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To visit Volcano National Park is to make a pilgrimage to the ongoing birthplace of Hawaii. The island chain is constantly evolving, in part thanks to the two active volcanoes held within the park. The gently sloping Mauna Lao makes up over half of The Big Island’s landmass, while Kilauea draws visitors from far and wide as the world’s youngest and most active volcano.

While the park is over 333,000 acres and offers almost infinite opportunities for exploring, the highlights have been made easily accessible by two main routes: Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. Combined, they make up a perfect self-drive tour of what Lonely Planet boldly calls “the USA’s most dynamic national park.”

Volcano National Parkphoto by Heather Holt

Chain of Craters Road

Our first stop after paying $10 for a weekly car pass into the park was to head to the Kilauea Visitor Center to plan out our day. Cheerful park rangers handed out maps, answered questions, and filled us in that a large section of the Chain of Craters Road was closed due to dangerously high amounts of sulfur dioxide gas in the park. We also watched a short movie that gave us a great overview of the history of Hawaii, and dropped in on the Volcano Art Center gallery next door. It’s recommended to allow 1-3 hours — with stops — to hit all the highlights on the 11-mile Chain of Craters loop.

Kilauea Visitor Center

Driving past active sulphur banks and steam vents, our next stop was The Jaggar Museum, named after the famous volcanist Dr. Thomas A. Jagger. Here we learned more about the science behind the volcanoes and the great lengths scientists go to in order to research them. The photos of the volcanoes erupting at their fiery peaks are more than enough of a reason to stop.

Thomas A. Jaggar Museum

Thomas A. Jaggar Museumphoto by Heather Holt

But even better than the museum’s enlightening exhibits is the viewpoint outside. Here you can observe the Halema’uma’u Crater, which has been erupting continually since 2008 — officially the longest of the 18 eruptions since 1924. During the day, steam comes curling and smoking out of the heart of the caldera.

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

At night, darkness brings a new view entirely. Lava bubbles on the crater floor, and a warm orange glow emanates from the volcano. As the park never closes, you can visit any time throughout the night — and likely have the view to yourself.

Volcano National Parkphoto by Heather Holt

Doubling back towards the park entrance thanks to the closed portion of the road, our next destination was the Thurston Lava Tube. Entering what seemed like a Disney-created rainforest, we soon came upon an oversized lava tube tricked out with walkways and safety lighting.

Volcano National Park Lava Tube

Volcano National Park Lava Tube

We had been warned of major crowds, but visited early enough that we beat the tour busses. Feeling adventurous, we were looking forward to exploring the tube’s unlit extension, but sadly were met by a Do Not Enter sign. The entire loop trail is an easy .4 miles.

Volcano National Park Lava Tube

Next up was Devastation Trail, a paved 1-mile walk through an area devastated by the 1959 Kileauea Iki lava eruption. Life has returned to the area, which is now equal parts lush and starkly beautiful.

Devastation Trail, Volcano National Park

Devastation Trail, Volcano National Park

The destination of the trail is the Pu’u Pua’i Overlook, which provides generous views into the Kilauea Iki Crater. Kilauea Iki last erupted from November 14th to December 20th of 1959. During those 37 days, three-quarters of a million people came to watch lava spew 2,000 feet into the sky. At the height of the eruption, Kilauea oozed more than two million tons of lava per hour! Much of it drained back into the vent, causing the surface of the lava lake to crack and subside, creating the crackles surface we see today.

Devastation Trail, Volcano National Park

Devastation Trail, Volcano National Parkphoto by Heather Holt

Chain of Craters Road

After a stop back in Volcano for lunch, Heather and I were met by her friend and fellow photographers from Grand Cayman, Jim. I was now traveling with two professional shutterbugs — my camera was definitely feeling self-conscious.

Hoping into Jim’s rental convertible, we took off down the sloping 19-mile Chain of Craters Road. Our ears popped as we descended towards the sea, passing from lush rain forest to barren lava fields to a lone palm tree oasis.

Chain of Craters Roadphoto by Heather Holt

Chain of Craters Roadphoto by Heather Holt

Volcano National Park Chain of Craters Roadphoto by Heather Holt

Our first attempted stop was a at the Mauna Ulu Trailhead, where we planned to take the 2.5-mile roud trip hike to the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone. Unfortunately, there was a heavy vog (volcanic fog!) cover, the trail was poorly marked, and Heather was suffered from some altitude-induced vertigo, so we turned around before we reached the cinder cone viewpoint. On the upside, I got to make plenty of Lucille Austero jokes.

Pu'u Huluhulu Cinder Cone Hike

Pu'u Huluhulu Cinder Cone Hike

Next, we pulled over at the moody Kealakomo Overlook, where we had some photo fun!

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park Photography

We were enticed by the 1.4 mile Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail, but unfortunately had to pass it by due to time constraints. Instead, we booked it to the Holei Sea Arch, carved by the sharply eroding lava cliffs of the coast. Thanks to a photo in Lonely Planet and the assurances of a friend in Oahu, I was looking forward to getting a photo of myself standing right on top of the arch. Unfortunately, warning signs, safety ropes and an ingrained penchant for rule-following all kept me from fulfilling that dream.

Holei Sea Arch

Chain of Craters Road

End of Chain of Craters Road

Having parked near the sea arch, we proceeded on foot to the End of The Road — where quite literally lava has stopped the road in its tracks. Here we got lost in time, clamoring over black mountains and following the organic shapes and folds made by the cooling magma. Similar to how I look at coral when diving, I was awed by the patterns and textures created by nature. This park — and Hawaii at large — is a playground for artists, nature lovers, and science geeks alike.

End of Chain of Craters Road

End of Chain of Craters Road

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

In some places, new life had already started to thrive — a breathing example of the very process that created the island chain of Hawaii, a land that continues to heave and grow.

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

Volcano National Park, Hawaii

I realize I’ve now walked on volcanoes in Costa Rica, Greece, Iceland and the United States! Have you ever been to a volcano?

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23 Comments...
  • Koren @ City Gal
    December 10 2012

    That lava is awesome!
    Koren @ City Gal recently posted..The Yacht Week Launches Nautical Brunch at Beauty & Essex

    • Alex
      December 11 2012

      It was quite the sight! I never knew lava could be so picturesque.

  • I literally gasped when I saw that sunset pic. AMAZING!!!!!!!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..NASCAR: Day 3

    • Alex
      December 11 2012

      We had pretty bad weather on our trip, and we had to wait HOURS for the fog to clear to get even that shot. So I’m sure Heather will appreciate the kudos doubly 🙂

  • Elaine Burr - Gram E
    December 10 2012

    The pics are amazing – Love them all

  • TammyOnTheMove
    December 10 2012

    Love this place, especially the lava tube. Looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. Pretty awesome place-you are really selling Hawaii to me!
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Dealing with poverty on the road

    • Alex
      December 11 2012

      So glad to hear that Tammy! I was a Hawaii skeptic before this trip, so I’m loving showing people this amazing state that I so underestimated!

  • Gaelyn
    December 10 2012

    This is the Hawaii I’d want to see. Working at Mt St Helens after she blew hooked me on volcanoes. Such sharp contrasts between life and death. Love the textures of the lava. Seems like more than just the road was closed.
    Gaelyn recently posted..Where to explore in the Johannesburg area, culture and caves

    • Alex
      December 11 2012

      That sounds like quite the story Gaelyn! If you’re a big hiker and biker and camper you could spend a week in Hawaii in this park alone. There is so much to do, I wish we had had more time.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    December 10 2012

    Embarrassingly, I have been to the Big Island three times and have never been to Volcano National Park! Scott and his sister went the first time I was there with them, but he gave me food poisoning, so I was stuck at the condo…alone… :-/
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Heaven Shines a Wee Bit Oranger

    • Alex
      December 11 2012

      Well, in your defense the Big Island is HUGE and if I recall you were staying clear on the other side on your last trip. So there’s always the next one! I definitely left wishing I had had more time — I wish I did a nighttime tour to see the flowing lava (didn’t know they existed till my last night, though the tours are super pricey) and I wish we had had time to do some of the longer hikes in the park.

  • Lilian
    December 11 2012

    Your photos are amazing. I love the swirls in the lava (or whatever lava is called when it’s hard lol)
    Lilian recently posted..Exploring the Stuart Highway: Adelaide to Alice Springs

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      I am still a bit confused on the terminology even after my volcano-hopping, ha. I think it’s magma when it’s liquid and lava when it’s solid….?

  • Angela
    December 16 2012

    Great photos! Hawaii is an amazing place. Thanks for taking us along on your adventure.
    Angela recently posted..A Maduran Market Child

    • Alex
      December 16 2012

      Thank you for reading Angela! I am having such a great time reliving my time in Hawaii through these posts.

  • TravelHolicGirl
    December 27 2012

    Oh my, you took me to a place that I have never thought of visiting, and now it’s on my bukcet list 🙂
    Like +1

    • Alex
      December 28 2012

      So happy to spread the Hawaii love!

  • Dani
    January 2 2013

    You are way too modest about your photography skills. You have such a great eye, and your photos are always fantastic! You don’t have to feel intimated by two professional photographers around you at all – and the photos in this post are proof enough 🙂

    • Alex
      January 2 2013

      This is such a sweet comment… thank you so much! It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, isn’t it, but I when I just look at my own work I do have photos I am very proud of 🙂

  • Rob
    January 8 2013

    Excellent photos. I am mildly amused that we were there at exactly the same time. No, I didn’t see you – but the dates match. And the weather in your photos! For me it was a first time in Hawaii experiment, and I’ll definitely be back. With the appropriate hiking gear to safely hike the lava and the craters at Mauna Loa and Haleakala!

    • Alex
      January 10 2013

      Rob it was the exact same for me — a curious experiment that went fabulously right! I love Hawaii more than I could have imagined and can’t wait to go back.

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