This is a guest post by Marcie Cheung from Hawaii Travel with Kids and Marcie in Mommyland on the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii, including information on how to take a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from any Hawaiian island.
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What is the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hawaii?
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the south side of the Big Island between Hilo and Kona.
In 1980, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was named an International Biosphere Reserve and in 1987, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s because it’s home to Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world’s most active and accessible volcanoes.
But that’s not all. If you measure Mauna Loa from the ocean floor, it’s the biggest volcano on Earth! Pretty cool!
About Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Just slightly smaller than the entire island of Oahu, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spreads out 523 square miles from the summit of Maunaloa to the ocean. Here, you’ll find about 150 miles of incredible hiking trails through deserts, craters, and even a Hawaiian rainforest!
But, it’s most famous for its active volcanoes: Mauna Loa (which last erupted in 1984) and Kilauea, which just erupted a few years ago.
In 2018, Kilauea volcano erupted from May through August, destroying more than 700 homes in the Puna District of the Big Island. As if that wasn’t devastating enough, during this same time, there were tens of thousands of earthquakes, which collapsed Kilauea’s caldera. Most of the park has recovered and reopened, but you can still see some of the destruction.
Pele: Hawaiian Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes
What sets Hawaii Volcanoes National Park apart from all other U.S. National Parks is the story of Pele. She’s one of the most famous Hawaiian goddesses. Legend has it that her home is at Halemaumau Crater.
Pele is known for her volatile and unpredictable temper, and when you hear her story it all makes sense. First, she was banished from her home in Tahiti by her father, who couldn’t handle her anger. Then, her husband has an affair with her oldest sister, which ignited some epic fights.
So, she headed away from her family in Tahiti and decided to start a new life by creating her own home. She created the Hawaiian islands and encouraged people from Tahiti to hop in their canoes and come live in Hawaii with her. However, sometimes these people angered her and she’d destroy entire forests and small towns with her lava.
On the Big Island, Pele is very real to many people and you’ll hear her name referenced all around the island, but especially at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Whether or not you are visiting the park with kids, I highly recommend reading the legend of Pele so you have a deeper emotional experience when exploring the park. Whatever you do, you do not want to take home lava rock from anywhere in Hawaii. You risk the wrath of Pele.
And there may be some truth to this as thousands of visitors have mailed back lava rock after enduring horrific bad luck.
How to Get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
While you can technically take the bus from Kona or Hilo, it takes WAY longer than just driving. It can eat up your entire day. That’s why it makes the most sense to drive.
If you are starting on the Kona side of the island, (also known as the dry side), you will have to take Highway 11. Start by going southeast on the island. You’ll drive through the small towns of Kealakekua, Captain Cook, South Point, Na’alehu and Pahala. There are some cool things to see there if you aren’t in a rush. If you drive straight from Kona to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it’s 96 miles and takes about 2.5 hours.
If you are staying in Hilo, you’ll find the park is just 30 miles to the southwest. You’ll just need to drive for 45 minutes through Hilo and you’ll come across the park. It’s super easy and my preferred way of getting to the park.
How to Take a Day Trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Any Hawaiian Island
Looking to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as a day trip from Oahu, Maui, or Kauai? The easiest way to do this is by taking an inter-island flight to Hilo or Kona and then renting a car.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about a 2.5-hour drive from Kona or a 40-minute drive from Hilo.
If you don’t want to rent a car, you can also join a tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are group and private tours available.
What to Expect
We’ve been visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park since I was a teenager. The first time we went, we only had one day to drive around the Big Island and I remember jumping out of our rental car and running through lava tubes and then having to hop back into the car to make it to the airport in time for our flight. We barely scratched the surface of this incredible park and we felt like we had missed out on a lot.
So, now we set aside an entire day so we can take our time and not feel so rushed. This is especially important when visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with little kids.
This Hawaii National Park isn’t free. There is a cost charged per vehicle. For cars, there is a $30 entrance fee. For motorcycles, it is $25. But that’s the only cost you’ll have to explore this park.
There are several restaurants and food trucks located in Volcano Village. But, you’ll probably want to pack in your food and drink if you plan on doing a lot of hiking and exploring.
What to do at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This National Park is so huge that it’s impossible to explore it all in one day. That’s why some people plan a camping trip and spend several days hiking and participating in Ranger Programs. However, most people only set aside one day to explore the park. So, here are the highlights:
Visitors Center and Jaggar Museum
When you arrive at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, your first stop should be at the visitor’s center and the Jaggar Museum. This is where you’ll learn about the different types of lava flows, get hike suggestions, pick up maps, and see what ranger talks/activities are going on. And you can find out what local scientists are doing to better understand Hawaii’s lava and the Earth’s core.
Thurston Lava Tube
The Thurston Lava Tube is one of the more popular attractions to see at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is an incredible place to see where lava created a tunnel and the visitors can walk through it.
The ground is flat here and it’s a fairly easy walk to do. It’s impressive and a unique Big Island experience.
If you are just visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the day, doing the Crater Rim Drive will take you along the best photo spots. You’ll start at the visitor’s center and drive around to the (very smelly) steam vents. From there, you will be able to see the Steaming Bluff and Ha’akulamanu. Next up is the gorgeous Kilauea Iki Overlook.
This is a convenient spot to have a picnic lunch or just soak in the scenery. Then you’ll head to the Pu’u Pua’i Overlook. Here, you can see how lava can transform and create new land. If you are up for it, you can head towards “Devastation Trail” and stretch your legs on a small hike.
Finally, you’ll drive to Keanakako’i Crater and then along the Chain of Craters Road. From your car, you’ll be able to see old lava rivers and stunning views of the ocean.
Just outside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a little town called Volcano Village. This is a convenient place just a few minutes from the volcanoes to stay or eat as you are exploring the park. It’s actually in the middle of the tropical rainforest and it’s peaceful and beautiful. Plus, it’s a secret hideout for artists!
There aren’t any hotels here, just bed and breakfasts and vacation rental homes.
It’s kind of a sleepy village, but they still have a Farmers Market, a local winery, a petting zoo, an Orchid Farm, and the Volcano Art Center. There are also several restaurants, cafes, and food trucks here.
Tips for Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes: The hardened lava can be sharp and it’s easy to cut yourself if you trip. You don’t want to risk it wearing flip flops or sandals.
Wear long pants: Even though it might be hot outside, you’ll want to wear long pants to protect your legs from falling on the lava rock and cutting your skin.
Research the hiking trails: There are tons of cool hikes for a variety of hiking abilities. There is one trail that takes you over the crater and takes several hours to complete. Another one guides you through a rainforest where you can see Hawaii’s State Bird, the Nene Goose.
Participate in a Ranger Program: There are some cool programs that are offered throughout the year by leading scientists, artists, and cultural experts.
Stay on marked routes: There are dangerous volcanic gases and unstable land, so it’s important to pay attention to warning signs and keep out of restricted areas.
Keep Away from sinkholes and cracks: Even though they look cool, do not go near cracks in the ground. They are unstable and can seriously injure or kill people who get too close.
Join a guided tour: If you want to learn more about Hawaii volcanoes, your best bet is to buy a tour ticket. That way, you can ask an expert all your questions and discover little known facts.
Bring along a tent and camp: Camping is by far the most popular way to stay at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You’ll need to get a park pass and talk to the ranger’s at the visitor center to know what parts of the park are closed off to campers and hikers.
Consider staying near the park: Volcano House is the only hotel located inside the park. It first opened in 1846 and guests have an incredible view of Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater.
What to Bring to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Flashlight: You’ll want one if you are trying to see lava at dusk. The trail can be tricky to find in the dark and a flashlight can save your life.
Water: Because of the heat, you’ll want to stay hydrated by bringing a water bottle. This is also extremely important in case you get lost.
Jacket: At night, the temperature in the park can drop drastically. You’ll want to bring a jacket or windbreaker with you, especially since Hilo tends to get rain in the evening.
While You’re on the Big Island
There are so many fun things to do in Kona like swimming with manta rays, UFO parasailing, snorkeling at Turtle Bay, or walking down Ali’i Drive.
And Hilo (on the other side of the island) is a bustling little city with many attractions and plenty of things to see and do. Besides exploring the volcanoes, one of the coolest things to see is the Big Island waterfalls. The most famous one is Rainbow Falls and it got its name from the rainbow that often forms at the base.
Marcie is the driving force behind the Hawaii destination website, Hawaii Travel with Kids. She’s traveled to Hawaii more than 35 times and shares her top Hawaii travel tips with other travelers looking to explore Hawaii with their families. You can follow her adventures at @marcieinmommyland on Instagram.
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Hawaii
The Lonely Planet Best of Hawaii guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road. (For people without American cell phone plans).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Hawaii because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Hawaii make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in the beautiful (but occasionally slippery) outdoors.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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