Besides the visitor center, we explored three different areas : watching lava spurt out on Kīlauea, going through the Thurston Lava Tube and walking among the steam vents. We drove between each area, and the hikes to see the main attractions were all fairly short, allowing us to complete everything in the early afternoon (about 4 hours).
In hindsight, I probably would have done the Thurston Lava Tube before going to Kīlauea, as the limited parking for the Thurston Lava Tube is on the side of the road heading towards Kīlauea, and they have a barrier in place that prevents you from turning across the road into the parking lot when you are coming back from Kīlauea. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the road is narrow with no places to turn around for a couple of miles, and being a National Park, there is a constant flow of traffic so doing a 12 point turn around in the middle of the road and holding everyone up wasn’t an option for us, but may be for you.
We drove down Crater Rim Drive and at the point Crater Rim Drive is closed to cars and the road splits off onto Chain of Craters Road is the parking lot for the Devastation Trail. We were able to grab a spot, and then proceeded to walk down Crater Rim Drive. This part of the road closed in 2008 due to volcanic activity, but they still allow people to walk the road. I guess if an eruption suddenly happens it’s a lot easier to flee on foot than speed away in a car? It’s a nice stroll assuming you don’t worry about sudden explosions of lava, with some flowers and interesting vegetation along the way. There’s even a section of road that is partially collapsed. Probably just the elements taking it’s toll on the pavement, but I told my son it was eaten away by lava and not to get too close. He briefly believed me before nerviously insisting I must be joking.
After a short walk along the road, we took a trail down towards the Keanakāko'i overlook and we could see smoke arising from the Halema’uma’u Crater, which sits inside the much larger Kīlauea Caldera. What’s the difference between a caldera and crater? Glad you asked; thanks to the internet I now know that a crater is formed by the outward explosion of rock from a volcano, while a caldera is a result of the inward collapse of the volcano.
Once at the Keanakāko'i Overlook, which apparently overlooks the Keanakāko'i Crater (how many craters can a caldera have?), we were able to see lava spurting far down below in Halema’uma’u Crater. It would have been awesome to be here in the dark, but that’s when this area is the busiest, as people flock to the overlook at sunrise and sunset. Fortunately I was able to push my iPhone to extreme limits and capture a grainy photo of some lava gurgling up even though it was day time. But the night time photos I have seen online make me jealous.
Then was a quick walk back along the way we came to the car, and onto the Thurston Lava Tube.
There were a couple of parking spots available, so my wife dropped us off and then drove up the road a couple of miles to turn around and come back to park on the other side of the road - fortunately, the spots were still open when she came back. It was now late morning, and we followed the steady stream of people walking down the path towards the entrance of the Lava Tube.
After descending down the walkway, you walk across a platform to the entrance of the tube, with lush vegetation all around. When lava starts flowing the core stays hot while the edges exposed to the air slowly start to harden, eventually creating a tube through the center where the lava continues to flow. Once the eruption stops, the lava drains from the tube creating a hollow passage you can now walk through. While it was a short walk through the tube, it was definitely a memorable experience and we had fun.
We exited the lava tube, and followed another path back to the road and our car.
We were all getting hungry, so we decided to do a very quick visit to the steam vents. Pulling up into the parking area in our car, you are immediately treated to a fenced off steam vent. Unfortunately, people had thrown in coins and trash over the years.
We decided to follow a path towards the North end of the crater, which passed through more steam vents. After taking in the views, we all headed back to the car to go get lunch at the Volcano House.
A great experience, and I wish we had more time to explore the park. It was very cool to be able to see lava flowing, and I highly recommend the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park if you are on the Big Island. If I were to go back, I would seriously consider staying at the Volcano House which is a lodge and restaurant in the park, allowing for more time to explore and provoding easy access to get night photos of the lava.