National Parks on the Big Island of Hawaii – Lava and History

categories: USA Travel

Two park rangers stood between me and the lava that was flowing in my direction. They were there to make sure that no one did anything stupid… as if just standing in front of flowing lava was not stupid in and of itself. I was at Volcanoes National Park which is one of the most singular experiences that you can have in a US National Park.

Lava at Volcanoes National Park

Lava at Volcanoes National Park

Pu’u O’o is an active volcano vent on the Kilauea volcano that has been erupting continuously since January 3rd of 1983. Much of the time the lava that issues from this vent flows in underground lava tubes and is visible only when it crashes into the ocean in a spectacular pyrotechnic display. But if you are lucky… so very very lucky… when you’re visiting Volcanoes National Park there might be surface flow. We were that lucky once.

hiking across old lava flows

hiking across old lava flows

We parked at the end of Chain of Craters Road. This road used to be a through road on this part of the island but has been covered with lava since 2003. The local towns of Kalapana and Kaimu were also covered with lava. Armed with a flashlight and good walking shoes we arrived at the end of the road near the end of the day. The best time to see lava is in twilight and early evening. Our visit to walk to where the lava flow was active was about a mile over the uneven surface of previous flows. The National Park Service had mapped out what we hoped to be a safe route.

We arrived at the spot where lava was slowly flowing down the hill towards us. The kind of stupid things the Rangers were protecting against, they told us, included people poking 1500° lava with the stick and accidentally flinging it at their friends. This is something they try and avoid. While we stood and watched the lava flow a soft rain started. No problem. We just stepped one step closer to the incredibly hot lava and dried off in no time.

If you are fortunate enough to have a surface flow, you should also bring a tripod so you end up with better pictures than I did.

Kilauea caldera

Kilauea caldera

Even if your visit to Volcanoes National Park is not as fortuitous as ours the park is still definitely worth a stop. The 11 mile long Crater Rim Drive circles the Kilauea volcano caldera.

Pele's Tears

Pele’s Tears

Keep a sharp eye on the ground for Pele’s tears, these are drops of lava that cool before they hit the ground into a teardrop shape that the Hawaiians thought was from the Goddess Pele from whom all lava flowed.

path to the Thurston Lava Tube

If you want to see more evidence of volcanic activity you can also tour the Thurston lava tube which is off the Crater Rim road. The lava tube is a cave was created by hot lava 500 years ago. It is no longer filled with hot lava and has been reclaimed by the local rainforest. The tour is a 20-minute self-guided tour. The entrance portion of the cave does have lights but the more adventurous might want to bring a flashlight to explore a little further.

Best Named U.S. National Park

Best Named U.S. National Park

There are two other National parks on the Big Island, both of which focus on Hawaiian culture. The first of these is the best named of all US National Parks, the Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. This park preserves a sacred place of refuge. It is a wonderful peek into the story of the native Hawaiians that my kids enjoyed when they were in late elementary school.

The last park on Hawaii is Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site. A heiau is a temple but it looks, to my untrained eye, like a pile of stones. I found this park to be long on cultural significance but less approachable for a haole like me.

National Parks on the Big Island of Hawaii - Lava and History

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by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

2 Responses to “National Parks on the Big Island of Hawaii – Lava and History”

John Emmanuel Cruz


Wow, that trip was sure fun! I may not be as fortuitous as you (watching the flowing lava) but I feel like I was already there while reading your post;) Thanks for sharing dude!

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