Exploring The Kilauea Volcano And Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea’s Halema‘Uma‘U Crater. From my Instagram.

I’ve always been fascinated with lava. I mean, who isn’t? It looks like glowing taffy. How cool is that? While there are countless volcanoes around the world, most are dormant or at the very least, don’t leak lava on a regular basis. My recent trip to Mount Etna was awesome, but there was no flowing lava.

Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and usually has plenty of lava to see. Though my recent trip to the Big Island was soured a bit by some tremendous amounts of rain, I did have a few days with legendary Hawaii sun to explore the amazing Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Though you can take guided tours, I didn’t so I can’t speak to how fun they are. I had a great time going at my own pace.

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Kilauea’s Halema‘Uma‘U Crater during the day.

Arriving via my rental convertible (because why not), the delightful park rangers helped me map out an itinerary. I was going to spend most of the afternoon and evening at the park, but they seemed to be able to help anyone with whatever schedule they had.

Kilauea’s Halema‘Uma‘U Crater from the Jagger Museum.

First stop was the Jagger Museum, perched atop the Halema’Uma’U crater. During the day this is an incredible view of a vast and desolate wasteland.

From here I drove back down toward the entrance, but turned right to head south. On advice from the ranger, I parked at the Kilauea Iki parking lot, and I’m glad did. Not only is it an amazing 10 minute walk down to the Thurston lava tube, it’s always WAY easier to park there than the Tube’s tiny lot.

Thurston lava tube
Kilauea Iki as seen from the short hike between its parking lot, and the Thurston lava tube.

Then it was a long and gorgeous drive down to the coast, passing multiple ancient craters and lava fields.

At one point, there was even a rainbow.

Rainbow over the lava fields. From my Instagram.

I had timed my drive perfectly, arriving at the seaside cliffs at sunset. Sadly, clouds obscured the setting sun, so my dreams of a picture-perfect sunset were dashed. Oh well. The sky still looked pretty epic, though.

A typically epic Hawaiian sunset.

I returned the way I came, arriving back at the Jagger Museum after dark. What a sight. The crater glows red from the lava below. Simply amazing.

The next day, though, I saw some ACTUAL lava…

Lava!

Though you can walk from the cliffs all the way to the lava fields, it’s a massive and strenuous hike. Unless you’re a fitness nut, don’t try it. Instead, drive out of the park, and around to the lava viewing area. I did this on my last day, and while I’m sure it’s easier than coming in the other way, it’s still not an easy trek.

More flowing lava. From my Instagram.

It’s about 4.5 miles on an unpaved road from the parking lot to the start of the trek across the lava fields. You can rent a bike, which is advisable. You can rent an electric bike, which seems even smarter (I wish I had). There also seemed to be shuttle buses, but these seemed a bit of a waste, since they only save you 10-20 minutes compared to biking there. Maybe they bring you down to where the lava was flowing into the ocean, but according to everyone I spoke to, it wasn’t doing that when I was there.

Lava at sunset. From my Instagram.

The buses, nor your bike, can help you with the hike. It was about an hour and a half across the undulating, crackling surface before I spotted some lava. Or more accurately, before I spotted the people who had spotted the lava.

Hot. And a bit creepy. From my Instagram.

And once again my timing was spot on, arriving at the lava right as the sun set. While impressive during the day, the glowing liquid rock takes on a whole new level of amazing at night. Seeing it in photos is one thing, seeing it in person is entirely different.

Watch your step! From my Instagram.

After a few hours with the lava, I started the slow hike back. While fairly arduous during the day, in the pitch-blackness of night it was particularly treacherous. Thankfully, there were a hundred or so people spread out across the field, many within shouting distance if anything happened.

Looks like a finger. From my Instagram.

I rode my bike back in the darkness, the flames of the earth behind me, the darkness of the world around me.

For more to see and do, check out the National Park Service’s Hawai’i Volcanoes website.

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