Recent lava flows stretch out for miles in a rocky wasteland that more closely resembles the Moon than Earth. Huge waves send sea spray dozens of feet into the air along the wild, craggy coastline. Endangered birds waddle across the path on an ascent up the world’s largest single mountain. If the timing is right, catch a natural fireworks show of lava pouring into the ocean or of plumes of molten rock arching above one of the planet’s rare lava lakes.
Two celebrated volcanoes—one of them very tall, the other very active—frame this large national park. From glowing lava flows and earth-shaking tremors to wind, rain, and waves, the geological and meteorological forces that shaped our planet are fully on display on the Big Island. While volcanism rules the day, pockets of rainforest and grassland shelter rare Hawaiian flora and fauna.
“Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and caldron bubble.” Shakespeare could just as easily have been describing Hawaiian volcanoes rather than a witch’s brew in Macbeth. No other national park produces so much drama on a regular basis.
Erupting since 1983 and more than 4,000 feet high and still growing, Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It abuts the southeastern slope of the older and much larger Mauna Loa, or “long mountain.” Active for some 700,000 years, Mauna Loa towers 13,677 feet above the sea. Measured from its base 18,000 feet below sea level, it exceeds Mount Everest in height. Mauna Loa's gently sloping bulk—some 19,000 cubic miles in volume—makes it the planet's most massive single mountain.
The national park stretches from sea level to Mauna Loa’s summit. Beyond the end of the road lies Mauna Loa's wilderness area, where backpackers encounter freezing nights and rough lava trails amid volcanic wonders: barren lava twisted into nightmarish shapes, cinder cones, gaping pits. Kilauea, however, provides easy access to a greater variety of scenery and cultural sites.
On the slopes of Kilauea, whose name means “spreading, much spewing,” lush green rainforest borders stark, recent lava flows. This natural laboratory of ecological change displays all stages of forest regeneration—from early regrowth of lichens and ferns to dense forest. The rainforest on the windward side of Kilauea's summit gives way to the stark, windswept Kau Desert on the hot, dry southwestern slope. At the shore, waves create lines of jagged cliffs; periodic eruptions send fresh lava flows to meet the sea amid colossal clouds of steam.
Geological dynamism forms the park’s primary natural theme, followed closely by evolutionary biology. Thousands of unique species have evolved on the isolated Hawaiian islands. Cultural sites abound as well, reminders of the Polynesian pioneers who steered their great double-hulled canoes to Hawaii beginning some 1,500 years ago.
The United Nations has named the park both an international biosphere reserve and a World Heritage site. Many of the park’s intriguing native plants and animals, however, are in peril, defenseless against alien species including weedy invasive plants and feral pigs. The native species are carefully protected by the park, which has fenced the park’s borders off from feral pigs and taken efforts to eradicate invasive weeds.
Two outstanding auto routes provide easy access to the park’s main attractions. Crater Rim Drive hugs the edge of Kilauea Caldera and leads to viewpoints where visitors can gaze into the belly of the beast and inhale its pungent sulfur scent. Near the start of the route, the park Visitor Center offers exhibits and important safety information, as well as an excellent film, “Born of Fire, Born of the Sea.” (Click here for additional visiting tips.)
Across the road, Volcano House (1846) is one of the oldest lodges in the entire National Park System; the back terrace is a great place to get your first glimpse of the crater. Located in another historic structure, Volcano Art Center offers classes and workshops, a gallery dedicated to local artists, hula performances, and free guided hikes into the Niaulani rainforest.
Learn all about lava at the Jaggar Museum of volcanology and then watch magma exploding from Hale ma’uma’u Crater in the caldera from the terrace behind the museum. The pyrotechnic display is even more awesome after dark. Crater Rim Drive also leads to Kilauea Iki Crater and Nahuku Thurston Lava Tube, reached via a short hike through a forest of prehistoric fern trees.
Chain of Craters Road meanders 20 miles through tortuous volcanic landforms between Kilauea Caldera and Holei Sea Arch. Numerous places en route beg a stop, including lofty Kealakomo Overlook, the Martian-like landscape of Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu lava field, and the boardwalk trail that leads to the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs, where more than 23,000 images were rendered by native Hawaiians between 1200 and 1450.
Farther east along the coast is Kamokuna, where molten lava from Pu‘u ‘O‘o Crater sometimes reaches the ocean. The hot zone is best approached from Pahoa village (outside the park) with experienced guides from Active Lava Hawaiian Tours or similar outfitters. The hike normally takes around four hours (7 to 10 miles) over rough volcanic terrain. At times when the lava is flowing into the sea, Lava Ocean Tours runs boat excursions to the steamy entry point.
Reaching the summit of Mauna Loa is a herculean effort. A narrow, paved road ascends to a lookout point at 6,662 feet. The rest of the route is on foot, a 16-mile trail that quickly morphs from native woodland into lava rock wilderness. Most people undertake the trek over four days, with overnights in national park mountain huts.
The park’s other iconic backcountry hike is the Kau Desert Trail, a rugged 18-mile trek that leads from the trailhead off of Highway 11 across undulating lava fields to Hilina Pali cliffs and overnight campsites along the Pacific coast like Halape with its sandy beaches and coconut grove.
This article incorporates excerpts from the National Geographic books 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas and National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and was updated on July 15, 2019.