Our conversation about living in Hawaii went something like this:
Me: Okay, so Hawaii. If you kids could do anything you want while we are over there, what would it be?
All 3 Kids: See a volcano!
That settled it. We are huge National Park advocates and there are two in Hawaii – Haleakalā National Park on Maui, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Since Hawaii Volcanoes has a currently active volcano, that hit the top of our list for this trip. We island hopped from Oahu for about a week an spent three days on the windward side of the island at the National Park.
- When We Visited: Nov 24 – 26, 2017
- Ages of Kids: 12, 10, 7
Where We Stayed
We had friends suggest staying in the park at the lodge, and I also looked into possibly camping or staying in one of the cabins in the park. Unfortunately by the time we nailed down our dates, there was no availability.
That actually turned out to be a good thing because we found the the most amazing AirBnb rental in the nearby town of Volcano. Only 15-20 minutes away from the entrance, it was the perfect home base for exploring the park. I loved that we weren’t camping in the rain (it rained a lot and was COLD), we had a full kitchen, a hammock, and a hot tub. Doesn’t get much better than that!
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1. Visit the Kīlauea Caldera Overlook & Jaggar Museum at Night
We spent Friday the 24th driving over from Kona, and managed to stop by the Kīlauea Visitor Center on our way through to our rental. We talked with the rangers about hikes, picked up our Jr. Ranger Books and made plans to return in the evening to see the Caldera at night.
After dinner we drove back into the park and managed to snag one of the last parking spots at the Jaggar Museum. We could easily see the glow of the Kīlauea Caldera in the distance. The overlook has an amazing view, with plenty of information displays. Inside the museum the kids spent their time doing a photo scavenger hunt for their Jr. Ranger Books and learned all about Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Volcanoes.
It was cold – so definitely dress warm and bring layers! We never made it back to see the overlook during the day, but from photos I’ve seen the view during daylight is also quite spectacular.
2. Explore the Lava Tubes
We’ve visited multiple caves and lava tubes all over the country, but never in a forest jungle quite like this one. The lave tube trail is a short, 1/3 of mile hike and takes less than 20 minutes. In fact, we did it twice!
We easily tacked this on to our Kīlauea Iki Crater hike as we ascended out of the crater right at the entrance to the Lava Tubes. It was a great way to do both without having to move our car and try and get parking!
3. Hike Across a Crater
The Kīlauea Iki Trail was pretty spectacular! We knew we wanted a longer hike (more than just a 1/2 mile to an overlook) and this one came highly recommended by the ranger. What blew our minds was the change in geology from up on the rim to down in the crater.
We started at the trailhead along the Chain of Craters road in a lush jungle. Once we started the descent into the crater, the landscape quickly changed from tropical rain forest, to barren rock garden.
The trail across the crater felt like we could have been on the moon! The kids loved looking at all the cool rock formations, and we even found some of “Pele’s Hair” – fine threads of volcanic glass that are formed when a spray of lava droplets cools rapidly in the air.
Once across the bottom of the crater, we had to make the 400 ft hike back out and then it was a short walk along the rim back to our car.
- Total Miles: 4
- Time: 2-3 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate to challenging – 400ft descent and ascent in and out of the crater. Trail is switch backed and you can just take your time.
4. Bike and Hike to See Surface Lava
Finding surface lava is a bit tricky. Sometimes the lava is pouring into the ocean (I’ve seen photos – so cool!) but other times its just slowly moving on the surface in different areas. Current conditions are available on the NPS Hawaii Volcanoes website, and you can also talk to a park ranger to find where the most recent lava flow is.
We drove out to the Lava Viewing Area (Google Maps) where there is a huge parking lot and a gazillion vendors that sell bikes and tours. We arrived around 3:30pm which was perfect as we wanted enough time to get out to the lava before it got dark – just check when your sunset time is (ours was about 5:45pm). We spent about $65 for bikes for the 5 of us (2 adult bikes and 3 kid sized). Most rental companies included a headlamp (you’ll need it), a bottle of water, a bike lock and a fanny pack to put it all in. We also saw vendors that had bike trailers for rent, and even ride along attachments for smaller kids. It can definitely be family friendly adventure!
We biked along the dirt/gravel road for 4 miles until we reached the National Park boundary. Here, everyone locks up their bikes and heads out on foot across the cooled igneous rock to find the good stuff. There were enough people out there we mostly just had to follow them towards the smoke. There are no trails, but the rock is uneven and in some places we were jumping across deep gaps. As we got closer, encouragement from others coming back was pretty awesome.
We crested a small hill and then in the distance we could see it – LAVA! Being up close to legit volcanic lava has been one of our favorite experiences to date. We found slow moving lava, but every once in awhile an entire shelf of rock would lift up and the molten stuff would just come pouring out. It was incredible. If you get too close I can imagine that your shoes would melt (we didn’t have that problem), and while it smelled bad, the stench was not overwhelming. There are no rangers out there, no guardrails, fences, or anything to protect you from doing something stupid. Just be aware that you are on you own. We saw at least 2 ambulances on their way out at the end of the night so injuries do happen, just be careful!
We stayed out there well past dark just waiting and watching and soaking it up. After a quick snack we turned on our headlamps and made the trek back to our bikes. The ride back was difficult. Cara was really tired, the road is NOT flat, and we had our share of tears and frustration over a bike that wouldn’t shift very well. She ended up walking most of the hills and then we’d ride as fast as we could downhill. We managed to get back close to the cut off time (all the bikes MUST be back on time).
Overall it was an amazing adventure! We’d do it again in heartbeat, but maybe just make sure all the bikes shifted a little easier. Dinner in Volcano afterwards was a definite treat!
5. Drive Chain of Craters Road
Sunday afternoon was a perfect time to drive the Chain of Craters Road. There are multiple pull offs to see varies craters, and the weather changed dramatically from up at the visitor center (lots of clouds & rain) down to the coast where we could see the sun! The road ends at the Hōlei Sea Arch which extends out into the ocean. Eventually it will collapse, but it was a beautiful view along the coast!
There’s plenty of other hiking trails, back country adventures, ranger led tours and activities we could have participate in, but overall we are happy with our time spent in the park. Seeing lava up close was definitely the highlight of our trip to the Big Island and we highly recommend it!