It’s spring break time and we’re enjoying a wonderful ten days on the beautiful island of Hawaii right now. It’s my second time in the state of Hawaii and my first time on the Big Island and I’m loving it so far. While I love warm weather destinations, I’m not really into beaches or lying around in the sun; I’d rather be out exploring. And while Hawaii does have beautiful beaches and lots of sun, it also has historic sites, gardens, waterfalls, amazing marine life and, best of all, real active volcanoes!
Yesterday, we packed up right after breakfast and left our condo on the western side of the island to head out to Volcano National Park. It’s a bit of a drive, but the road crossing the centre of the island has recently been improved and it only takes about two hours to get from the Waikoloa resort area to the entrance of the national park. Along the way you cross from the dry, scrubby western slope, over the mountain pass and down into the lush tropical forests of the eastern side of Hawaii. A steep drive up another mountain from the coastal city of Hilo brings you the the entrance of Volcano National Park, where you pay an entrance fee of $10 per vehicle to access the park.
There is a visitor centre near the entrance that has a small exhibit on the natural flora and fauna of the region as well as a theatre playing various short movies about Hawaii’s volcanoes. The centre itself is small and a bit dated, but the rangers are amazing and will take their time to answer questions and tell you all about the activities in the area. I had heard about something called the Junior Ranger Program for young kids and I didn’t know what to expect, but if you’re ever in a National Park in the United States I’d highly recommend it. My kids were given a colouring book to work on, and when they came back with their completed books a ranger sat down with them and went through each book. They were each given a little ranger’s badge and a small poster and had a certificate stamped and dated. The ranger really took her time with them and they felt pretty proud about it. I will definitely be checking out the Junior Ranger Program in any other National Parks I visit in the future.
From the visitor centre we headed out on the Crater Rim Drive. This used to circumnavigate the entire rim of the volcano, but about half has been closed for several years due to high levels of volcanic gases. You can go as far as the Jagger Museum which has a small display and a viewpoint overlooking the smoking crater. Once again, the site is a bit underwhelming, but the rangers are extremely friendly and helpful. In this area of the park we also did a hike of about 1 1/2 km that took us past sulphur banks and steam vents. I was actually a bit alarmed at how close you could get to the deep pits with steam billowing out and I kept a close eye on the kids along this path.
After coming to the end of the Crater Rim Drive, we backtracked past the visitor centre and drove down to the Chain of Craters Road. This road winds down to the coast, going from lush fern forests near the rim down past the moonscape scene left by recent lava flows on the volcano’s slopes. The road used to go along the coast, but in 2003 it was buried in a flow of lava and now the end of the road is an attraction in itself. You can get out of your car at the end of it and walk to where the hardened lava has covered the road, complete with road signs partially buried in the flow. It’s a surreal site and makes a great photo op, as well as a chance to show the kids the destructive power of the lava.
Our next stop was the Thurston Lava Tube, on the way back to the crater. You walk down a steep jungle trail and into a damp, well lit rock tunnel left by the cooling lava. It’s quite a cool experience, although I don’t know if the kids really understood my explanation of how it was formed. They enjoyed splashing in the puddles on the ground along the way, though.
At this point we had seen a lot of hardened lava and steam billowing up from the volcano and had learned a lot about the geology of the area, but we hadn’t seen any flowing lava or dramatic eruptions like we’d seen in the movies and pictures. The rangers told us that there was no lava flowing in the park that could be viewed at the time. However, we’d been told that if we stayed until after dark we would be able to see the glow of the lava from the bottom of the crater at the Jagger Museum overlook. Even though we were tired from a long day of hiking and exploring we decided to stay just a bit later to get a glimpse and we weren’t disappointed. As soon as the daylight began to fade, the smoke from the crater began to reflect the red light from the lava lake at the bottom and glow with a beautiful red glow. It finally looked like a “real” erupting volcano and the kids were happy to be able to leave after seeing the volcano “erupt”.
It was a very long day and we arrived home after a two hour drive with two very tired little children. I had considered spending a night near the park in order to spread our visit out over two days, but doing it as a day trip worked out well. There is a hotel that’s right on the rim of the crater as well as several places to stay in the nearby village of Volcano that would make it easy to spend the night if you wanted to. We just found that with a condo rental it wasn’t really possible to break up the stay to spend the night somewhere else. If you wanted to do some of the longer hikes you probably couldn’t do it in a day from the west coast of the island, but we were able to do pretty much everything we wanted and still make it back that same day.
If you’re ever on the Big Island of Hawaii, Volcano National Park is a great destination that shouldn’t be missed. And my family now knows that just because we’re going somewhere warm and sunny it doesn’t mean we’ll be relaxing in the sun all day. But I’m pretty sure they knew that already!