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How to Make the Most of One Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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When you think of paradise, what comes to mind? Swaying palms, hot and humid air, and a coconut in hand, right? Me too – and Hawaii has them all. But while you’re exploring Hawaii, there’s a violent volcanic force shaping the world you walk on. The Hawaiian islands are all formed by volcanoes, and you can still see the evidence of this especially on the youngest Big Island. If you only have one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this guide will help you see the best of the park in a short timeframe.

I visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in April 2019, fresh off my UnCruise that took me to other islands including Moloka’i, Maui, and Lanai. After disembarking on the Big Island, Mr. V and I spent three days exploring Hawaii – including the national park.

Hawaii Volcanoes Hero

Based on our experience during a short visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I’ve put together this guide. You’ll discover exactly what Hawaii Volcanoes has to offer, how to see a lot in a short time, and other important details you need to know before visiting. Whether you only have one day in Hawaii Volcanoes or even just a half-day, you’ll be ready for an incredible day after finishing this post.

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.

Planning Your Visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes Sign - Ken Lund via Flickr
Photo credit: Ken Lund via Flickr

Before jumping into things to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and what order to do them in if you only have one day, here are some important logistics and other considerations you need to know.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Entrance Fees

There is one main entrance station for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you’ll need to pay a fee to enter the park. As part of the National Park system, Hawaii Volcanoes operates under the same rules as other National Parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.

Here are you options:

  • The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 7 days, is $30. This makes sense if you’re parking at the Visitor Center.
  • You can walk or cycle into the park for $15 per person, good for 7 days.
  • If you’re park-hopping in Hawaii, the Hawaii Tri-Park Annual Pass is $55 for one year. It includes unlimited access to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Haleakalā National Park (on Maui), and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park (on the west coast of the Big Island).
  • An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.

You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Hawaii Volcanoes NPS website.

Driving & Parking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Road - Nan Palmero via Flickr
Photo credit: Nan Palmero via Flickr

There are only a few roads in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which makes it easy to explore – and not get lost. There are three main roads:

  • Crater Rim Drive
  • Chain of Craters Road
  • Hilina Pali Road
  • Mauna Loa Road (on the north side of Hawaii Belt Rd/HI-11)

Most people explore along Crater Rim Drive; if you’re feeling adventurous and follow my suggestions, you’ll also drive on Chain of Craters Road and Hilina Pali Road – and Mauna Loa Road if you’re up for some stargazing!

Throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, there are parking areas and pull-outs where you can stop to enjoy the different volcanic features and sights.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Lodging

Photo credit: Amy Meredith (L), Michael Hiemstra (R)

Within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you have two accommodation options:

  1. Lodging at the Volcano House, which sits right on the rim of the Kīlauea caldera. Rooms start from $153/night and the also offer campsites and cabins. Book directly.
  2. There are two campgrounds to choose from: Nāmakanipaio (operated by Volcano House; reserve online for $15/night) and Kulanaokuaiki, down Hilina Pali Road with limited water and amenities (first-come, first-reserved for $10/night).

There are also loads of options in Volcano Village, a community just outside the park boundary. As you know, I love vacation rentals (and stayed in several elsewhere on the Big Island); here are a few that catch my eye:

Honestly, I could hardly choose just three to feature, so I put together an entire list of Airbnbs I would love to stay in… forever!

What to Do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in One Day

Alright – let’s get to it! Below you’ll find a step-by-step breakdown of what to do if you have just one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The only thing I don’t cover is meals. I make a suggestion for where to have lunch inside the park (there’s only one option), but I recommend bringing in a picnic dinner. Here’s how I would do that:

  1. Head to a grocery store on your way to the park, such as in Kona. Buy a foam or collapsable cooler and ice.
  2. Stop by Da Poke Shack in Kailua-Kona and get a bunch of delicious poke. Stick it in your cooler, and make sure it’s well surrounded with ice to keep it from getting funky.
  3. Whenever you decide to stop for lunch or dinner, enjoy that delicious Hawaiian poke!

One last note: There are no active lava flows in Hawaii Volcanoes at this time. While I do have pictures of active lava, these are from when lava was active. If the situation changes and there’s active lava in the park to see, I’ll update this post so you know where to go!

Okay, let’s jump into how you can make the most of just one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Visit Kīlauea Visitor Center

One Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Photo of Mauna Loa Painting

I don’t always recommend stopping at the Visitor Center first at some national parks, but I do for Hawaii Volcanoes. The reason being that conditions in the park change quickly – and the park rangers will be able to give you the most up-to-date information on which parts of the park are open (or closed). (I apologize in advance if anything I mention happens to be closed when you visit!)

At the Visitor Center, you can learn about the history of the island – both the geology and traditional Hawaiian stories. Together these will help you appreciate more about how these islands came to exist in the middle of the Pacific, and how important they are to the people who call them home.

Hike to the Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks)

Photo credits: Graeme Churchard (R), Semiconductor Films (L)

From the Visitor Center, it’s a perfect opportunity to stretch your legs. There are a few hiking trails that set out from the Visitor Center; the Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) trail is short but gives you a good intro to the fact that you’re visiting an active volcanic complex. (A “volcanic complex” is a series of volcanoes or volcanic landforms.)

Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) is a loop trail, but I recommend doing it as a one-mile out-and-back route from your car at the Visitor Center. The trail is a combination of standard trail and elevated boardwalk – you’ll be glad for the latter as it protects your shoes from the volcanic gases and liquids seeping up here. Be sure to stay on the trail!

Also, don’t be surprised: as the name suggests, Sulphur Banks smells quite strongly of rotten eggs.

Look Out from Kīlauea Overlook

One Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Kilauea Crater

Hop back in the car and head west from the Visitor Center along Crater Rim Drive. At the end* of the road, you’ll reach Kīlauea Overlook. This area gives you an amazing view of the caldera that was extremely active in 2018. Kīlauea Overlook was closed for two years following the eruption in 2018; it is now re-opened to the public! (Source)

You can learn all about the most active part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, see gases escaping from the earth – and maybe even lava, depending on the conditions!

*While Crater Rim Drive circumnavigates the entire rim of Kīlauea Caldera, most of it is not open to the public at this time. You’ll need to turn and go back along Chain of Craters Road to continue my suggested tour.

Visit the Steam Vents

On your way back up Crater Rim Road, stop at the Steam Vents near Steaming Bluff. These natural vents allow pressure from under the earth’s crust to escape. Like Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks), they don’t smell great – and you shouldn’t breathe in these toxic natural chemicals for long!

If you’re hungry and didn’t bring lunch, now’s a great time to stop at Volcano House and have lunch in the dining room.

Explore Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)

Left photo credit: Robert Linsdell via Flickr

While you’re busy exploring all of the cool formations caused by volcanoes above ground, don’t forget that there’s some fascinating stuff happening underground too. Yes, I’m advising you go down and explore where all that lava is… or at least was!

Nāhuku, also called Thurston Lava Tube, is the most accessible and safest lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There is a limited parking area at Nāhuku, and another parking area 0.5 miles at Kīlauea Iki Overlook. You can hike about 600 feet back into the lava tube.

Two important notes:

  • This schedule will have you visiting around midday; that’s when the lava tube is most crowded. If you want to avoid the crowds, do Nāhuku first (before 9am/the Visitor Center) or at the end of the day.
  • The lighting in Nāhuku is only on from 8am to 8pm daily. Before or after that, you’ll need to bring your own flashlights to see inside the lava tube!

Head to the Coast on Chain of Craters Road

You’ll need to backtrack a little on Crater Rim Drive to the intersection with Chain of Craters Road; turn south and begin making your way down the coast. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the end of the road at Hōlei Sea Arch; drive all the way to the end; you’ll then make your way back up this out-and-back road stopping for sights along the way.

Stop at Kealakomo Overlook

Hawaii Volcanoes - Mauna Ulu Lava Flow - Robert Linsdell via Flickr
Photo credit: Robert Linsdell via Flickr

You don’t need long to enjoy the view from Kealakomo Overlook, but it’s worth a short stop here to look out as you begin making your way down the slopes of the Hōlei Pali lava cliffs.

Visit Hōlei Sea Arch

Hawaii Volcanoes - Hōlei Sea Arch - Thomas via Flickr
Photo credit: Thomas via Flickr

As you approach the end of Chain of Craters Road, the road turns east along the coast. You can admire the otherworldly terrain where the lava from past eruptions has met the sea; this new land is part of why the Big Island continues to grow in size!

At the end of Chain of Craters, stop and enjoy the view of Hōlei Sea Arch. Hōlei Sea Arch was carved over the millennia: water has eroded the lava floes to create a 90-foot-high natural arch on the edge of the Pacific.

Hike to Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs

Right photo credit: Gael Varoquaux via Flickr

Making your way back north along Chain of Craters, stop for a short hike to Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs. This is an insanely cool archaeological site that has survived over 500 years despite how dynamic the landscape is in this region.

Pu`u Loa itself is a pressure dome that formed during the eruption of the volcano Kāne Nui O Hamo roughly 550 years ago. Since that time, some 23,000 ki’i pōhaku (petroglyphs) were carved into the hardened lava – the majority of them are simple, but some are elaborate figures and scenes. They date to 1200-1450 AD; while they aren’t as old as petroglyphs in other national parks, they’re still evidence of the long history of native Hawaiians on the island.

From Chain of Craters Road, it’s a 1.4-mile out-and-back hike to reach the petroglyphs.

Admire the Hilina Pali Overlook

From Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs, it takes an hour to reach Hilina Pali Overlook. Continue making your way back up Chain of Craters Road, and turn left on Hilina Pali Road.

Hilina Pali gives you an amazing southern view down the slopes of the Big Island and across the lava fields. It’s the perfect spot for a poke picnic dinner and to watch the sun go down across the island.

Stargazing (Optional)

If you’re not too tired yet, you can stay in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to enjoy the night sky. You can stay at Hilina Pali Overlook to do this, or make a real adventure of it and make the journey to the Mauna Loa Lookout. (It’s a 100-minute drive from Milina Pali to Mauna Loa; this is a perfect amount of time between sunset and when it’s dark enough for stargazing!) Don’t forget: it gets cool at night, so bring extra layers if you plan to try stargazing on your trip to Hawaii Volcanoes!

After stargazing in Hawaii Volcanoes to your heart’s content, you can make your way back out of the park (48 minutes after Hilina Pali Overlook or 45 minutes from Mauna Loa Lookout). It’s time for a night of well-earned sleep after all of the day’s adventures!

What About Hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes?

Hawaii Volcanoes - Hiking Trail Sign - Deb Nystrom via Flickr
Photo credit: Deb Nystrom via Flickr

You might notice I didn’t mention much hiking in this post so far; I’ve only recommended three short hikes (Ha‘akulamanu, Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube), and Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs). There are another nine great day hikes in this part of the park; if you’re really keen on hiking I’d look into Kīlauea Iki (which takes you across a solidified lava lake) or Crater Rim Trail (which circumnavigates the Kīlauea Caldera).

There are also backcountry hiking options if you want to escape the crowds entirely. You do need to register for a backcountry permit and trail access changes often based on volcanic activity – so be sure to check with rangers before setting out!

If You Only Have a Half-Day at Hawaii Volcanoes

Hawaii Volcanoes - Hōlei Sea Arch at Sunrise

Short on time and don’t have a full day to spend at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? No worries – I get it! You can pack a lot of the Big Island in a short time, and don’t need to spend an entire day in the park to enjoy the main sights.

If you’re trying to decide the when to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park instead of spending a full day, the best time of day to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is in the morning.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Sunrise - Rennett Stowe via Flickr
Photo credit: Rennett Stowe via Flickr

Here’s how to pack a ton in with just a half-day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:

  • Start by swinging by the Visitor Center to check what’s open
  • Drive all the way into Hōlei Sea Arch and watch sunrise from there
  • Take a short hike at Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs
  • Stop at Kealakomo Overlook
  • Head into Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
  • Visit the Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) and Steam Vents
  • Enjoy the view from Kīlauea Overlook

And there you have it! How to spend one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – or a half-day, if you’re short on time! Do you have other questions about making the most of one day in Hawaii Volcanoes? Let me know in the comments!

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