Hawaii is one of the few places in the world where you can witness the active change and creation of the surrounding landscape and marvel at the sheer power of volcanic activity. Hawaiian volcanoes are best seen on Hawaii Island—sometimes called the Big Island—where lava still pours into dense green jungles. It’s a place where the earth’s geologic forces churn and change constantly, slowly, and steadily, altering the landscape before your very eyes.
Wondering where you can go to see and experience the recent handiwork of Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess associated with now-active Kilauea? Try these treks, drives, and trips that will have you walking through an ancient lava tube, marveling at the remnants of an old forest covered by lava, hovering above active lava flows, and tasting the fruits of volcanic soil.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The world-famous 520-square-mile Hawaii Volcanoes National Park contains an active lake of lava, the black-lava moonscapes of past flows, and the potential for new ones. Your best chance to see molten lava issuing from Hawaiian volcanoes is from the Jagger Museum Overlook facing the lava lake in Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater. Lately, though, the molten stuff has been sitting too deep below the crater rim to spot it from the park’s safe vantages during the day. Return after dark to see its eerie red glow amplified by its own fumes, a spectacle which is visible for miles around.
A two-to-three hour trek along the park’s four-mile Kilauea Iki loop takes you through Thurston Lava Tube (also accessible a short distance from a nearby parking lot), the cave-like remnants of a several-hundred-year-old lava stream. The path then winds through rainforest-filled giant Hāpu’u (Hawaiian tree ferns) down onto the black, steaming caldera of Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea). The deep pit was the site of a violent eruption in 1959 that saw lava spew 1,900 feet into the sky.
Up for a drive? Follow the winding Chain of Craters Road over black-lava moonscape from the flanks of Kilauea to the sea. From the top of the mountain before heading down, you can see where the park’s acreage has increased by hundreds of acres since 1986. En route, you’ll pass massive pits, the sites of former eruptions, and see where lava crossed the road as recently as 1969 and had to be rebuilt. The former loop is closed where lava has once again taken over the road. For now, the last site on the drive is the lava arch, an old flow smashed into a precarious upside-down “U” by the wild Pacific Ocean.
They say a true experience involves all of the senses, so after an afternoon of seeing lava flows and smelling its sulfurous emissions, it’s time to taste the terroir. Volcano Winery, located in the tiny town of Volcano, just outside the national park boundaries, boasts the only vineyard on Hawaii Island. In addition to your standard grape wines, they also produce wine from the region’s tropical fruits and honey.
Lava Trees State Monument
In the Big Island’s eastern Puna District you’ll find a tiny state park with some peculiar lava formations. Lava Trees State Monument is home to dozens of lava trees created over 200 years ago when a steady stream of lava rushed past trees and hardened quickly against their trunks. The trees have long since died, leaving behind Pompeii-like molds visible from an easy 0.7-mile loop.
Volcanoes and Waterfall Extreme Tour
To truly experience the scale of Hawaiian volcanoes, take to the sky with family-owned and -operated Paradise Helicopters’ Volcanoes and Waterfall Extreme tour, leaving from Hilo. The 45-minute trip takes you to current eruption sites where you can feel the heat of molten earth even from the sky. If you only have a day to spend on Hawaii Island, and want to pack in the most volcano action possible, spend it on the 11-hour Volcano by Land and Air tour, where you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of four of the Island’s five volcanoes. On the tour, you’ll learn about Hawaiian legends and the importance of the volcanoes while walking along a black sand beach, sipping coffee grown on the slopes of Mauna Loa, and taking a ground tour of the aforementioned highlights of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.