Planning a Hawaii Volcanoes National Park itinerary is one of the top things to do when mapping out a trip to Hawaii. No visit to the Big Island of Hawaii is complete without one day in Volcanoes National Park.
The park spans about 523 square miles and is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world while Mauna Loa is the world’s largest shield volcano. During your visit to Volcanoes National Park, you’ll explore the lush and diverse ecosystems created by volcanoes.
In this article, we’ll detail everything you need to know about getting to and around the park as well as the perfect Volcanoes National Park itinerary. Let’s jump in.
How Many Days in Volcanoes National Park?
You’re most likely visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as part of a larger Big Island itinerary. However, you might still be wondering how much time do you need at Volcanoes National Park? Most visitors would recommend one to two days.
In one day, you can drive the main roads inside the park and catch its major highlights. If you stay the night nearby, you can also opt for a tour after dark for stargazing and seeing bright orange lava flow.
With a little extra time, you can check out more of the park’s trails or head out toward the coastline to find unique rock formations from volcanic eruptions long ago.
The itinerary below is ideal if you have one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ve also included some suggestions for places to check out if you have a little more time to spare.
Getting To & Around Volcanoes National Park
It’s best to visit Volcanoes National Park as a day trip from Hilo or a smaller town just outside the park. The drive from Hilo to the park entrance takes about 45 minutes though you can also stop here on the way from Kona to Hilo.
If you’re staying in Kona, a day trip into the park is a long day, with nearly two hours of driving on either end. However, if you want to make a day of visiting the Southernmost Point in the United States or the black sand beaches on the southern tip of the Big Island, this route works well.
There is one entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and three main roads to get around, which makes navigating the park easy. A 7-day pass for one vehicle is $30, unless you already have an America the Beautiful Pass for $80 per year.
While there are tours such as this small group tour and this private tour from both Kona and Hilo, it’s ideal to have your own vehicle. Odds are you’ll rent a car for at least a portion of your Big Island visit, so try to time your tour of Volcanoes National Park accordingly. You can browse Rentalcars.com to compare car hire prices.
There is lodging available in the park, but it tends to be more expensive than staying outside it – Hilo makes an excellent base. However, if you’re doing a night tour, spending one night inside the park might be desirable.
1 Day in Volcanoes National Park Itinerary
A Volcanoes National Park day trip is full of highlights to fill your camera roll. Make sure to take your time exploring the park — it’s truly loaded with natural wonders that you’ll see in few other places.
Stop at the Volcanoes National Park Visitors Center
Because of where you enter the park, you’ll most likely stop at the Kilauea Visitors Center. It’s right next to the entrance and it’s highly recommended you stop in upon arrival.
The Visitor Center has educational displays covering the geological history of the land. Between interactive exhibits, short movies, and artefacts, it’s a great way to welcome yourself to the national park.
Here, you can also check in with park rangers to see which parts of the park are open or closed. Due to its being an active volcano, you might encounter periodic closures or reroutes due to volcanic activity.
See the steam vents and sulphur banks
You’ll stop at the sulphur banks first. They are a short hike from the Visitor Center. It’s a loop trail — one mile out and back route from the Visitor Center parking lot.
Make sure you stay on the trail, especially as it changes to an elevated boardwalk, because volcanic gases and liquids rise from the surface. As you begin to smell rotten eggs, you’ll know you’re quickly approaching the sulphur banks.
The steam vents are located a few-minute car ride away from the Visitor Center. Head down the Crater Rim Road to stop near Steaming Bluff. You’ll quickly spot the large holes in the ground where steam spills out. There is a metal railing that surrounds the vents. Like the sulphur banks, it smells terrible here.
Check out Kilauea from the overlook
Once you’re back to the car, drive west along the Crater Rim Drive until you reach the Kilauea Overlook. The volcano started erupting again as recently as 2021. It’s easy to spot steam rolling up from the crater.
Here is one of the places where you can see the “night glow” of lava after dark. This is one of the most impressive sights you’ll see in the park. If you want a closer look, consider bringing a pair of binoculars.
Note that most of the Crater Rim Drive isn’t open to visitors at this time (July 2023), so you’ll have to turn back from the overlook to head toward your next destinations for your one day in Volcanoes National Park.
Visit the lava tree molds
Lava tree molds form when lava from an eruption gathers around the trunks of trees, destroying the tree and leaving behind a hardened mold of the plant.
Over time, these columns of solidified lava have become staples of the landscape, and offer visitors a glimpse into the landscape that existed before the volcano’s major eruptions.
The most impressive tree molds are near Highway 11 on the Mauna Loa Road.
Hike Devastation Trail
If you’re to do one or two shorter hikes in Volcanoes National Park, make sure one is the Devastation Trail. This short and paved trail crosses the lava field created from the 1959 Kilauea eruption. You’ll see first-hand how natural spaces start to recover after such cataclysmic events.
Keep an eye out for unique lava features like spatter effects and small glass-like lava called Pele’s hairs and tears.
You’ll park at the Devastation Trail trailhead located near the turn-off for the Chain of Craters Road. The trail itself is easy. It’s wheelchair and stroller accessible as it’s an entirely paved trail. It’s a short one-mile round-trip hike, but make sure you bring proper walking clothes and shoes.
A hat to protect yourself from the sun and sunscreen is also highly recommended. There is little-to-no shade along the route and it can be hot, dry, and windy depending on the time of day you visit. Doing the hike in the morning, when it’s cooler temperatures and fewer hikers, could be a good option.
Walk through the Thurston Lava Tube
The Thurston Lava Tube is hands-down one of the highlights of a Volcanoes National Park itinerary. This underground lava tube was formed when magma pushed its way from the volcano, carving a perfectly round and smooth tunnel. You can enter the tube from either side and walk all the way through.
Follow a short trail to arrive at the entrance. It’s wise to wear sturdy shoes during your visit as the ground within the tunnel can be uneven in places. You should also consider bringing a flashlight. The tunnel is lit by artificial lights from 8am to 8 pm, but there are still dark patches.
Keep in mind that visiting midday tends to be the busiest for the Thurston Lava Tube. We recommend you try to time your visit first thing in the morning or mid-afternoon, depending on the direction you plan to explore the park.
Stop at the Keanakakoi Overlook
If you’re on a mission to spot active lava during your visit, you won’t want to miss Keanakakoi Overlook. The crater was most likely formed during an eruption of Kilauea during the 1400s. Due to eruptions in 2018, part of the road to reach the overlook was destroyed.
An old portion of the Crater Rim Drive is open for foot traffic or bicyclists. Park at the trailhead parking lot for Devastation Trail and walk one mile along the road to reach the overlook.
Do an evening tour
If you’ve done any reading about visiting Volcanoes National Park, you’ve probably heard about “night glow”. This phenomenon can only be experienced once the sun has gone down.
Head to Kilauea Overlook, or you can reserve a tour, to catch a glimpse of the lava glowing within the Halema’uma’u Crater. It’s a stark contrast to how the crater appeared during the day time. Light from the lava of this active volcano illuminated with vog (volcanic smog) and clouds above the crater.
Stick around a little longer for stargazing. You’ll have to venture away from the glow of Kilauea. The Mauna Loa Lookout or Hilina Pali Overlook are two excellent options for where to see the stars.
Without light obstruction from nearby towns, you’ll witness a night sky filled with twinkling little stars. Make sure to wear good shoes and pack a few extra layers. A flashlight or headlamp could also be helpful to have on hand.
Have More Time?
Should you have some more time on your Hawaii Volcanoes National Park day trip, or you’re spending more than one day exploring the park, head out on the Chain of Craters Road.
The turn-off from the Crater Rim Road is just before the Thurston Lava Tube. This road takes you out to the coastline for spectacular views. It takes about 30 minutes to drive one way, so make sure you budget 1-2 hours for driving and stopping to see the sites.
Your first stop, or last stop on the way back, is the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. Here is where native Hawaiians carved figures and scenes into the hardened lava somewhere between 1200 and 1450 CE. Expect a 1.4-mile out-and-back hike to see the petroglyphs.
Hop back in your car and continue driving until you reach the coastline. Here you’ll arrive at the Holei Sea Arch. This stunning nature site is a 90-foot sea arch on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It’s solidified lava eroded by years of ocean waves to create the arch seen today. From here, you also get spectacular views of the rugged coastline.
If you’re feeling adventurous, climb Mauna Loa. This strenuous climb is a challenging hike, but well worth it for the views you get from the top. During the climb, you traverse over rough and jagged lava rock. Sturdy and reliable shoes are a must as you’re often walking on loose lava.
The summit is at a high altitude, so make sure you’re adequately prepared for the gain. Backcountry backpacking is also an option for those looking to break away from the crowds. Make sure you pack plenty of water and know the signs of altitude sickness.
Please note that the Mauna Loa trail is currently closed above Red Hill Cabin due to ongoing volcanic activity. No matter what time of year you visit Volcanoes National Park, make sure to read up about the park’s current activity. Depending on the severity of any active eruptions, your entire park itinerary could change.
Where to Stay in Hilo
Hilo Bay Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast – Located in the center of Hilo, this cute bed and breakfast is an excellent choice for those looking for a base to explore the national park. They have a number of rooms on offer and there’s also breakfast available in the mornings. Click here to check availability
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls – If you’re looking for a good jumping-off point for visiting Volcanoes National Park, then this tranquil inn is an excellent choice. They have both lovely cabins and beautiful rooms on offer and there is also breakfast each morning. Click here to check availability
Private Rental – If you’d like to find a self-catering option in Hilo or close to Volcanoes National Park, there are plenty to choose from — like this beach studio — in this area of the island. Click here to browse Hilo private rentals
Big Island Hostel – Those visiting Volcanoes National Park on a tight budget will love this backpacker’s hostel in Hilo. They offer a number of differently-sized dorms to choose from along with a great location and good common areas. Click here to check availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Hilo hotels!
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is truly like no other. This diverse and rich landscape captures several hundreds of years of history. During your visit, you’ll get a first-hand look at two of the world’s most active volcanoes and the landscape they’ve created. Use this itinerary as inspiration to plan the perfect Volcanoes National Park visit.
Are you planning to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!