How to Spend a Day at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island

Woman standing in the middle of the dried lava bed of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Volcanoes National Park of Hawaii.

So you’re headed to Hawaii’s Big Island? I knew I liked you, I could just feel it. And while you’re there, you’re trying to decide if your Big Island itinerary should of a day at Volcanoes National Park, and I’m here to tell you it absolutely should. Volcanoes is enormously unique as it contains not only the world’s largest volcano – Mauna Loa – but also the world’s most active volcano – Kīlauea. In addition to this incredible volcanic activity, there are also so many different geological formations, historical artifacts, and ecological zones to see during your day in Volcanoes National Park of Big Island. And if you’re lucky you’ll go when there is active lava flow in the park! Well, that depends on your definition of luck.. but you get my drift, there’s a lot to do and see!

The Short Version

  • Explore Crater Rim Drive and visit the active section of the park
  • Drive Chain of Craters Road and stop at the key overlooks and sights as you head down to the ocean
  • Hiking in Volcanoes National Park via the Kīlauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail or one of the other unique trails
  • If time allows, take a drive on Mauna Loa Road
View of the solidified lava bed in the foreground with the ocean horizon in the background

The Long Version of Your Day at Volcanoes National Park in Big Island

Being an American national parks buff, a day at Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park was a non-negotiable itinerary item for me. I was a tad bummed Kilauea wasn’t active at the time I was there so I didn’t get to see any flowing lava, BUT it erupted just two weeks later! Which I think is super badass and would have loved to see but totally understand people being like, “oh thank god I wasn’t there for that” instead. ANYWAY let’s refocus from my lava rant, and get down to business about the other amazing things you can see during your day at Volcanoes National Park on Big Island!

Explore Crater Rim Drive

This is the area of the park where you’re going to see all the good, active volcano stuff you could ever want! There are massive volcanic craters, sulphur vents, and even a lava tube. We didn’t stop at every single overlook or viewpoint along the way because we were actually ending our day up here vs. starting with it, but I’d definitely recommend at least the following:

  • Kīlauea Overlook – absolutely stunning views of the enormous Kīlauea caldera and Halemaʻumaʻu crater
  • Kīlauea Iki Overlook – another massive crater view from the top and watch as people hike through the middle of it
  • Thurston Lava Tube – now, when we went this was not open but if on your day at Volcanoes National Park in Big Island it is open, you MUST visit
  • View the full list of stops here

Drive Chain of Craters Road

Another gorgeous drive to enjoy on your day in Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park is Chain of Craters Road. There may be certain areas of this road that are closed off due to previous lava flow, so definitely make sure to ask a ranger or check the Volcanoes alerts page before you depart. This road takes you all the way down to the coast, with amazing sights along the way. We spent some more time along this road and made so many stops with little mini hikes along the way, and these are the ones I’d for sure recommend:

  • Puhimau Crater
  • Pauahi Crater
  • Mau Loa o Maunaulu lava flow
  • Puʻuloa Petroglyphs
  • Hōlei Sea Arch
  • View the full list of stops here

Hiking in Volcanoes National Park; the Incredible Kīlauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail

There are MANY Volcanoes National Park hikes you could take, but I’m going to 1,000,000% recommend doing the Kīlauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail because that’s the one we did and it was… beyond incredible.

The hike starts from the overlook and then you hike down into the crater through a rainforest. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that type of environment at all but I didn’t and it was so unique to experience so many environments in a single hike.

You’ll hike down into the crater, hike across the entire thing, and then back up. It was SO cool walking across this massive lava lake and we probably could have spent an entire day there. The park ranger told us it was voted one of the best hikes in all of the US, and I have to agree. If you trust my recommendations and are physically able to do this moderate hike, you have to do it. Hiking in Volcanoes National Park is simply a must and this trail is a perfect way to do it.

Drive Mauna Loa Road

Like I mentioned, do this if time allows. We unfortunately did not, but if I had a couple more hours or hadn’t taken a wrong turn trying to find a trailhead, we would have done this too.

So there you have it – a guide to your day at the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park. It was one of the more unique days I’ve ever experienced and I had a blast exploring it. As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments and also check out my Big Island Instagram story highlights for a closer foots-on-the-ground review.


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