Hawaii is one of those places that we are so lucky is part of the United States. Like Alaska, Hawaii was originally brought into the union for strategic reasons, but it turns out to be some of the most beautiful natural landscapes and culturally rich places in the country. And as such, parts of Hawaii have been preserved as National Parks.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of Hawaii’s two national parks and is located on the Big Island; the other, Haleakalā, is located on the neighboring island of Maui. Hawaii Volcanoes is easy to visit during a trip to the Big Island, even if you’re short on time. I was lucky to make my own trip to the park in 2019, in between the recent eruptions of Kīlauea.
As you plan your trip to Hawaii, you might want to learn more about this national park – and there are some really interesting facts about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. From the geography to the geology, and including the history, culture, and modern visitation, there’s a lot to discover – and explore – at Hawaii Volcanoes. Read on to discover these nuggets of knowledge and you will have an even greater appreciation for this fascinating place.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawaiian Kingdom) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Geography Facts
Learning about the geography of a place is crucial for better understanding its identity and how human life has adapted to such conditions. It’s even more important to know about it when a region has a dramatic landscape like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Below are a few geographic facts that will make your jaw drop.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an active volcanic area located along the southeastern shore of the island of Hawaii. It is 45 miles southwest of the city of Hilo.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sprawls along 333,000 acres. The park rises from sea level to 13,677 feet.
- As the name suggests, the park encompasses volcanoes. There are two active volcanoes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Mauna Loa and Kīlauea.
- Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, and it comprises most of the south-central part of the island.
- Mauna Loa rises 13,796 feet above sea level, which makes it the world’s largest volcano. However, there’s more to this volcano than meets the eye. Mauna Loa extends about 19,700 feet below sea level, reaching the deep ocean floor. In total, the volcano is nearly 33,500 feet high.
- If part of Mauna Loa weren’t underwater, it would be higher than Mount Everest!
- Mauna Loa’s younger sibling, Mount Kīlauea, is also a shield volcano and lies on the southeastern portion of the island. According to vulcanologists, Kīlauea is the Earth’s most active volcano and Hawaii’s youngest volcano.
(Bonus: Yes, the name for the science of studying volcanoes is vulcanology!)
- The park is overflowing with flora and fauna. There are seven ecological zones across Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: alpine, subalpine, upland forest, rain forest, mid-elevation woodland, lowland, and seacoast.
- Fifty-four endangered species call Hawaii Volcanoes National Park home. Some of these are the Hawaiian hoary bat, Hawaiian goose, Hawaiian petrel, and hawksbill turtle.
- A botanist’s dream, the park has over a thousand different plant species, and 90% of these thousand species are unique to the park’s ecosystem.
- There’s only one native terrestrial mammal in the park, the Hawaiian hoary bat. Additionally, sea turtles and the yellow-bellied snake are the only native reptiles in Hawaii, which you can spot both in the park.
Facts about the Geology of Hawaii Volcanoes NP
It’s fascinating to see the evolution and processes of the earth through time. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a mine of geological wonders, with spectacular landforms and extraordinary geological features at every step.
- Mauna Loa has been active for nearly 700,000 years. Its first eruption in modern times was in 1843. Since then, Mauna Loa has erupted three dozen times, with the last eruption in 1984, following earthquake activity beneath the volcano.
- With long and shallow slopes, Kīlauea first formed underwater roughly 280,000 years ago.
- Kīlauea’s most active vent is the Halema’uma’u Crater, located within the shield volcano’s caldera.
- Kīlauea has seen so much volcanic activity that it has covered almost 90% of its surface in lava flows within the last 1,000 years!
- Kīlauea’s last major eruption was in 2018. This eruption changed the island as the continuous series of eruptions released large lava flows that covered land southeast of the park. This volcanic event destroyed over 700 homes and residential areas in the Puna District.
- Kīlauea is currently erupting! (As of publishing in October 2021 anyway…) You can see the latest info about this active volcano on this National Park Service page.
- During Kīlauea’s 2018 volcanic event, one explosive eruption sent a plume of volcanic ash over 30,000 feet into the air.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to the Ka‘ū Desert, a leeward desert located in the rain shadow of Kīlauea. The site has unusual lava formations, and the soil consists mainly of dried lava remnants, volcanic ash, sand, and gravel.
- The park’s geology is an ever-changing landscape, as with each new eruption the lava resurfaces the land. In a sense, you’ll never set foot on the same soil!
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park History Facts
The volcanoes’ geography and geology have played a crucial role in shaping their inhabitants’ history, culture, and beliefs. Below you’ll find fascinating historic facts dating back to Hawaii’s first inhabitants.
- Native Hawaiians regarded Kīlauea and its Halema’uma’u crater as sacred places. They believed the crater was the home of the Pelehonuamea (Pele), the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and the fire and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. (She is still active today!)
- The first European-descended visitors arrived in Kīlauea in 1823. They were English missionaries William Ellis and American Asa Thurston. By the 1840s, Kīlauea had become a tourist attraction, and businessmen even built hotels at the rim (more on that below!).
- On August 1, 1916 Woodrow Wilson signed the House Resolution 9525, making Hawaii Volcanoes National Park the 11th national park in the United States and the first in a territory.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was initially part of “Hawaii National Park;” this is a park that no longer exists. It wasn’t until 1961 that authorities established it under its new name.
- During Mauna Loa’s eruptions in 1935 and 1942, U.S. military planes dropped bombs to divert the path of lava flows that threatened the city of Hilo.
- UNESCO designated Hawaii Volcanoes National Park an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
- To no one’s surprise, UNESCO designated the park a World Heritage site in 1987.
- The Volcano House, a series of historic hotels built in 1877, is one of the oldest lodges in the National Park System. Today, the original 1877 building houses the Volcano Art Center.
Facts About Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes NP
Are you already planning a trip to the park? In addition to reviewing my guide to visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, here are a few touristy facts about what it’s like to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
- Visitors have to pay a $25 entrance fee per vehicle per week to enter the park. (You can also use your America the Beautiful Pass.)
- You can discover the volcanoes’ social influence at The Volcano Art Center. Located across the road from the Volcano House, the art center showcases classes and workshops, a gallery for local artists, hula performers, and free guided hikes into the Niaulani Rainforest.
- Guests can take Chain of Craters Road, a scenic drive that winds through 20 miles of volcanic landforms between Kīlauea Caldera and Holei Sea Arch. While driving, visitors can spot the impressive Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu lava field and Kealakomo Overlook.
- Chain of Craters Road also leads to the boardwalk trail, along which visitors can see the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs, rock carvings native Hawaiians made in 1200 and 1450.
- Most climbers spend almost four days reaching the summit of Mauna Loa. The journey takes them first to a lookout point at 6,662 feet and then continues to a 16-mile trail of woodland and lava rock. The National park offers mountain huts for overnight stays.
- The Kau Desert Trail has 18 miles of rugged terrain that leads from the trailhead off of Highway 11 across surging lava fields to Hilina Pali Cliffs and campsites along the coast.
- Stargazers, pack your telescopes and binoculars! Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has great stargazing spots throughout the park, which is open 24/7.
Other Curious Hawaii Volcanoes NP Facts
Here are a few other quirky facts about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that might interest you, to round out this list.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of Hawaii’s most popular destinations, with around 1.4 million people visiting each year. This makes Hawaii Volcanoes among the top 20 most popular national parks.
- A group of warriors and their families were present when Kīlauea erupted in 1790. Victims of the volcano’s violent activity, they left their footprints, and visitors can still see them.
- Writer Mark Twain visited Kīlauea in 1866 as part of a four-month visit to the Hawaiian Islands when he was a correspondent for the Daily Union newspaper of Sacramento.
- The otherworldly volcano landscape inspired many artists to grab their brushes and immortalize their natural beauty on a canvas. The most famous artists belonged to “The Volcano School,” a generation of primarily non-native Hawaiian painters who portrayed Hawaiʻi Island’s volcanoes during the late 19th century.
Have any questions about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or how to visit this fascinating national park? Let me know in the comments!