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Big Island - Ka'u / Volcano Scenic Tour

A visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Big Island's most popular attraction, can be a splendid nature outing, a crash course in volcanic geology, a study of Hawaiian legend, an encounter with the earth's most primal forces, or all of the above. If you're into volcanoes, you may want to spend a couple of days exploring the park, perhaps staying overnight at the venerable Volcano House hotel or at one of the inns or Bed and Breakfasts just outside the park.

Big island volcano sign

The park itself encompasses the summit and northeast slope of Mauna Loa volcano and the vast Kilauea Caldera, which has been active since 1983. If you are lucky enough to time your visit to an eruption or lava flow, you'll witness the experience of a lifetime. But even without a fiery show, a tour of the park is a fascinating experience for folks of all ages. Along Crater Rim Drive you'll find lush glens of prehistoric-looking tree ferns, strange mineral formations, fissures seeping sulfurous steam, huge lava tubes, and desolate fields of barren lava. Be sure to have a some warm clothing, a temperatures at 4000 feet can be quite nippy.

Big island halemaumau crater

Kilauea Volcano, more specifically its Halemaumau Crater, is the legendary home of the fire goddess Pele, whose spirit many believe still rules here. Stories of Pele's curse -- bad luck to anyone who takes away her rocks -- are so widespread that someone recently published a book of letters from repentant rock thieves asking park rangers to please return this rock to Madame Pele. Rock hounds beware!

While you may want to see the volcano action from the air, or you may want to hike into the crater along various trails. Here's what a car tour of the park has to offer:

Big island volcano national park

Kilauea Visitor Center provides information about hiking trails and the latest volcanic activity. A free geology lecture and a film on past eruptions runs during the day. The adjacent Volcano Art Center gives historical information as well as local fine arts and crafts. The visitor center has been somewhat outdone by the Thomas A Jagger Museum, down the road a piece, where there are seismographs, telescopes, and various visual and hands-on exhibits.

Halemaumau Crater, a steaming fire pit, is at the heart of Kilauea Caldera and can be viewed from just behind Volcano House or at other spots along Crater Rim Drive. The drive also features steam vents and acrid sulfur banks, which can be reached on foot along Devastation Trail. Beware if you are pregnant or have respiratory problems.

Big island lava tube

Thurston Lava Tube is located in a forest of tree ferns that feels a bit like Jurassic Park. You can walk about 500 feet into the cave-like tunnel, which was formed when the outer lava cooled and the inside lava drained away.

Chain of Craters Road will take you 24 miles to the coast where lava flows are creating the planet's newest real estate. Make sure you have gas, water, and good shoes for hiking across lava. The road comes to an end at a lava flow that destroyed much of Kalapana village in 1989. You can park, however, and walk toward the ocean, witnessing red-hot fissures or plumes of steam where lava hits the ocean. Rangers serve as escorts and provide interpretive talks. As you head back up the road, Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs, found on a half-hour walk across the lava, depict aspects of ancient Hawaiian life.

Big island volcano national park

After your tour of the park, you may want to cruise the charming and picturesque Volcano Village or perhaps grab a round of golf at the Volcano Golf and Country Club. You can also check out Tree Molds, made when molten lava hardened around a burning tree, or visit the little sanctuary of Kipuka Puaulu, an oasis of native vegetation in a lava field.

Remember to take only pictures and leave only footprints. The gods have been known to shower bad luck down upon those who take the rocks of lava away from their peaceful Hawaii home. After all, if everyone took a piece of the island home with them, eventually there would be no island left to take.