If there’s ONE thing to prioritize during your trip to the Big Island, make it a visit to Volcanoes National Park. Even though I’ve been to Hawaii several times, I am never not in awe of Hawaii’s active volcanoes.
In this guide, I’ll provide a list of things to do, best hikes, scenic drives, and tips so you can make the most of your visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Read on to discover how you can see the main attractions in just 1 or 2 days.
- Volcanoes National Park 1 Day Itinerary
- Volcanoes National Park 2 Day Itinerary
- Map of Best Things to Do in Volcanoes National Park
- BONUS! Catch the Sunset at Mauna Kea
- Drive from Volcanoes National Park to Mauna Kea
- When is the Best Time to Visit Volcanoes National Park?
- Where to Stay Near Volcanoes National Park
- How to Get to Volcanoes National Park
- Hilo to Volcanoes National Park
- Kona to Volcanoes National Park
- FAQs about Volcanoes National Park
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Volcanoes National Park 1 Day Itinerary
1. Stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center
All visits to Volcanoes start at the Kilauea Visitor Center. Here, you’ll find educational displays, films, and exhibits that go into the geology, history, and cultural significance of the park so you can fully appreciate its legacy. You’ll also find helpful information and park rangers who will provide tips on how to make the most of your visit based on your interests.
⌛ Time Spent: <30 minutes
📍 Address: Kīlauea Visitor Center
2. Hike the Kilauea Iki Trail
After the Visitor Center, start your day hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail. If you only have time for one thing at Volcanoes National Park, make it this hike. You’ll walk through lush rainforest, a barren lava field, and end with one of the best views of the volcanic landscape form Kilauea Iki Overlook.
You’ll want to make sure you start your day off with this hike as the parking is extremely limited and fills up quickly
🚶🏻♀️Distance: 3.3 mi
⏰ Duration: 2-3 hours
🥵 Difficulty: Moderate
📍 Address: Kīlauea Iki Trailhead
3. Explore the Thurston Lava Tube
Before heading back to the parking lot, make sure to stop by the Thurston Lava Tube. Located right at the start (or end) of the Kilauea Iki Trail, the Thurston Lava tube is a laval tunnel that was formed by flowing, molten lava. While it only takes about 10-15 minutes to walk through, the lava tubes are a great example of the volcano forces that have shaped the island.
⌛ Time Spent: <30 minutes
📍 Address: Thurston Lava Tube
4. See Top Sights Along the Crater Rim Drive
The Crater Rim Drive is the best way to see most of the stunning sights in a short amount of time. After visiting the Thurston Lava Tube, head over to the Kilauea Overlook for panoramic views of the active volcano and vast caldera below. Nearby, you can also visit the Halema’uma’u Crater, which legend says is the home of the Hawaiian goddess Pele (the goddess of fire and volcanoes).
If you have more time or are looking for more evidence of the park’s volcanic activity, you can also turn around and visit the Steam Vents at Wahinekapu and Ha’akulamnu Sulphur Banks.
For an even more immersive experience, consider hiking to the Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks. Both the Halemaumau Trail and Ha’akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) Trail are easily found by parking at the Kīlauea Visitor Center.
- 🚶🏻♀️Halemaumau Trail Distance: 1.6-2.6 mi roundtrip (trail begins at Volcano House, which is across the road from the Visitor Center)
- 🚶🏻♀️Ha’akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) TrailDistance: 1.2 mi round trip (trail begins at the Visitor Center)
5. Visit Volcanoes National Park at Night [2023 Kilauea Volcano Eruption: Ended]
If Kilaeua is erupting, one of the best things you can do is visit Volcanoes National Park at night to see the active lava flow. The NPS website has a live eruption camera that shows if there’s visible lava.
There are 3 main eruption viewing locations that offer great views of the lava. For the most recent 2023 Kilauea Volcano eruptions, I parked at Devastation Trail and hiked to the overlook near Keanakākoʻi Crater. This is an easy, 2-mile out and back hike on a well-paved road (great for hiking in the dark) with clear views of the lava lake.
Volcanoes National Park 2 Day Itinerary
One option for your second day in Volcanoes National Park is to follow the same itinerary as the 1-day itinerary mentioned above. If so, take your time to fully explore these areas, allowing for additional hikes, photo ops, and revisiting park highlights.
6. Head to the Ocean Along the Chain of Craters Road
If you’re making your way through Volcanoes National Park and you’ve already done the Crater Rim Drive, the Chain of Craters Road should be next on your list.
Map of Chain of Craters Road Highlights: Maunaulu / Pu‘uhuluhulu → Pu’uloa Petroglyphs → Hōlei Sea Arch
The Chain of Craters Road is 18.8 miles of spectacularly scenic road. Along the drive, you’ll find remnants of past eruptions with top highlights being the Maunaulu / Pu‘uhuluhulu hike, Pu’uloa Petroglyphs, and Holei Sea Arch.
⌛ While the drive is about 1-1.5 hours out and back, I’d recommend you allocate at least 4-5 hours and pack lunch. This will give you plenty of time for short hikes, photo ops, picnics, and additional stops along this absolutely gorgeous stretch of road.
Maunaulu / Pu‘uhuluhulu Hike
The Maunaulu / Pu‘uhuluhulu hike gives you the chance to see the landscape of the Big Island and glimpse into the various stages of volcanic formation. Along the route, you’ll hike through a lava field with dramatic views of fresh black rock and rolling green hills. From the summit of Pu‘uhuluhulu, you’ll get panoramic views of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai volcanoes as well as stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
The Pu’uloa Petroglyphs are one of the most culturally significant sites in Volcanoes National Park. Long ago, ancient Hawaiians carved over 23,000 images in the hardened lava fields to honor their gods, mark trails, and tell stories. You can see these etchings of people, circles, and other geometric shapes by hiking a little over a mile.
Hōlei Sea Arch
The last stop of the Chain of Craters Road is Holei Sea Arch. This 90-foot archway was formed by lava flowing into the ocean and stands as a testament to the ever changing landscape of Volcanoes National Park.
As I stood taking in the views of the arch and stunning coastline, I couldn’t help but think how much it reminded me of the jagged landscapes of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland. I absolutely love how places that are so far away can still feel strangely familiar and is one of my favorite things about traveling. You too can see this amazing lava formation for yourself before it eventually disintegrates into the sea.
📍 Address: Hōlei Sea Arch
Additional Things to Do in Volcanoes National Park
If you have more time, here are some other popular attractions in Volcanoes National Park:
- Devastation Trail – enjoy a simple hike along a paved trail and see how the land’s been recovering after being buried by the 1959 Kīlauea Iki eruption. We did this trail at night after driving from Kona to Volcanoes National Park to see the active lava flow.
- Puhimau Crater – an inhospitable, barren pit crater that you can stop at briefly as you drive along the Chain of Craters Road
- Kealakomo & Hilina Pali Overlooks – scenic point where you can look out to the Pacific Ocean while standing on land that’s been destroyed by volcanic activity
Map of Best Things to Do in Volcanoes National Park
BONUS! Catch the Sunset at Mauna Kea
After spending the better part of the day exploring Volcanoes National Park, I highly encourage you to drive to Mauna Kea for sunset and/or stargazing. At 13,803 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea summit is the highest point in Hawaii and an astronomer’s paradise. It is also the only place on the island where you truly need warm clothing.
Drive from Volcanoes National Park to Mauna Kea
It’s about a 2-hour drive from Volcanoes National Park to Mauna Kea Visitor Center. The road to Mauna Kea is called Mauna Kea Access Road off Highway 200.
There aren’t any large signs on the highway so be sure to look out for the access point (which is located near the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone Parking Lot). We left Volcano National Park by 3:30 so we’d have ample time to get to Mauna Kea summit for sunset.
⌛ Time Spent: 2 hours
📍 Address: Volcanoes National Park → Mauna Kea Observatory
Stop at Mauna Kea Visitor Center
Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is the official name of the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. It’s a mandatory stopping point en route to the summit. At the visitor center, you can use the restrooms, acclimate to the altitude, change into warm clothes, and give your tires a break. Spend at least 30 minutes at the Visitor Center to adjust to the altitude and learn about the cultural significance of the mountain.
⌛ Time Spent: 30 minutes
Wait for Sunset at Mauna Kea Summit & Observatory
It’s about a 30-minute, slow drive from Mauna Kea Visitor Center to the summit. Once you’re at the top, get comfortable as you witness one of the most stunning sunsets of your life. Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can see the sun dip below the clouds amidst volcanoes, mountain peaks, and telescopes.
⌛Time Spent: 1.5 hours
Tips for Visiting Mauna Kea Summit
If you are interested in visiting Mauna Kea – especially for sunset and for stargazing -, you will need to plan for the following ahead of time:
- Pack warm clothing – even in the summer, the average high on the top of Mauna Kea is 47°F. I understand it can be frustrating to pack bulky clothes for 1 thing but do not underestimate how cold it is. Pack long sleeves, thermals, and a rainproof jacket (which is always good to bring to Hawaii anyways).
- Rent an appropriate car – to drive up to the observatory, you will need a 4WD car or you will get turned around at the checkpoint. I’d recommend renting a 4×4 car just for the day because you don’t really need it anywhere else on the island. We rented a Jeep for the day through Turo that we were able to pick up near Volcanoes National Park, which was super easy.
- Book a tour – even with the proper car, the drive isn’t for the faint of heart. As someone who gets car sick and has a fear of heights, I 100% would have gone through a tour if I was a solo female traveler.
⭐ Best Tour: Mauna Kea Summit Sunset & Stargazing Trip with Photo through Hawaii Island Holidays has the best reviews. Other tour packages include similar highlights but this didn’t have as many negative reviews about cancellations, delays, and communication.
Do note that the weather can be unpredictable on the mountain, meaning tours can get canceled and visibility could be poor when you go up there. The tour is also not cheap and not refundable so that’s why my top preference is always try to figure out how to go on your own but this tour looks like a great option if you’re traveling solo.
When is the Best Time to Visit Volcanoes National Park?
The best time of year for hiking are the dry months between April and September, which will have better trail conditions and clearer views of the volcanic landscape. You’ll also want to get an early morning start as the park can get crowded and some parking lots can fill up before noon.
Of course, the coolest time to visit the park is when the volcano is actively erupting, which will allow you to see the park’s famous glowing lava. For that, you’ll need to keep an eye out on current news and the live lava cam.
Where to Stay Near Volcanoes National Park
While you can drive from Kona to Volcanoes National Park, I’d highly recommend staying in Hilo. It’s a little under an hour away from the Visitor Center but you’ll find cheaper and more accommodation options than around the park. Plus, Hilo is a major city so there will be more things to do after visiting the park, including eating some of the best food on the Big Island.
How to Get to Volcanoes National Park
Hilo to Volcanoes National Park
The closest town near Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is Hilo, which is about 45 minutes from the park. To get to the Visitor Center, you’ll start your drive on Highway 11 (also known as the Hawaii Belt Road) until you start seeing signs for the park.
Kona to Volcanoes National Park
You can also drive to Volcanoes from Kona if you’re planning on staying in Kailua-Kona for your whole trip or if you’re coming straight from the airport (like me!).
The drive from Kona to Volcanoes takes about 2 hours without any stops, though I’d recommend savoring this drive which includes fantastic stops like Kealakekua Bay.
FAQs about Volcanoes National Park
2 days is ideal to give you plenty of time to enjoy your park visit, do some hiking, see lava, and have flexibility in your trip depending on the weather. It is possible to see the top highlights in 1 day but you’ll be limited to things around Crater Rim Drive unless you get an early start.
Yes! It’s definitely doable to see the main highlights along the Crater Rim Drive in one day and you might even be able to squeeze in the Chain of Craters Road if you’re staying in Hilo.
The two main roads that go through Volcanoes National Park are the Crater Rim Drive and the Chain of Craters Road. The Crater Rim Drive can be driven in about an hour, while you’ll want to budget at least 2 hours for the out-and-back trip on Chain of Craters Road.
100% yes. It’s one of the best things to do on the Big Island and allows you to get up close (safely) so you can see how one of the most active volcanic systems in the world continues to shape this state.
No. The active volcanoes that make up the heart of Volcanoes National Park are Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
Volcanoes National Park Itinerary: Final Thoughts
Volcanoes National Park is a must-visit for anyone considering a trip to Hawaii. Whether you’re planning 1 or 2 days in the park, the best place to start your day is at the park entrance near the Visitor’s Center and gift shop. And don’t forget to get an early start so you can get to popular sites like the Kilauea Iki Trail before the parking lot gets filled.
No matter how you choose to spend your time, I know you’ll have a great time exploring one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
As usual, feel free to leave comments if you have any questions & I will always reply 😊