by Erin Kirkland
We could smell Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park before we could see it. The rotten-egg aroma preceding our arrival was unnerving for my 10-year-old, who craned his neck around the backseat in order to locate the source.
?Is a volcano erupting right now?? he quavered, sniffing the air, aware only of the icy, ash-laden monoliths in our home state of Alaska. Constantly bubbling, toiling, and indeed, sometimes troubling for residents of Hawai?i?s Big Island, volcanoes represent the origin of this tropical paradise, shaping nearly every facet of life for flora and fauna calling Hawai?i home, including humans.
Five volcanoes make up the foundation of the Big Island: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea, and three; Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea, are considered active, with Kilauea erupting nearly constantly since 1983. Known for the rich, red magma, or lava, streaming from various locations around the island, but namely within the 505 square miles of landscape making up the national park, volcanoes and their residual are definitely the main event for visitors.
Established in 1961, Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park is located approximately 30 miles from the city of Hilo, on the island?s southeast side. Clustered around the vast and ever-expanding Kilauea, a trip through the park is always a new adventure. It’s rich in tradition and cultural roots that tell ancient stories of Polynesian gods (akua) and guardian spirits known as aumakua, including the most famous, Pele?, whose fiery moods and desires required sacrifice and utter obedience.
National park aficionados who haven?t yet explored Hawai?i Volcanoes will enjoy traditional interpretive trails, guided hikes, and well-appointed visitor centers, including some perched high above bubbling craters and on top of rounded peaks. It?s difficult to know just where to begin, however – the park?s landscape includes several observatories and lookouts at very high elevations and along one-lane, narrow gravel roadways. Sulfur dioxide warnings can stymie outdoor activity in some areas, and occasionally, lava or explosive steam closes well-traveled routes.
Dangerous? Not particularly, given the National Park Service?s propensity for always erring on the side of extreme caution, but the closures can be inconvenient, especially for those making a special effort to drive across the Big Island for a day trip. It is critical, then, to plan a visit to Hawai?i Volcanoes with an entire day (or even more) of flexible scheduling in mind. Nature, as we discovered, has its own way of mitigating circumstances and the fickle nature of geologic wonders below our planet?s immediate surface.
When to go: Hawai?i Volcanoes is a park punctuated by weather systems that range from hot and sunny to windy and snowy. The Mauna Kea Visitor Center, for example, sits at an elevation of 9,300 feet above sea level, and the main visitor center in Kilauea, at 3,980 feet. Any time of year is a good time to visit Hawai?i, but spring represents the beginning of a warmer, dryer trend (even in rainy Hilo). Our early April trip meant temperatures in the mid-60?s at the visitor center, with only a few heavy rain showers that sent us scrambling for jackets.
Getting there: Take Highway 11 from either Kailua-Kona, on the west edge of the island, or Hilo, on the southeast. Visitors should have a reliable rental car, or take advantage of the many tour companies providing transportation from major centers and some resorts (we utilized the services of GoHawaii.com, the Big Island Convention and Visitor Bureau. Either way, allow at least three hours from Kailua-Kona and an hour from Hilo.
Visitor Services: Your first stop upon arrival should be the Kilauea Visitor Center, just past the admission station ($10/vehicle, $5/individual, and passes last seven days) at the park entrance. Here, officially meet Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park, grab maps, Junior Ranger booklets, current weather and air quality updates, and plan your adventure.
Across the street is the park?s only overnight option, Volcano House, located in full view of the Halema’uma’u crater. With 33 guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, and numerous lounge areas to take in a spectacular view, Volcano House is popular with those who wish to spend more than one day exploring the park, and keeps up with traditional lodge-style accommodations, even in this tropical paradise. This is the only dining option within park boundaries, too, so parents should come prepared with snacks, drinks, and picnic options for each family member. A small snack station is located within the Volcano House gift shop.
Exploring: An excellent way to capture the essence of Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park is to take one or both of the park-recommended self-drive/walk tours. A short drive from the Kilauea Visitor Center lies the Thomas A.?Jagger Museum, within full view (and smell) of Halema’uma’u caldera. Stop here for a bit of ogling at the crater itself, then walk the paved trail system skirting the upper edges for unique perspectives. Connecting back to the visitor center, the trail intersects with other, shorter routes (like Sulphur Banks and ?Ilahi) and winds through lush foliage, burping steam vents, and a series of excellent interpretive signs. Park and walk one way, or convince a family member to park at the other end and meet you halfway. Total length is approximately two miles, and tread is flat, paved, and easy for young hikers.
To fully appreciate the power of a volcano, however, families should delve deeper into the depths of the park. Like, underground. The Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku) is found along Crater Rim Drive, a sharp left after passing through the main park entrance. A 1/2-mile loop through Jurassic-like ferns, palms, and birds, the lava tube trail offers kids the hands-on experience of acting like lava flowing through the rocky hillsides of Kilauea. Fully-lit, and full of drips from the rainforest above, the 50-yard walk through the tube itself is fairly easy for most kids, but toddlers will almost surely want the companionship of adults as they stomp their way through puddles and over imbedded stones of the pathway.
More adventurous families may wish to drive the entire Chain of Craters Road, a 22-mile trip down to the Pacific Ocean and the outlet for flowing lava, when Pele? decides to allow it. No services exist along this stretch of lonely road, but the hiking is spectacular, particularly along the Puna Coast Trail toward the Pu?u Loa Petroglyphs, a short hike of 1.5 miles, where ancient carvings tell a story thought to be nearly 12,000 years old. The Puna Coast Trail continues from the petroglyphs another 13 miles to a series of campsites and shelters for those wishing to shoulder a pack and take a more remote route. If you do decide to backpack within the park, make sure you check in at the Kilauea Visitor Center as you would for any national park backcountry trip, however.
Car campers have two options for overnight stays. Namakanipalo is operated by the company who manages Volcano House, and for $15, tents can be staged on grassy, well-maintained sites. There are no reservations, however, so make plans early in the day. The campground also has several rustic camper-cabins on site, with two bunks and one double bed serving as shelter. Reservations are required, here, so visit the company website for details. The other campground, Kulanaokualki, is located near Chain of Craters Road, along the Hillina Pali Road. This small, 8-site campground is completely dry, so all water must be brought along. It is a new campground, and is a nice option for those who will travel within the park?s backcountry. No reservations are taken, and no fires are permitted anywhere in the campground.
The National Park Service has two hiking brochures available at visitor centers that clarify current routes and provide interpretive information about landscapes and geologic history of the area. Hikers should always be aware of visitor alerts and heed safety tips for hiking among lava fields; the stones are as sharp as glass in some areas. Wear closed-toe shoes at all times.
Hawai?i Volcanoes, like other national parks, represents the uniqueness of the Islands? natural history. There?s more, though. It negotiates beautifully a fine line between scientific knowledge and the acceptance of mystery, one that transcends merely visiting a place, and becoming part of it.
Note: Halema’uma’u’s volcanic “lake” has risen dramatically since our visit, with lava spilling out within view of the Jagger Museum. Visit the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park website for an amazing video of the lava lake.
Erin Kirkland is editor of Outdoor Families Magazine, author of the book Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s only family travel resource. She lives for regular pilgrimages to the Hawaiian Islands from her home in Anchorage, Alaska.?