Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Things to Do, Itinerary, & Practical Tips

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If Hawaii is on your adventure bucket list, you absolutely must plan on visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while you’re there. Where else are you going to get he opportunity to get up close and personal with an active volcano? Every time I’ve visited Hawaii, I am just blown away by how much outdoor adventure is possible there. Thankfully, my friend Marcie Cheung is one of the best Hawaii experts around and the author of Hawaii Travel with Kids, and she’s sharing all her top tips about visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in this article she’s written for us.

Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

About Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located about 45 minutes from Hilo and 2.5 hours from Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. You’ll definitely want to rent a car if you want to get out and explore the park. Or, there are Hawaii Volcanoes National Park tours you can book if you are short on time and just want to hit the highlights. They have both private and kid-friendly group tours available.

Kilauea Visitor Center in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, United States
Kilauea Visitor Center in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, United States

Cool Facts about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

  • It’s home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kilauea
  • Mauna Loa is actually the world’s biggest volcano (measured from the ocean floor)
  • Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984
  • Kilauea last erupted in 2018
  • In 1980, the park was named an International Biosphere Reserve
  • In 1987, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site

How Much Time Should I Spend in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

Most families do Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as a day trip while staying on the Big Island or popping over just for the day from another island.

However, if your family loves to hike, you might want to plan on 2-3 days to take advantage of all the unique hiking trails.

What to Consider Before You Take a Trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

The most important thing to realize about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is that you’ll probably not see the lava flow up close and it’s important to set realistic expectations, especially for kids. It’s easy to picture something from a movie with fresh lava flowing into the ocean, but it’s actually not all that easy to see from the accessible areas. So, it’s best to lower your expectations. That way, it will be an awesome surprise if you do get to see it.

Hawaii lava tourists
Hawaii lava tourist. Tourists taking photo of flowing lava from Kilauea volcano around Hawaii volcanoes national park, USA.

Also, if you are planning a trip to the Big Island on a budget, you’ll want to keep in mind that it costs $30 per car to enter the park.

Before heading to the park, make sure everyone is wearing sturdy, closed toe shoes. It can be tempting to just wear rubber flip flops, but those will not protect your feet from getting cut on the sharp lava rock.

If you are planning on hiking, take a few moments to research the hiking trails. There are tons of cool hikes for all fitness levels from hiking the crater to exploring a rainforest. You’ll also want your family to wear long pants to protect your legs from getting scraped up on the lava rock in case you fall. I can’t stress it enough; those lava rocks are super sharp!

You’ll also want to think about bringing in a cooler with drinks and things to eat. There are a handful of places to eat outside the park, but your best bet is to pack your own food, especially if you are spending the day hiking with kids. No one likes a hangry kiddo!

And if you’ll be in the park at night, please bring a flashlight. The trails can be dangerous at night (remember about the lava rock) so a flashlight can save you from major injuries. You’ll also want to bring jackets for everyone. Not only does the temperature drop at night, but this area also gets evening rain.

What is the Best Activity to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

While there are tons of cool things to do at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, my top pick for a family adventure is to head to Thurston Lava Tube. This is where the lava created a tunnel and your family can walk through it. The ground is really flat and the walk is really short, so it’s great for families with toddlers and preschoolers. But older kids will also think it’s cool. It’s one of the most unique experiences in Hawaii and your kids will be bragging about it for years to come.

How kid-friendly is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is very kid-friendly, as long as your family follows a few safety guidelines. It’s really important to stay on the marked routes. Because it’s a volcano, there is volcanic gas and the land can be unstable. There are plenty of warning signs and restricted areas are clearly marked. You might also come across sinkholes and cracks in the ground. Do NOT go near these! People have been seriously injured or killed for getting too close. 

Sign your kids up to participate in their Ranger Program. They have awesome year-round programs led by top scientists, artists, and cultural experts.

Be sure to chat with the park rangers and find out about the activities going on during your time at the park. They have lots of cultural programs that are great for families.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also intriguing for kids because of an epic Hawaiian legend that takes place here.

What’s the Hawaiian Legend about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

One of the most famous Hawaiian goddesses is Pele. She’s the goddess of fire and volcanoes and legend says that she lives at Halemaumau Crater in the park.

Active lava flow in Hawaii
Lava loses heat rapidly and its surface turns black and is pushed into wrinkles by moving interior. Kilauea volcano, Pu’u O’o vent.

As you might imagine, Pele is known for being volatile and unpredictable and her rage is unsurpassed. Some of her anger stems from her husband having an affair with her sister and her father banishing her from her original home in Tahiti. She decided to create the Hawaiian islands with her volcanic ability and then invite the Tahitians to join her. However, sometimes these people made her angry and she’d spout lava all over, destroying entire forests and small towns.

These days, Pele is still revered and you’ll hear her name come up at almost every luau or hula performance. On the Big Island, Pele is very real and people say she appears as an old lady with long white hair. You better be nice to her or else!

If you’re visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with kids, read the full Legend of Pele so you have a deeper emotional experience when exploring the park.

Where to Stay at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

If you are planning to spend more than one day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, camping is a great budget-friendly option for families. If you don’t want to lug your gear from the Mainland, you can rent camping gear from Volcano House. Be sure to grab a park pass and talk to the park ranger to find out which area of the park is closed off to campers.

Because this Hawaii national park is kind of tucked away from the bigger cities, there aren’t many big hotels nearby. Volcano House is the only hotel located inside the park. This historic hotel first opened in 1846 and features an epic view of Halemaumau Crater (where Pele lives!) Otherwise, your best bet is to stay in Hilo and drive the 45 minutes to the park if you want to stay in a hotel.

There are also some great bed and breakfasts and vacation rental homes near the park. Volcano Village is the little town right outside the park that is popular with artists. It also has a little petting zoo, an orchid farm, and places to eat.

Best Itineraries for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

1 Day Itinerary for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

If you are doing a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the best thing to do is the Crater Rim Drive. Think of it as a highlights tour that hits all the best photo spots. This drive starts at the visitor’s center, which you should definitely check out to get a sense of this Hawaii national park. Then, you’ll drive over to the steam vents to see the Steaming Bluff and Ha’akulamanu. Continue on to the Kilauea Iki Overlook to check out the gorgeous view and take some time to eat and drink before driving to the Pu’u Pua’i Overlook. This is a great spot to see how lava can create new land (and weave in some science to your roadschooling curriculum!) If your family is ready to get out and explore a bit, park your car and hike the Devastation Trail. It won’t take very long and it will take you to the site of the 1959 volcanic eruption. It’s a great way to see what happens after a volcano erupts. Head back into your car and drive to Keanakako’i Crater and see epic views of old lava rivers and gorgeous views of the ocean as you drive back along the Chain of Craters Road.

Devastation Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, United States
Devastation Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, United States

While you may be tempted, do NOT take any of the lava rocks on the ground. It’s very bad luck (just ask any of the park guides!)

2 Day Itinerary for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

If you’ll be at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for 2 days, plan on setting aside more time to explore Jaggar Museum. Here, your family can learn about different types of lava flows and the latest scientific information about volcanoes. Stop by the visitors center where your kids can participate in the Junior Ranger Program and earn a cool badge. The visitors center is also a good place to talk to park rangers and get hike suggestions. And you can find out what ranger talks or special activities are going on in the park. Then, head out to do the Kilauea Iki Trail. It’s about a 4 mile loop and you’ll get to hike through a Hawaiian rainforest and across a cooled lava lake. If your kids still have a little energy left, head right over to the Thurston Lava Tube. This trail only takes about 20 minutes and it’s super flat.

Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

For your second day, plan on spending the morning doing the Chain of Craters Road to check out some of the cool viewpoints. The highlight will be stopping to see the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. It’s a short hike and it’s a great way to see ancient Hawaiian rock carvings.

In the late afternoon, plan to rent bikes to see the lava flow at dusk. There are places to rent bikes right at the park (most even include a headlamp) and some even offer trailers for younger kids. It’s a 4 mile bike ride and you’ll need to hop off and hike a little bit in order to see the lava flow. There aren’t clear trails, but there will probably be lots of other people, so you can just follow along. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see real Hawaiian lava. You’ll want to make sure to give yourself enough time to bike back up. Your kids might be tired and it could be a little bit of a cranky ride on the uneven road.

3 Day Itinerary for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

If you’ll be at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for 3 days, you can really take your time to explore the area. Start your morning by checking out the Volcano Art Gallery where you can marvel at the artwork from local artists who have been inspired by the volcanoes. Then, if you don’t mind a smelly hike, head to the Sulphur Banks Trail. It’s a paved trail where your family can see steaming sulphur pits. At the end of the trail, you can walk over to Volcano House and check out the view of the crater. This is also a great spot to grab something to eat or drink. Then, head to the visitors center to watch the video about the park and talk to the park rangers about what’s going on in the park during your trip. This is also a great time for your kids to work on their Junior Park Ranger badge while you figure out a hike (or two) that would be a good fit for your family to do on day 2.

For day 2, spend the morning doing a hike of your choosing, saving energy for an afternoon bike ride to see the lava flow. Depending on your fitness level, you’ll want to make sure you aren’t overdoing it in the morning. You’ll need strong legs to pedal back after seeing lava!

For day 3, plan on doing the Kilauea Iki Trail. It takes anywhere from 2.5 hours-4 hours (depending on your kids) and you’ll get to explore a Hawaiian rainforest and hike across a hardened lava lake. Then, head right over to the Thurston Lava Tube. This trail only takes about 20 minutes and it’s super flat.

On your way out of the park, drive along the Chain of Craters Road. There are several cool scenic viewpoints where you can see hardened lava. The Puahi Crater and Kealakomo platform are popular stops. But, save time to check out the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. It’s less than a 1.5 mile hike, and kids will be able to see ancient Hawaiian rock carvings.

Other Kid-Friendly Things to do on the Big Island

There are so many fun things to do in Kona with kids, like snorkeling at Turtle Bay or swimming with manta rays. And Hilo is the perfect spot to head out to explore gorgeous Big Island waterfalls, including the most famous one: Rainbow Falls.

Thanks Marcie for sharing all these expert tips with us. If you’re planning a Hawaii vacation, make sure to hop on over to Hawaii Travel with Kids. She’ll help you figure out everything from which Hawaiian island is best for kids, down to the best places to go kayaking once you’re there.

Epic Itinerary for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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