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Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Home to lush jungles, expansive backcountry, and earth's largest and most active volcanoes

Sep 21, 2016Words By Kelsey BoytePhotos By Boyte Creative
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"For me the balmy airs of Hawaii are always blowing, the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can feel the spirit of its wildland solitudes; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago."

Mark Twain

An Insider's Guide to

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte hero

Map illustration by Nicole Varvitsiotes

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is located on the Big Island, the island chain’s namesake Hawai’i. The park is most notably made up of two active volcanoes: Mauna Loa, the earth's largest at 13,678 feet; and Kīlauea, the island's youngest and smallest at 4,091 feet tall, yet the most active volcano on earth. Hawai'i Volcanoes encompasses the Kīlauea Caldera, Mauna Loa forests, Ka'u Desert, Olaʻa rainforest, and the Kalapana archaeological area of the Puna/Kaʻū Historic District. Half of the park’s 505 square mile territory is designated as Hawai’i Volcanoes Wilderness Area where the environment ranges from seacoast, desert wasteland, lush tropical rainforest, and alpine summit. 

As Mark Twain wrote on seeing Kīlauea in 1866: "Here was room for the imagination to work!"

Why Go Now

Is there ever really a bad time to go to Hawaii? Not in my book. Crowds are generally mild year round, but after Labor Day when the kiddos go back to school, you’re looking at ideal exploring conditions. Tropical storms occur year-round in the Pacific, but September and October tend to experience an uptick in spicy weather. Hurricane Madeline and Lester hit the big island earlier this month with strong winds and heavy rain. Stay tuned in to the weather forecasts and be ready to shift or postpone your plans. 

Within the park you’ll find seven ecological life zones including seacoast, lowland, mid-elevation woodland, rain forest, upland forest and woodland, subalpine, and alpine/aeolian. What does this mean? Extreme heat, humidity, rain, or freezing cold can strike at whatever region you find yourself hiking, camping, or driving. Average high temps hover around 83 degrees Fahrenheit, but remember, black lava acts like asphalt and can – and will – feel like you’re standing on the sun before long. 

Hawaii sits pretty 2000 miles away from the next continental landmass, meaning the the park plays host to an impressive array of endemic Hawaiian native species. Plants and animals can be viewed nearly year round. What you really want to know about is the lava, right? Kīlauea is a an active shield volcano with a hot eruptive history – its name alone means "spewing" or "much spreading" in the Hawaiian language, referring to its frequent outpouring of lava. That said, the Goddess Pele can be pretty finicky with the when/where with that “much spreading” gig. During our week at the park, the only region lava was actively flowing was in the Ka'u Desert which is, at the time of this writing, closed to the general public. But not even seven days after we left, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) reported active lava flow southeast of Puʻu ʻŌʻō, right where the picture below was taken. It’s a gamble. And that’s part of the magic of this place. 

What are some potential hazards I should be aware of in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

Volcanic fumes can at times be concentrated in certain portions of the park based on wind direction. Gasses from Puʻu ʻŌʻō and Halemaʻumaʻu can linger and become instantly hazardous to your health. Check the air quality monitor before you hike.

Walking along the cliffs on Crater Rim Drive are strongly discouraged. (I noted this AFTER the fact. Gulp.) Methane explosions occur in these areas with no notice. Unstable benches that build up into the sea, and upon which seem ripe for pause and selfie, are prone to collapse. Thin lava crusts can hide lava tubes, caves, hollows and holes into which hikers occasionally fall and are caught. Stay on the marked trails! 

As far as animal threats go, centipedes, scorpions, and black widow spiders are common in stone walls and rocky areas. Sea urchins and sharks are often seen on backcountry beaches. 

If you're lucky enough to see and approach active lava flow within the park, I think it goes without saying: NO TOUCH-Y. Lava flow can reach staggering temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Common sense, people. Wear smart footwear. Drink water. Stay back. 

Know Before You Go

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is unlike most national parks you may have visited in the past, and truly the beauty and grandeur of this place really cannot be translated in a photograph. Hawai'i Volcanoes holds its gravity in the nuance. It is both oasis and wasteland – but you need to be there for several days at a time to pick up everything in between. 

Due to the dynamic nature of this volcano, if you plan to spend time camping in the backcountry, you’ll need to obtain a permit. Permits are free, but must be obtained in person from the Backcountry Office at the Visitor Emergency Operations Center. The earliest you may obtain a permit is the day prior to your hike. Permits are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. You cannot reserve a permit in advance. A total of 16 hikers are allowed per night at Halape, ʻApua, Kaʻaha, Keauhou, Pepeiao, and Mauna Loa. Check in with the park rangers for the status and allowances for Nāpau

Rangers obtain your phone number and will call you if there is tsunami danger while you are in the backcountry. Make sure to call and "check out" with the backcountry office when you’ve completed your hike to help them account for visitor safety. 

What should I pack for my trip to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

Pack twice as many water vestibules than you usually do backpacking or camping if you plan to take it off road in the backcountry. There are no natural sources of potable water and although there are some water tanks stationed throughout the trail system, they are not reliably full when you need them. Travel with at least four liters of water per day per person. You won’t regret it.  

The rapidly changing climates and ecosystems mean you’ll be freezing and toasted all in the same hour. The whole-body effect of moving from scorched earth to lush, soaking rain forest is strong. Come prepared with a variety of clothing. 

Editor's Note: Here are the top five items we recommend stashing in your adventure duffel. 

Biolite KettlePotOpen fires are prohibited in the backcountry, so when it comes time to cook up dinner for the evening, we always turn to our trusty Biolite camp stoves and kettlepots. This all-in-one piece of gear is perfect for both boiling water for coffee in the morning or cooking a meal for two to four of your backpacking buddies. 

Danner Jag Boot. There's plenty of hiking to be done in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, which means you need a sturdy pair of shoes for all the miles you'll be covering. Danner consistently makes our favorite and longest-lasting pairs, like these waterproof Jag boots, made of suede and canvas, that look just as good at the market in Hilo as on the trail.

GORUCK GRI - 21L BagWhether you're biking the Chain of Craters road or exploring the coastline of 'Apua, you need a daypack that can handle all the different types of weather Hawai'i Volcanoes can (and will) throw at you. The GRI bag is made of military-grade, highly water-resistant materials that make it essentially bulletproof; houses a three liter hydration bladder; and has two rows of external webbing to stash your headlamp, energy bars, and a papaya or two.

United By Blue Classic BoardshortsSince it's basically illegal to go to Hawaii without taking at least one dip in the Pacific, make sure to pack a pair of United By Blue's classic boardshorts. These sport a traditional cut with modern functionality for every beach day on your trip. And for each pair purchased, the company removes a pound of trash from oceans and waterways around the world. That's what we call a win-win.

Bramble Outdoor Camp TowelFinally – a camp towel that will dry you off without weighing you down. Every ounce of weight matters when you're hauling it miles into the Hawaiian backcountry, which makes these eight ounces of quick-drying microfiber our go-to.

• Bonus: H20 Ninja Mask Full Face Snorkel Mask + GoPro MountSo you can explore the reefs and have photos for Instagram, too. The full face design lets you breathe naturally, while the GoPro mount makes it easy to capture stunning footage of the oceanic flora and fauna you’ll be scoping with the design’s wide-angle view.

Beat the Crowds

The best way to take in the essence of the park without the crowds is to camp in the backcountry beaches. Four are available and accessible by permit (and by foot) only. More on that later.

In our experience, the only place that I ever felt that ugh-people, Disneyland vibe was up at the Jagger Museum at sunset and after sundown. You will find everyone and their Auntie Cheryl there trying to peep a view at the crater bubbling and spewing hot lava from the lookout point. Pro tip: you can take in the same-ish view if you get after it in the morning before sunrise. 

What's the best way to get to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

There are two airports on the big island: Kona and Hilo. Hilo is less than 45 minutes from the park entrance to the Kona’s 90. I recommend flying into Hilo and spending a few days rounding up your last minute provisions and stocking up on mangoes and avocadoes at the farmers’ market. Hit up Big Island Booch/Conscious Culture Cafe for a hearty, healthy pre-park breakfast. If it’s cheaper to fly into Kona, load up on poke at Umekes before you head to the park.

Note that the main highway up to the park is the Ironman World Championship bike course. At some point along the 119 miles of the course, stop for a moment and take in the badassery via osmosis. Also note that traveling to the park through Kona the week before and after the October 8th race would put a real side-stitch in your plans (and wallet), if you catch my drift. Avoid if you can. 

Where should I stay in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park? 

There are three main approaches to staying in the park:

• Hotel it at the Volcano House.

• Tent camp or cabin-camp at the Namakanipaio campground.

• Camp in the backcountry with a permit. 

On the eve of our Halape trek, we opted for the Namakanipaio camper cabins so we could get up and go early the next morning. They come outfitted with firepits and, most notably, include access to the community bathroom and shower house. I’m no priss, but it’s nice to at least start backpacking with a smidgen of freshness. There are a dozen camper cabin units that can be reserved through Volcano House. The dozen or so traditional campsites are first-come, first-served. We noticed that some tour groups staked out half the sites. 

What’s the one shot I have to get in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park? 

Obviously, if there is active lava flow while you’re visiting, that's THE shot you’re there to get. That said, the old lava flow that passed over Chain of Craters road in 2003 is otherworldly. The way the lava curved, curled, and inflated on its long descent is stunning at all times and at all angles. It's worth a shot or two regardless.

What’s the secret shot I have to get in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

Maybe not so much a secret shot as it is illusive: a full rainbow. Hawaii, the rainbow state, is chock-a-block with these prismatic light occurrences, but there really is something unique about an arch where both ends are planted in the earth. We captured our secret rainbow shot on a misty evening at the Jagger Museum overlook – remember, that crowded place to avoid I mentioned earlier. Sometimes it’s good to break your own rules. 

What's the best way to get off the beaten path in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

The best way to really experience the nuance of Hawai'i Volcanoes is on the backcountry trails and secluded southern seacoast. If you’re in it to win it, try the whole beach circuit hiking and camping between Halape, ʻApua, Kaʻaha, and Keauhou. The trails are extremely hot and completely unshaded. It’s recommended that wilderness hikers pack a minimum of three to four liters of water per person per day. As mentioned previously, there are some untreated water catchments, but resources are not guaranteed. 

One of the more iconic backcountry experiences is at Halape beach. The hike to Halape is hot and dry through lava landscape and predominantly non-native grasses – expect grass cuts on your shins if you opt for shorts. The grueling trek rewards hikers with a stunning virgin beach and tidepools. Campers may pitch tents and camp directly on the small sandy beach in designated spots. The Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu via the Keauhou Trail accessed via Chain of Craters Road is the shortest trip: 8.4 miles, 16.8 round trip.  

Start early and enjoy a day lounging on the beach. Snorkeling in the tidepools is a must, so make it a priority to leave a little room in your pack for your Ninja Mask. Depending on the tides, you might be able to swim to a small rock island 200 meters or so off the coast. 

What’s the best day hike in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

The Crater Rim Trail provides a little bit of everything HVNP has to offer on this 11 mile loop around the Kīlauea crater with its steam vents, diverse scenic vistas, desert terrain, and lush rain forest. Shorter hikes to steam vents, petroglyphs, and more can be found here

What activities should I plan ahead of time in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

Our original game plan was to bike up/down Chain of Craters Road and then… we got there. It was SO windy. Like, insane winds, and I live in a part of Colorado that slings postcards at the local supermarket with the saying, “In Nederland it’s not a storm until a trailer chain can blow in the wind!” Not joking. We'd already rented road bikes, but ultimately decided not to get on them; we were way too jazzed about the backpacking portion of the trip starting the next day to risk getting thrown off our bikes 20 feet and land on spiky hot hardened lava. I’ve read that some days are basically less windy than others on Chain of Craters, so you can take your chances with that one. 

Where should I eat in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park?

The only restaurant within the park can be found at the Volcano House, and sit-down options around the park are limited. Whether you’re in the park for a single day, or several, my best suggestion is to pack a cooler full of fresh finds in Hilo or Kona and cook for yourself. [H]

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Hawai'i Volcanoes National ParkBy The Numbers

  • 500Acres of new land added to the island of HawaiiFrom the lava eruptions of Kilauea since 1983
  • 4,091Height in feet of KīlaueaThe most active volcano on earth
  • 150 Miles of trails in Hawai'i Volcanoes National ParkRanging from easy paved paths to backcountry treks
  • 29.2Miles from Hilo Airport to Hawai'i Volcanoes National ParkThat's 38 minutes in a car without traffic
  • 75-84Degrees FahrenheitAverage low and high temperatures in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in September
  • 2Campgrounds in Hawai’i Volcanoes National ParkNāmakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki
  • 505Square milesOf land in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
  • 1916Founding year of Hawai'i Volcanoes National ParkThe 13th national park in the United States
  • 1,500Years since the first Polynesian settlers arrived in HawaiiThey came across the Pacific Ocean in double-hulled canoes. Without Google Maps.
  • 33Volcanic eruptions of Mauna Loa since 1843Averaging one eruption every five years
  • 13,678Height in feet of Mauna LoaThe tallest volcano on earth
  • 1MangoEaten per day

Know Before You Go

  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go instagram.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1Give the official Instagram account of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park a follow before you catch your flight to Hilo. This will be your go-to source for updates on trail conditions, openings and closings, and where and when to view lava flows.
  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go snorkel.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1It’s just plain wrong to go to Hawaii and not get in the water. So be sure to pack your H20 Ninja snorkel mask, whose full-face design allows for natural breathing and wide peripheral views. Bonus: the GoPro mount on top makes it easier than ever to film your underwater adventures.
  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go pin.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1Swag.
  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go backpacking.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1By national parks standards, Hawai’i Volcanoes is almost empty. But if you really want to escape from the crowds, you need to lace up your hiking boots, strap on your pack, and take to the backcountry. Hike to Halape Beach for camping in the shade of a palm tree and snorkeling in tidepools – all to yourself. Just remember to bring four liters of water per person per day – there are no natural sources of fresh water along the trail.
  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go biolite.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1There aren’t many restaurant options in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, which is a great opportunity to brush up on your camp cooking skills. Stock up on fresh produce in Hilo or Kona before you head into the park, and use your Biolite stove and KettlePot to cook up hot dinners in the backcountry.
  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go flower.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1“…In my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.” Mark Twain
  • Huckberry insider's guide hawaii volcanoes national park kelsey boyte know before you go mark twain.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1In 1866, Samuel Langhorne Clemens – who had just recently adopted the pen name of “Mark Twain” – landed on the Hawaiian Islands, there to spend four months as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union, the most prominent newspaper on the West Coast. In Roughing It In the Sandwich Islands, Twain draws from the 25 articles he wrote during his time island-hopping, along with his own personal notes, to write an account of everything from life in old Honolulu to discovering the native sport of surfing to seeing for the first time the active volcano of Kilauea.
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