and connected to the Chain of Craters Road in the National Park was cut off by the lava flows of 1983-2013 as well. A new coastline was formed and at times lava could be seen reaching the sea – which creates a steamy spectacle, especially at night. At the time I was there, however, no lava flow was reaching the coast. 
  
In early 2015 the larger settlement of Pahoa was nearly reached by a new eastwards lava flow, but fortunately this stopped almost literally at the doorstep of the first house. The lava instead appeared to drain into cracks underground. But the threat to the communities especially in the south-east of Big Island remains. 
[UPDATE May 2018: more fissures have appeared and caused evacuations of part of the Puna district where roads and homes were already destroyed by the lava flows.]
  
On Hawaii lava flows usually take the form of liquid, constantly flowing molten rock, rather than the explosive rock and ash spewing that so many of the world's other volcanoes display.
  
Only occasionally, lava does indeed gush out in geyser-like fountains – and in fact some of the best volcano footage of this sort was shot at Kilauea. The lava fountain at Kilauea Iki of 1959 is regarded as the highest ever observed, when it reached an astounding 2000 feet (600m).
  
But mostly, Hawaiian lava stays close to the ground.There are basically two different types of lava and the Hawaiian words for these have become internationally accepted technical terms in volcanology: “pa'hoehoe” ropey lava is the liquid to viscous form that flows constantly, slow on the surface but can get very fast flowing in subterranean lava tubes. As it cools it often forms bizarre shapes. The other type is the crumbly “a'a” lava, usually moving very slowly like a heap of spiky hot rocks being shoved by invisible bulldozers across the land.
   
The 1983-to-present lava flows have actually breached the original National Park boundaries to the east. That is: much of the action takes place outside the park, strictly speaking, and often in remote inaccessible areas. Whether any of these areas and the new land along the coast will at some point be incorporated into the National Park I don't know. It would make sense, though. 
  
But for the time being this means that the only way of seeing the lava flows to the east of the National Park is from the air on scenic helicopter flights!
  
Finally, I guess Pele has to be mentioned here as well. That's not Pele as in the legendary Brazilian footballer, but the short from of Pelehonuamea, the fire goddess of Hawaii. This favourite of the Hawaiian pantheon of deities is usually given a lot of space in the narrative about Kilauea, and in particular Halema'uma'u – which is regarded as the “home of Pele”. Hence regular Pele worshipping ceremonies take place here, with sacrificial gifts and lots of hula. 
   
I find all this a bit much, to be quite frank. It's OK for the local Polynesian culture to follow these old traditions, but why it also has to be pushed down the throats of the unsuspecting tourists visiting the islands, I can't quite get. In particular if the narrative of this legend is woven into the scientific coverage of Hawaii's volcanism as if it was on a par with the real-world factual history of the place. Even if you find such legends interesting, the mixing up with solid science is something I regard as rather annoying. But there really is no escaping Pele in Hawaii, least so here at her alleged “home”. So it just has to be accepted, I presume. 
   
   
What there is to see: a lot! Much more than those two-hour flying visits which some organized tours are here for can hope to cover even fleetingly. But not everybody has unlimited time so in the text below I'll cover the main points of interest roughly in the order of their relative importance (or “unmissableness”) 
  
The first port of call for most visitors will be Kilauea Visitor Center right behind the main park entrance. Here you can get up-to-date information, maps, brochures, souvenirs and there is also a small exhibition outlining the basic facts about Hawaii's volcanoes. In addition there is a cinema room showing a 20-minute intro film throughout the day every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 
  
A more elaborate exhibition can be found at the HVO at one of the main overlooks on Crater Rim Drive. This is given its own chapter here:
  
  
  
[UPDATE: things are always changing, and in early May 2018 the lava lake dropped away - so the first parts of the text below are no longer up to date!]
 
From the overlook just outside the museum you can also get the best view of the active Halema'uma'u crater inside Kilauea caldera. And this is certainly THE top highlight of a visit to the National Park … at least at the present time (time of writing: 2015). It was even more so in late April 2015 when the lava lake inside the new crater in Halema'uma'u rose so high that lava was spilling over into the Halema'uma'u crater floor. This spectacle finished in early May and by the time I was there (early August) the lava lake inside was not directly visible. But the new black layer that formed in the overspill could clearly be made out to the right of the inner crater rim. 
  
During the day all there was to see of the current activity was the white steam-like gases constantly billowing out of the new crater. But at night you could see the breathtaking spectacle of the orange glow of the lava lake below reflected in the plumes of gas. It was even better when the sky was somewhat overcast, as the clouds then reflected the glow even more and made it look like a huge mushroom-shaped fiery ghost! However, when it is really foggy, you won't see much at all. 
  
If you have the time, you can try coming more than once to see the different expressions of the nightly glow. Very early in the morning before sunrise is better than staying behind to after sunset. Check ahead when sunrise will be and get there at least an hour before. It'll be much less crowded than in the evenings.
  
Crater Rim Drive used to continue beyond the Jaggar Museum and Halema'uma'u overlook all the way round the crater to connect with the Chain of Craters Road, but due to the crater's renewed activity since 2008, this section of the Drive has remained closed off to public access. The same applies to all the hiking trails inside the caldera. So in order to proceed to other parts of the park you first have to turn back towards the visitor centre and take the roads/trails leading south from there. 
  
The first other viewpoint you come to in that direction is Kilauea overlook, also marked as a picnic site. From here you get a good view of Kilauea and Halema'uma'u that is almost as good as at the Jaggar Museum, but the place is usually much less crowded. 
  
Past the Kilauea Military Camp on the left (of no interest to tourists), the next viewpoint worth taking in is Steaming Bluffs. You'll already see some (fenced-in) steam vents by the car park. But more spectacular is the steam venting from underground right at the edge of the Kilauea caldera. It's especially picturesque very early in the morning just as the sun is coming up. (You can make the stop after viewing the nightly glow at Halema'uma'u).
  
Just behind the steaming vents a trail on the other side of the road leads to the Sulphur Banks – where not just steam but sulphurous gases are emitted from the ground, providing for some telltale yellow deposits on the rocks and the equally telltale smell (of rotten eggs … or really bad farts).   
   
Driving past Volcano House and turning right towards the south will take you to one of the most popular sights in the park: Thurston lava tube. It's a naturally formed tunnel from when the outer walls of a lava flow hardened and remained when the liquid lava has drained away. This example is particularly impressive for its size. 
  
However, its popularity is also its downfall. All tour buses make a stop here and at times even the overflow car parks fill up. Such crowdedness is detrimental to the overall atmosphere and especially the spooky aura of the tube. 
  
I therefore came back early one morning (after watching the sunrise at the Halema'uma'u overlook, so at ca. 6 a.m.) and found the place completely deserted. The lights inside the tunnel were on nevertheless and everything was accessible. The early bird catches the best time slot, I guess. 
  
Note, however, that the section that apparently used to be accessible in the dark, provided you bring your own torch/flashlight, was closed off at the time I visited. 
  
The trail towards the lava tube leads through lush rainforest featuring rare plants and plenty of birdlife (also best observed in the early morning). This demonstrates the fact that Volcanoes National Park is not all about volcanic wastelands alone but is also a haven for Hawaiian flora and fauna! 
  
Opposite the Thurston lava tube is the Kilauea Iki crater, and the trailhead leading down to it is nearby as well. The crater floor is like a mini Kilauea (“indeed “iki” means 'little') with crusted cooled lava and the odd steam vent emitting white smoke. There's a faintly marked trail crossing the entirety of the crater floor.  
  
Driving a bit further on takes you to a little side road branching off to the right. This was an old road that was cut off by the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki. The end of this old road now serves as the Pu'u Pua'i overlook. That's the name of the cinder cone created by the massive eruption just to the western end of Kilauea Iki. 
  
The overlook is also the northern head of the fabled Devastation Trail – the main car park for it is to the south at the other end. Despite its dramatic name, the trail is both very easy (only half a mile, 800m, on the flat) and not all that spectacular. The forest has grown back and covers much of the land traversed by the trail. Only the last bit leading around the smooth south-eastern flanks of Pu'u Pua'i (it looks much more rugged from the other side) passes through a field of pumice where you can see trunks of dead trees, bleached white by the sun. 
   
A much more interesting hike is that along the southern part of Crater Rim Drive that's blocked off for cars but open to pedestrians (and cyclists) for about a mile. The road is completely blocked beyond Keanakako'i overlook – and warning signs make it clear that if you carry on beyond the roadblock you could face arrest and hefty fines. (This is at the point of writing in 2015 – it is unclear when the road may become accessible again – it all depends on how the volcanic activity is progressing. For what can count as the “foreseeable future” in the case of a volcano, the situation is unlikely to change any time soon.)
   
The view from the overlook is of another old crater to the south that once must have been a bubbling lava lake. But much more impressive than this is the volcanic wasteland on the other side of the road – part of which is still accessible on marked trails. You can see the fissures that spewed out the lava curtains of 1974. And beyond you can see small cinder cones and black lava fields from even more recent years. This is where the Kilauea caldera meets the East Rift Zone. The moonscape created by this is truly spectacular. In the background you can see Halema'uma'u steaming away and you can also make out the Jaggar Volcano Observatory on the caldera crest opposite.   
  
The Chain of Craters Road then snakes down south past numerous viewpoints where you can look into craters of different ages, some still black from lava, others already well into the process of being reclaimed by the rainforest. The road traverses fields of lava flows too, some with bizarrely shaped blocks of lava that look like something straight out of a fantasy movie. 
   
Several trailheads also branch off the Chain of Craters Road on both sides. A particularly noteworthy one is the Napau Trail, which leads through lava from the 1969-1974 eruptions, past Mauna Ulu and towards Napau crater. This is normally as close as you can (legally) get to the current main active vent Pu'u O'o. At night you may see its glow, but you should not attempt to get really close to the vent at any time. There have been guided walks close to it – some even dangerously so but at present (time of writing October 2015) there is no legal direct access to Pu'u O'o. The Napau Trail itself is also subject to temporary closures should conditions change – and you have to register if you want to use it. This is the most changeable part of the National Park, so getting the most up-to-date information locally, on the day, is essential!  
  
Back to the safe, regular tourist route: the Chain of Craters Road continues through further lava fields and along the crest of Holei Pali – with a few overlooks affording (weather permitting) great views of the coastline and the various lava flows that approached towards it. The road then makes one large switchback down towards the lowlands at sea level. You can see the new lava coastline at various points but are advised to tread carefully, as the ground is unstable and could collapse. 
  
The road ends near Holei Sea Arch – here a paved path leads to a safe viewpoint of the sea arch and the surrounding coast where you can watch the ocean surf pounding the new land. 
  
Beyond the end of today's road lies the stretch of the former road cut off by lava from the 1983-2013 flows. This end of the road no longer looks as dramatic as it used to when you could see the lava flow where it had stopped moving across the tarmac. These days a track leads across the new land and an access ramp now covers the parts where the pa'hoehoe lava flowed over the tarmac. It's only a gravel track and is intended for official (emergency) use only, but you can walk along the new land for a bit. 
   
It is a black desert of shiny crusted lava, mostly pa'hoehoe, so you can see some crazy patterns that formed as the lava surface cooled down. Here and there you can also make out the odd pioneer plant trying to get a foothold within cracks in the lava. Looking towards the ocean you can waves crashing over the end of the lava flow in the distance. A grove of palm trees looks like a forlorn island in all this devastation.   
   
From here it was once possible to go on lava hikes to get closer to the point where active flows reached the water. At the time of my visit (and still at the time of writing) in 2015, no such activity was taking place, however. But this may change again in the future. Check the National Park's website and local operators offering lava hikes (e.g. Arnott's in Hilo). In any case, hikes over such recent lava fields should only ever be attempted in the presence of a guide and never be undertaken alone. 
  
There is one more road within Volcanoes National Park, namely the single-lane Hilina Pali Road which branches off Chain of Craters Road a few miles south of the intersection with (ex-)Crater Rim Drive. It's a long and slow but very scenic drive (18 miles return) into true backcountry, partly over old lava flows (weathered into a brown surface colour), partly through vegetation. It's the easiest way of getting away from it all. On my two drives along this road I passed only two other cars. 
  
At the end of this road is Hilina Pali overlook. If the weather plays along there's a sweeping vista over the coastline beyond the steep cliff that is Hilina Pali (on my first visit the view was invisible due to low clouds and drizzle, but on my second attempt it was clear). 
  
Short trails lead to the crest of the cliff. And it's also the trailhead for the Ka'u desert trail – a really hardcore backcountry route for advanced hikers. I never considered it. The remote and lonely location at the end of the road here was serene enough for me.  
   
The National Park has a total of ca. 150 miles of hiking trails- so those seriously into hiking can spend a long time here for further explorations. But for most visitors, this is as far as the (driving) adventures go. 
  
There are parts of Volcano National Park, however, that are outside the core area around Kilauea. Some of these are barely accessible, if at all. The three other parts are, the huge mass of Mauna Loa, a more recently acquired stretch of ex-farm wilderness below the western flanks of the mountain, Kahuku, and a part of the Ola'a wilderness in the forest east of Volcano. 
  
The greatest allure of these other parts will no doubt be exuded by Mauna Loa. And indeed you can get to the very top and the summit caldera. But this is serious mountaineering – into subarctic climate zones (where temperatures regularly drop below freezing) at high altitude. There is a cabin at the summit on the caldera rim. But to get there your really have to be a mountaineer. I am not, so I never even considered it. What you'd find at the top – other than the gratification from having made it there – is a huge black-lava-filled trough, barren cinder cones and fissures. Not too unlike what you can get to see with considerably less effort down at the Kilauea part of the National Park. 
  
Note that parts of the volcanic action, in particular areas to the east where much of the most recent activity has been taking place, lie outside the National Park boundaries. These lands are remote and largely inaccessible, much of it is also privately owned land, so going there would constitute trespassing. The edges of Pahua where the recent flows nearly reached houses are also not for tourists. Disaster spectators are not welcome here. At the time of the ongoing flow, security forces made sure none came, but even now you shouldn't intrude. 
  
The best way of seeing the current action, and especially the active Pu'u O'o crater(s) is by means of a scenic helicopter flight
   
  
Location: the National Park covers a huge area in the eastern part of Hawaii Island, also known as "Big Island", the largest of the Hawaiian islands by far and the easternmost one. The nearest larger town is Hilo, the island's capital, about 30 miles (50 km) north of the main National Park's entrance. The entrance is located right opposite Volcano village. There are also other parts belonging to the National Park that are not accessible from the main entrance but lie further away, in particular Mauna Loa. 
  
Google maps locators:
  
Park entrance: [19.4287, -155.2544]
  
Kilauea Visitor Center: [19.4296, -155.2572]
  
Kilauea overlook: [19.4235, -155.2843]
  
Steaming bluffs:  [19.4299, -155.2681]
  
Kilauea Iki and Devastation Trail:  [19.412, -155.251]
  
Thurston lava tube:  [19.414, -155.238]
  
Keanakako'i overlook on Crater Rim Drive:  [19.4018, -155.2656]
  
Holei sea arch and end of Chain of Craters Road: [19.2953, -155.0981]
  
Hilina Pali overlook: [19.2954, -155.3071]
  
Pu'u O'o:  [19.3899, -155.1046]
  
Mauna Loa summit caldera and cabin:  [19.4666, -155.5821]   
  
  
Access and costs: variable, depending somewhat on volcanic activity; not expensive, especially if you stay longer.
  
Details: To get to the park, you first have to get to Big Island, either from Hawaii's main international airport in Honolulu, O'ahu, or even directly from mainland USA (e.g. Los Angeles) straight to Hilo, Big Island's capital. There are plenty of inter-island flights to other destinations within the Hawaiian archipelago too.
  
Once on the island, Volcanoes National Park can easily be reached by highway 11, either from Hilo 30 miles (50 km) to the east, or from the tourist hub of Kona on the west coast ca. 100 miles (160 km) away. That is: provided you have your own means of transport. Otherwise you'd have to join a tour (see below). 
  
Admission: the entry fee for the National Park is 15 USD for an individual private car, including the driver and all passengers, or 10 USD for a motorbike (with biker) and 8 USD per pedestrian or cyclist. Park passes are valid for 7 days, for unlimited re-entry during that week (non-transferable). On some selected special days fees are waived.
  
Inside the park all regularly accessible attractions do not cost any extra admission fees, including the Jaggar Museum
  
For more demanding hikes, including camping in remote areas (in particular climbing Mauna Loa), registration and sometimes special permits have to be obtained. Enquire with the National Park in advance. 
   
Opening times: the National Park as such is open all year 24/7; the Kilauea Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. To 5 p.m. 
The entrance station to the park is not staffed around the clock, and definitely not at night. If (and only if) you arrive for your first entry to the park at such unstaffed times, you are obliged to proceed to the Kilauea Visitor Center and use the self-pay station there! 
  
For getting around inside the park you really need your own means of transport as an independent traveller, even if you want to do a lot of hiking – the National Park is simply too huge for doing everything on foot, unless you have plenty of time and stamina. 
  
Cycling is an option for getting around, but doing the whole Chain of Craters Road is hardcore – especially the steep ascent back up from sea level to Kilauea at nearly 4000 feet (1200m) elevation! 
  
Alternatively there are also guided tour packages including the National Park, some even in combination with scenic helicopter flights over parts of the volcanic areas – see the separate helicopter flights chapter. Day trips by van or bus are also offered from both Hilo and Kona. There are even fly-in day trips from O'ahu. 
  
Outside the main part of the National Park that is accessible though the single main entrance, there are also further parts that officially belong to the National Park, including Kahuku on the western flanks of Mauna Loa (only open at weekends from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and of course the big Mauna Loa volcano itself. 
  
The access road to the trailhead to the summit branches off to the north from Highway 11 just a short distance west of the main park entrance. Climbing Mauna Loa is a serious mountaineering expedition that can take several days and reaches high altitude alpine conditions with dangerously changeable weather. This climb should therefore not be attempted by anybody without the prerequisite top physical condition, suitable equipment and relevant mountaineering experience. If you do want to attempt it, you must register with the park authorities prior to setting off. 
  
Accommodation can be had inside the National Park at "Volcano House", which is located right at the Kilauea caldera's edge near the visitor centre and operates as a hotel with its own restaurant, bar and shops. Rates are not cheap and you'd need to book well in advance. Other than this hotel, the only accommodation inside the park is at camping sites, with limited facilities.
  
Outside the National Park there are various other options, from budget backpacker and outdoorsy-type basic lodgings to top-end luxury lodges; quite a few are close by in Volcano village or just beyond, which is useful if you're planning on exploring the park on a number of return visits spread over a couple of days. There are also self-catering cottages/cabins, which can be a good compromise when staying several days. It's what I opted for when I went in summer 2015 for five days.
   
NOTE: as volcanic activity changes constantly, some parts of the National Park may not be accessible all the time. Elevated levels of volcanic gases alone may require certain parts to be closed off to the public – this is currently the case (at the time of writing in late 2015) with all hiking trails inside the Kilauea caldera and around Halema'uma'u crater as well as the western loop of Crater Rim Road.
  
New eruptions can disrupt things even more, naturally. Always come well-informed. The National Park's website (nps.gov/havo) has updates on closed areas and danger levels.On the day, the most up-to-date information will always be available straight from the rangers at the Kilauea Visitor Center. They are usually very helpful and keen.
 
Dangers: Hawaii may be the safest place to view volcanic activity, but a certain degree of risks remains. The sulphurous toxic gases emitted by the volcano are certainly not healthy to breathe in. Although the degree of health and safety precautions imposed in the National Park can seem a bit excessive. 
  
That the old Halema'uma'u overlook had to be closed since the opening up of the new lava lake crater is understandable. But why the whole western loop of Crater Rim Drive? Surely just driving past the fumes wouldn't kill anybody? I presume it's just American overprotection (also probably out of fear of being sued for damages). 
  
If I compare that to the situation in Indonesia, where such health and safety concerns are largely absent (even at extremely touristy volcanic destinations such as Bromo) – see especially Ijen – then the fact that you can't get closer to Halema'uma'u than about a mile, under threat of serious penalties (even arrest), does seem a bit disproportionate. Maybe a scaled system of warning lights/flags like at Aso in Japan or Fogo, Cape Verde, would have been good enough. 
  
However, lava flows do indeed pose more serious risks. The outer crust of recent flows may be thin and could collapse when stepped on (this even happened to professionals – see Jaggar Museum). So if you don't want to risk falling to a fiery death into molten lava, stay clear of the flows or only approach them with experienced guides. Where lava reaches the ocean, the risks multiply. People have been killed by steam explosions and collapsing new lava coastline. So do adhere to the rules and keep a safe distance. 
  
More common risks stem from visitors underestimating the terrain. In the open, old lava fields can get fiercely hot in the sun, as the black rock absorbs the heat and there is no shade anywhere. So carry enough water and wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses. Wearing the wrong kind of clothing is also a very common mistake here. This takes us to the next point: 
  
The weather inside the park is notoriously changeable and can often also be very wet and miserable, even cold (due to the elevation). Wear proper closed shoes or hiking boots and at least have a rainproof over-jacket with you. Even if the day starts out sunny, rainy weather can come quickly and without much forewarning. When drizzly fog descends, many viewpoints lose their point. So having some flexibility can pay off.  
  
I can speak from personal experience: the first time I tried Hilina Pali overlook I saw nothing but thick, grey soup. But two days later I returned for the full glory of the view. This is just one of the reason why it is better to plan for a bit more than just the minimum few hours' time for seeing this park.  
 
 
Time required: for driving the roads inside the National Park and just a few brief stops at lookouts, and perhaps a look around the museums, you may be able to get away with one short day. But in order to get the real deal and experience this most dramatic volcano land to the full, including some serious hiking, several days should be planned for.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: One of the best ways to see the volcanic action on Hawaii is to take a scenic helicopter flight – and these include parts of the lava flows and vents that are actually outside the National Park proper and which cannot be accessed overland, so flying over them is as close as you get to them. So it is the ultimate (if pricey) add-on to a visit of the park.
  
Also outside the boundaries of outside the National Park is the island's other giant volcano: Mauna Kea, actually a tad higher than Mauna Loa, but now dormant. This is the more easily accessible one of Hawaii's two big volcanoes, and at the summit of Mauna Kea you can see futuristic-looking astronomical observatories and also do some star gazing of your own – see under Hawaii in general. 
  
Hilo, Big Island's capital “city” (more a large village) some 30 miles (50 km) to the north-east of Volcanoes NP  is worth a look too, and for the dark tourist the main attraction is its Tsunami Museum.  
  
On the other side of the island, at Kona airport, awaits another small museum, in this case the Onizuka Space Center.
   
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: lots, far too many things to list them all here. Tropical rainforest, wildlife, dramatic waterfalls, stunning steep-sided valleys, quaint villages, unusual beaches (one of them consisting of green sand!) and the USA's southernmost point. Plus plantations producing macadamia nuts and some of the world's best coffee: Kona coffee. 
  
See also under Hawaii in general.
  
  
   
  • Volcanoes NP 01 - Halemaumau craterVolcanoes NP 01 - Halemaumau crater
  • Volcanoes NP 02 - inside the huge Kilauea calderaVolcanoes NP 02 - inside the huge Kilauea caldera
  • Volcanoes NP 04 - lots of little steam vents tooVolcanoes NP 04 - lots of little steam vents too
  • Volcanoes NP 05 - current main ventVolcanoes NP 05 - current main vent
  • Volcanoes NP 06 - by nightVolcanoes NP 06 - by night
  • Volcanoes NP 07 - as morning light risesVolcanoes NP 07 - as morning light rises
  • Volcanoes NP 08 - reflected glow in an overcast nightVolcanoes NP 08 - reflected glow in an overcast night
  • Volcanoes NP 09 - steaming on the caldera crest in the early hoursVolcanoes NP 09 - steaming on the caldera crest in the early hours
  • Volcanoes NP 10 - Kilauea Iki crater and cinder coneVolcanoes NP 10 - Kilauea Iki crater and cinder cone
  • Volcanoes NP 11 - Chain of Craters RoadVolcanoes NP 11 - Chain of Craters Road
  • Volcanoes NP 12 - yet another one on the Chain of Craters RoadVolcanoes NP 12 - yet another one on the Chain of Craters Road
  • Volcanoes NP 13 - and another, smaller oneVolcanoes NP 13 - and another, smaller one
  • Volcanoes NP 14 - vintage lava flowVolcanoes NP 14 - vintage lava flow
  • Volcanoes NP 15 - lava bomb and treeVolcanoes NP 15 - lava bomb and tree
  • Volcanoes NP 16 - lava that flowed towards the seaVolcanoes NP 16 - lava that flowed towards the sea
  • Volcanoes NP 17 - lava coastVolcanoes NP 17 - lava coast
  • Volcanoes NP 18 - sea arch and big splashVolcanoes NP 18 - sea arch and big splash
  • Volcanoes NP 19 - end of the road where the lava cut it offVolcanoes NP 19 - end of the road where the lava cut it off
  • Volcanoes NP 20 - now there is only a rough track on the lavaVolcanoes NP 20 - now there is only a rough track on the lava
  • Volcanoes NP 21 - folded lavaVolcanoes NP 21 - folded lava
  • Volcanoes NP 22 - cracked lavaVolcanoes NP 22 - cracked lava
  • Volcanoes NP 23 - blue shiny lava surfaceVolcanoes NP 23 - blue shiny lava surface
  • Volcanoes NP 24 - lava flows galoreVolcanoes NP 24 - lava flows galore
  • Volcanoes NP 25 - different types of lava flowsVolcanoes NP 25 - different types of lava flows
  • Volcanoes NP 26 - Devastation TrailVolcanoes NP 26 - Devastation Trail
  • Volcanoes NP 27 - closed Crater Rim RoadVolcanoes NP 27 - closed Crater Rim Road
  • Volcanoes NP 28 - you can spot Pele hair on the groundVolcanoes NP 28 - you can spot Pele hair on the ground
  • Volcanoes NP 29 - inside Thurston lava tubeVolcanoes NP 29 - inside Thurston lava tube
  • Volcanoes NP 30 - lava tree holeVolcanoes NP 30 - lava tree hole
  • Volcanoes NP 31 - Hilina Pali overlookVolcanoes NP 31 - Hilina Pali overlook
  • Volcanoes NP 32 - red weathered lavaVolcanoes NP 32 - red weathered lava
  • Volcanoes NP 33 - view of Kilauea crater from Volcano LodgeVolcanoes NP 33 - view of Kilauea crater from Volcano Lodge
  
  
  
  
  

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