Complete Hawaii Volcano & Lava Viewing Guide
No matter how long you plan to stay on the Big Island, you owe it to yourself and your group to make a journey to the southeast section of the island to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and view the lava flows. A miracle of nature that isn’t easily found elsewhere on planet Earth, Hawaii provides incredible access perfectly suited to seeing the lava flows up close.
About Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Established as the 11th U.S. National Park and the first in a U.S. Territory, the volcanoes present throughout the park’s 320,000+ acres are among the most easily accessible in the world. Spanning from sea level to the 13,000 ft. summit of Earth’s largest active volcano in Mauna Loa, the climate in the park varies from severe deserts to lush, dense rainforest environments.
With over 100 miles of hiking trails that take adventurers through rainforests, deserts, lava tubes, and up close and personal with lava flows, it’s easy to spend multiple days in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Guided hikes led by park rangers occur on a daily basis as well as occasional park-sponsored activities and presentations.
Two campgrounds exist in the park for those who wish to stay overnight and catch an early glimpse of the various flows at dawn. The park is also car-friendly, allowing tourists to explore at their leisure (and with the benefit of air conditioning). At the time of writing, most of the Crater Rim drive is closed due to volcanic activity at the Kaema’um’au Crater, but the Chain of Craters road provides a windy drive past several points of interest and scores of volcanic craters until the road terminates at the ocean.
How to Get There
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the southeastern end of the Big Island and is accessible from either the Hilo side or the western Kona side. From Hilo, expect a 45 minute drive along Highway 11 to the park. From Kailua-Kona, the trek takes visitors around the southern tip of the island along a 96-mile stretch of Highway 11 or 105 miles across Saddle Road through Hilo via Highway 190, Highway 200, and Highway 11. Saddle Road is typically the faster drive since much of the southern route is winding and has several speed zones.
Halema’uma’u Crater Viewing
Throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park there are plenty of impressive viewing locations of the massive Halema’uma’u crater. While it’s not possible to visit the crater itself due to safety restrictions, there are overlooks around the crater that provide breathtaking scenes of the crater’s plume. A daytime journey to the park provides views of the plume itself, but a dusk or dawn journey to the lookout attached to the Jaggar museum puts the lava’s orange-red glows in perfect contrast against a background of stars.
Kilauea Iki Crater
A four mile round trip hike along the Kilauea Iki trail will deliver views of an ohia forest and completes the journey at the geologically infantile crater floor. While the hike is a short one, its popularity and the 400 foot vertical climb up and down into the crater itself can add some difficulty to the trip. Starting early in the morning will keep things cool and a little less busy, and morning hours also offer excellent birdwatching potential as you venture onward. To reach the Kilauea Iki trailhead, park in the lot designated for the Thurston Lava Tube about 9 miles from the park’s entrance.
Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
First discovered in 1913 by Lorrin Thurston, a newspaper publisher on the island, Nahuku is a massive cavelike lava tube that’s been updated with electric lights to help guide you through the tube’s chambers. With high ceilings and a flat rock floor, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn how lava flows shape the earth as they proceed. Some segments of the tube are completely dark and unlit, with uneven floors and low ceilings. Adventurous explorers who dare to venture the 50 yards into this section of the tube are rewarded with an intense physical experience that’s rewarded with an exit among a tropical rainforest. Bring a good flashlight if you would like to go all the way through.
Chain of Craters Road
Situated along the southern side of the park, the Chain of Craters Road has long been used as a scenic route in which to view the various craters that make up the landscape from the visitor’s center down to the ocean. A section of the road is currently closed due to lava flows, but visitors can easily access the Lua Manu and Pauahi Craters as well as the Kealakomo Lookout and a view of the Holei Sea Arch before turning back toward the center of the park.
Current Lava Flows (Updated)
Because of ever-changing volcanic activity on the Big Island, it’s common for new lava flows to pop up every few years. As a result, a pop-up tourist culture develops around new lava flows as the U.S. Geological Service builds access roads to safe distances.
The flaw flow near Kamokuna south east of Pu’u ‘O’o that began flowing in June 2014 is the current must-see for locals, volcanologists, and visitors alike. A remnant of the eruption at Kilauea that began more than 30 years ago, the flow disappeared for more than a month in early 2017 before a massive chunk of rock collapsed near the ocean and exposed the lava stream to public view.
Today, visitors who travel down the gravel access route located at the end of eastern side Kaimu-Chain of Craters road are able to hike or bike across the 4 mile route to see the flow for themselves. Expect a 1.5 to 2 hour hike each way or a 30-40 minute trip via bicycle.
Due to the ever-changing nature of the flow, your potential proximity to it may change on a daily basis. If the park staff determines the viewing access point is unsafe or unstable, they may restrict access. The U.S.G.S. provides daily updates on the Kilauea volcano flow, but you may also view the current lava flow map or call the park at (808) 985-6000.
What to Bring
No matter how long you budget for a lava viewing trip, it’s important to be prepared for a longer, hotter day than you may have anticipated. Strong shoes and sun-appropriate clothing is highly recommended – the heat of the Big Island’s southern side is exasperated by the vast lava fields you’ll be trekking across.
For evening/late afternoon journeys, it’s a wise move to pack an extra flashlight for everyone in your group. If you’re venturing via bicycle, the use of headlamps and bike-mounted flashlights is a must.
The National Park Service also recommends each person pack at least a gallon of water, closed-toe footwear, gloves, long pants to help protect against lava rock abrasions, sunblock, sunglasses, and headwear.
Hikers and cyclists should try and keep their backpacks as light as possible for day trips, as the heat and distance travelled can have a severe impact on one’s stamina throughout the day.
Directions and Operating Hours
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. The Kilauea Visitor Center is accessible via Highway 11 about 30 miles southwest of Hilo and is open daily between 9AM and 5PM.
The Jaggar Museum, which offers insight into the different types of lava flows, volcanoes, and the instruments by which scientists study past and present geographic events, is open daily between 10 AM and 8 PM. The attached overlook viewing platform is an ideal place to catch a glimpse of the plume and lava flow at the Halema’uma’u Crater.
General admission is available for each non-commercial vehicle for $25. Pedestrians and bicyclists can gain access to the park for $12. Each pass provides access for seven days.
Full-time residents or repeat visitors can buy the annual Hawaii Tri-Park pass, which provides year-long access to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, and the Haleakala National Park located on Maui. The pass is $30 and includes access for a single vehicle or the pass holder and their immediate family while travelling on foot via bicycle.
If equipped with a map, plenty of water, and an appetite for self-motivated fun, you’re welcome – and encouraged! – to check out the lava flows throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on your own. Depending on current conditions and safety restrictions, your access and proximity to lava viewing locations may be impacted. Before you head out, check the daily updates from the U.S.G.S. or call the park at (808) 985-6000.
Viewing the current flow at Kamukona brings with it two options for visitors: access from the east at Kalapana or from the west past the Holei sea arch. Either hike takes about 1.5-2 hours each way, but the emergency access road from the east side makes for an easier, faster trip via bicycle. Equipment rentals are available from the road, with the typical cost ranging from $15-25 and include a helmet, headlamps and flashlights, a first aid kit, and a bottle of water.
Ranger-led hikes to the main crater at Halema’uma’u are a daily occurrence, but if you want to see the terrain around the lava flows with a guide that can provide insightful background information on the history of the flows, a guided tour is your best bet. While you’re able to visit the flows on your own and without hiring a professional guide, the benefits of a guaranteed safe passage on a timetable may help ease your peace of mind.
You’ll be tagging along with a group should you go the tour guide route, but your guide will keep you moving in the right direction and make the best use of your time along the hike. Due to the nature of the lava flows and the near-constantly changing conditions, it’s not recommended you hire or book a guide more than a few days in advance.
Guided Lava Boat Tours
While current lava flows are entering the ocean, it’s possible to venture out onto the water and try to view the flows from a boat. A visit to the flows via the ocean provides a close viewing position, and the viewing angle is unique and perfect for photography.
Due to the safety zone set up by the U.S. Coast Guard, boats must remain 300 meters from the entry point. Furthermore, it’s recommended that visitors only choose safety-minded and licensed lava boat tour operators. The white plumes created by the entering lava create corrosive water droplets and generate combinations of toxic gasses – a poor way to end your Hawaii vacation, to say the least. Check with your tour operator to ensure they hold the proper license and training needed to keep you and your party safe on your lava boat tour.
Lava Helicopter Tours
If you have the resources and inclination (or hoping to get some aerial footage of the lava flows), a helicopter tour gets you closer to the action that isn’t as easily accessible via land or by boat. Taking off from either Kona or Hilo, your journey will take you over the crater lake, surface flows, and lava scorching tracts of forest. But the price for admission is fairly steep – most tours starting from Hilo, which is a shorter distance and therefore more affordable than those coming from Kona, start around $280 per person for about an hour of flight time.