Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have the opportunity to experience firsthand just how powerful and awe-inspiring our planet can be. The park allows travelers to get up close and personal with Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, two of the most active volcanoes in the world. These fearsome peaks continue to shake, rumble, and spew ash and lava in an impressive display of how Pacific islands form and grow.
Spread across 344,000 acres, the park’s boundaries stretch from the black-sand beaches of the island of Hawaii up to 13,680 feet above sea level. This makes it an environment that is unlike any other on Earth, which is why it draws more than a million visitors on an annual basis. It should be on your must-visit list when visiting the 50th state.
Why Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The roads inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can be narrow and twisting, which doesn’t make it very RV-friendly at times. That said, the park is very accessible to a Class B camper van, which can serve as an excellent base camp while exploring the landscapes there. This is especially true if you want to reach some of the more remote areas where you can get up close to flowing lava.
Unless you live on the island of Hawaii, you probably won’t be bringing your own RV along for the trip. Instead, you can explore options for renting one locally. This can be a fun and rewarding way to explore the region, including areas beyond the park itself.
When to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The park is open year-round, but occasionally some sections are closed due to volcanic activity. Before setting out for a visit, it is always a good idea to check the National Park Service website for updates. Additionally, the weather conditions within the park can vary greatly based on location.
It is not uncommon for it to be hot and sunny at sea level and chilly and blustery at higher elevations. Mists often form above 4,000 feet, and temperatures at the summit of Kīlauea can be 12 to 15 degrees cooler than at the base. Bring a jacket and be prepared for wind and rain.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Spring
Spring is a warm and wet time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Daytime temperatures are typically in the upper-60s and low-70s, with overnight lows falling to around 50ºF. At this time of the year, the park can be rainy more often than not, which keeps crowds to a minimum but limits visibility. If you plan to go hiking, bring waterproof shoes and a rain jacket.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Summer
During the summer months, the rains recede somewhat as temperatures and humidity begin to rise. Expect average highs to reach the upper-70s and low-80s most days, with the mercury dropping into the upper 50s overnight. This is the driest time of the year in the park, but rain still occurs regularly. Summer is also the busiest time of year for visitors, so expect crowded roads and trails with occasional delays.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Fall
Rainfall in September remains relatively low, but by October and November, it increases dramatically. Temperatures drop into the low-70s during the day and mid-50s at night. Early autumn tends to be a busy time in the park, but things quiet down as the season wanes. By late October and early November, there are fewer visitors, especially during weekdays.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Winter
Winter is the quietest time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as the wet season runs from December into March. During this time, there are more rainy days than dry ones, although temperatures usually remain comfortably in the upper-60s during the day and low-50s at night.
On rare occasions, the temperature can drop below freezing in the winter, particularly at altitude. When that happens, the summit of the volcanoes may get a dusting of snow.
Where to Stay
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has two campgrounds within its boundaries. Both are accessible by car, but neither has water or electrical hookups. Neither of the locations offers RV-only campsites, and most aren’t big enough to accommodate a large motorhome or travel trailer.
Most sites do have room for a camper van, although most visitors elect to stay in a tent. The two onsite campgrounds are:
- Nāmakanipaio Campground – This campground has restrooms and water with drive-in sites and a few rustic cabins for rent. It is operated by Hawaii Volcanoes Lodge Company, and reservations can be made online or by calling 844-569-8849. The maximum stay is seven days.
- Kulanaokuaiki Campground – This campground has nine designated sites, a pit toilet, picnic tables, and tent platforms. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis. You can pay the nightly fee at the campground’s self-registration station upon arrival.
Staying Outside the Park
The Big Island has plenty of resorts and hotels to stay at while visiting, and travelers frequently use a homestay rental—such as Airbnb—while there. But if you do rent an RV on your trip, the options for campgrounds outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are somewhat limited.
Here are a few to choose from:
- Camp Ho’okena: Located about 64 miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Camp Ho’okena is a beachside campground with plenty to offer. In addition to outdoor showers, toilets, and picnic tables, the campsite has an onsite concession stand with hot food, ice, and other supplies. The park offers Wi-Fi for an additional fee.
- Mahukona Beach Campground: This campground has 22 sites and an onsite bathhouse with restrooms and hot showers. There aren’t many other amenities, but the ocean views are great, and swimming is permitted. Reservations can be made online, but Mahukona is about two hours and twenty minutes from the national park.
- Spencer Beach Park: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about a two-hour drive from Spencer Beach. The campground has basic amenities, including toilets, showers, and onsite Wi-Fi. The beach campsites are lovely, and the park closes its gates each night to provide an extra layer of security. Reservations can be made online.
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Tips for Your Camping Stay
If you’re camping in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, here are a few tips to improve your stay:
- If you’re camping at Kulanaokuaiki, bring plenty of drinking water. The campsite doesn’t provide fresh water, so you’ll want to have plenty on hand for drinking and cooking.
- Campfires are not permitted at Kulanaokuaiki, but you can have a fire in a BBQ pit at the Nāmakanipaio campground.
- No reservations are needed for Kulanaokuaiki, but the nine campsites fill up fast. Since this is a first-come, first-serve campground, head to the location early to nab a spot.
- The standard national park entry fee is required for staying at either campground.
How to Get Around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the big island of Hawaii, approximately 30 miles from Hilo. The park is accessible via Highway 11 from Hilo to the northeast and Kailua-Kona 96 miles to the northwest. Transportation is needed when visiting Hawaii Volcanoes, as the park has no central transportation system. Most visitors rent a vehicle at Hilo International Airport upon arrival.
The park headquarters lies just off Highway 11, where the first of two roads within the park start. Crater Rim Drive takes visitors around the rim of the Kilauea Crater, and Chain of Craters Road extends from Crater Rim into the rest of the park, including all the way to Holei Sea Arch and the Pacific Ocean.
Places to Go
With a park as large and diverse as Hawaii Volcanoes, there are several amazing places to visit. Here are a few that you should have on your list when you visit:
Kilauea Visitor Center
Located at the entrance to the park, the visitor center has trail information, a bookstore, and a theater that shows a film that provides insights into the natural and geologic history of the region. It is also a great place to connect with park rangers and get the latest information on road closures and weather conditions.
Originally a thatched-roof structure where food was sold to visitors in the 1840s, the Volcano House is now a set of buildings that operate as a hotel on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. The original building—which dates back to 1877— still stands on the ground and now serves as the Volcano Art Center.
Crater Rim Drive
Beginning at the visitor center, this scenic route allows travelers to spot steam vents, craters, shield volcanoes, and the remnants of previous eruptions around the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. The road is 38 miles long and can take some time to traverse during the busier season.
Chain of Craters Road
Branching off Crater Rim Drive, the Chain of Craters Road takes travelers to several volcanic craters that have experienced recent venting and eruptions. Only 19 miles long, the road traverses lava fields before ending at the coast. There, visitors can spot the Holei Sea Arch, which was cut by flowing lava. At times, the Chain of Craters Road itself has been covered in lava, which is evident while en route.
Puapo‘o Lava Tube Tour
Take a ranger-led tour through tropical forests and go inside a lava tube. Because of the fragile nature of the tube, no children under the age of 7 are allowed. Tours are held once a week, and reservations are required at least a week in advance.
Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
Located along Chain of Craters Road, Pu’u Loa has more than 23,000 petroglyphs created over the past 500 years by local Hawaiians who believe the area is sacred. Visitors can join a ranger-led tour into the lava fields to discover the stories of these drawings and to examine the indigenous artwork for themselves.
The Kahuku Unit
The Kahuku Ranch has been a working cattle farm on the flanks of Mauna Loa for more than 150 years. The landscapes offer an unexpected dichotomy, offering a prairie-like environment that has been scarred by endless volcanic activity. The ranch is a great place to take a hike and soak in the beautiful vistas.
ʻIke Hana Noʻeau
Meaning “Experience the Skillful Work,” these daily programs showcase experienced craftsmen, talented performers, and experts in dozens of fields. All share the cultural arts of Hawaii with visitors to the park. Programs are held at the Kilauea Visitor Center and are extremely educational and entertaining.
Things to Do
Outdoor activities abound in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here are a few of the most popular options for visitors:
The park is home to several popular hiking trails, most of which are perfect for day hikes. These treks allow visitors to experience the volcanic activity in a more personal way. These are some of the most popular options:
- Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) – Hot steam vents and colorful mineral deposits are a few of the highlights on this hike, which is an easy 1.2 miles in length.
- Kīpukapuaulu – Hike for 1.2 miles through old-growth forests to see some of Hawaii’s rarest plants and insects on this loop trail which generally takes about an hour to complete.
- Devastation Trail – Walk a paved path through a cinder landscape from a recent eruption to see how flora and fauna have recovered. This easy walking route is just one mile in length and is accessible by wheelchair.
- Crater Rim Trail – A fascinating hike around the summit caldera of Kilauea exposes visitors to gasses and steam while passing through lush tropical forests that overlook desert landscapes. This is another easy walk with several branching paths.
- Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube) – This 1.5-mile roundtrip hike takes travelers on a moderately difficult trek through the rainforest and into a lava tube. The interior of the tube is illuminated from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM each day, offering a fascinating glimpse at what lies beneath the surface of the park.
- Mauna Ulu – Hike up a forested cinder cone to view an eruption fissure, then enjoy a panoramic view of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes. This trail features some vertical gain near the end of its 2.5-mile length, which makes it moderately challenging.
- Kīlauea Iki – Those looking for a more challenging hike should head to the Kīlauea Iki trailhead. On this path—which varies in length depending on where you start—trekkers descend more than 400 feet through the rainforest to reach a solidified lava lake. There, the volcanic vent that erupted steam, lava, and ash 1900 feet into the air in 1959 still looms ominously.
Backcountry hiking can offer amazing experiences, but because some of the trails are overgrown and do not have recognizable cairns, it is advised that only experienced hikers embark on a backcountry adventure. Here are a few hikes that will take visitors to some stunning overnight destinations:
- ‘Apua Point – Leaving from the Puna Coast trailhead, this hike travels over mostly smooth lava for 6.6 miles down to the coast. Tent sites are located under three coconut trees, creating a serene place to rest for the night. The water here is quite shallow, but due to strong riptides, swimming is not advised.
- Halape – This hike can be hot and grueling, but the stunning destination at the end makes it worth the effort. Located eight miles from the Hilina Pali Overlook, the trail ends at a small black sand beach where you can pitch your tent beneath coconut trees for some well-deserved shade.
- Mauna Loa – If staying overnight on the side of a volcano sounds enticing, this hike is for you. The trek to the summit is a rite of passage for adventurous travelers, although it’s not easy. The mountain is over 13,000 feet tall, making altitude sickness a considerable risk. If you embark on this hike, be prepared for weather extremes, as conditions can vary greatly at different altitudes.
After Dark in the Park
The Kilauea Visitor Center hosts various speakers, bands, and activities for park visitors every Tuesday night. Travelers can listen to scientists tell stories about recent eruptions and listen to local musicians sing songs about local myths and legends. This is a great opportunity to learn about island customs and history.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
Before traveling to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, here are a few things you should know:
- Visitors who aren’t accustomed to high elevations should take care when visiting the national park. Elevations in the park extend above 13,000 feet, which can cause shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea. Altitude sickness is a real concern, so take it slow and don’t over-exert yourself, especially when hiking.
- As noted multiple times, the weather inside the park can change quickly. To stay comfortable, bring a rain jacket and an extra layer for warmth.
- If you plan to go tent camping while in the park, be sure to bring a shelter with a good rain fly. This will help keep you warmer and drier when unexpected storms roll in.
- The park is open 24 hours a day but is busiest between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Use that knowledge to your advantage when planning your activities. For instance, the Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube) trail is one of the more popular hikes in the entire park, but you can avoid the crowd by arriving early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
- Even if you’re camping outside of the park, plan on staying after dark. On a clear day, the sunsets over the ocean are amazing, particularly from the summit of Kilauea Volcano. And after the sun goes down, the stargazing is top-notch.
- If you’re an early riser, head to the summit of Kīlauea to take in the sunrise. It is an epic sight as well. Binoculars are a smart addition if you’re into identifying tropical birds on your hike.
- Cell service can be spotty inside the park and outside of the visitor center, and Wi-Fi is not available. A cell signal booster could be helpful, but you’ll probably need to share Instagram photos and TikTok videos after your visit.
Brief History of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Located on the Big Island, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park comprises more than 344,000 acres of wilderness, tropical forests, deserts, and two major volcanoes. Kilauea and Mauna Loa were considered sacred homes of the Hawaiian goddess Pele, and as such, the volcanoes became places for human sacrifice to that goddess.
As recently as 700 years ago, a temple was built for that purpose. The structure stood for centuries but was destroyed by a lava flow in 1997. In 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to visit the Hawaiian islands. He and his men were struck by the beautiful landscapes and warm tropical weather they found there.
Despite the veritable paradise they discovered, it would take another 40 years before outsiders began to visit more frequently and in greater numbers. Protestant missionaries arrived there in the early 19th century, eventually bringing an influx of other settlers in their wake.
By 1840, the region that would become Hawaii Volcanoes National Park had become a tourist destination. It was then that an enterprising individual constructed a building in the region to sell food, drinks, and other supplies to visitors.
Eventually, a permanent structure that became known as the Volcano House was built on the rim of Kilauea and its Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. It later became a hotel with several supporting buildings. Lorrin Thurston was an early investor in the Volcano House and became the driving force behind establishing a national park there.
To drum up support, he printed editorials favoring the measure in his newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser. In 1907, the Hawaiian territorial government coerced 50 congressmen and their wives to visit the park to experience it for themselves.
Naturally, they were charmed by the local indigenous people, the beautiful landscapes, and the warm weather. After 9 years of haggling over boundaries, costs, and landowner opposition, Hawaii National Park was officially created in 1916.
Even though Hawaii wouldn’t be admitted to the Union until 1959, it was now home to the seventh national park in the country. Two years later, it was renamed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park after it became independent of Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui.
Have you been to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Share your experience and advice in the comments below.
Shelley Dennis is a travel photographer and writer who threw caution to the wind and gave up most of her belongings to travel the country in an RV. Her trusty sidekick for this lifetime adventure is her Golden Retriever, Sully. You can find them both at www.PhotoTrippingAmerica.com