Hawaiian Volcanoes: Must Read Guide to Big Island Volcanoes

by Pam @ East by Midwest
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Hawaii has so many things to offer that it’s difficult to pick just one favorite thing. If I had to choose, my favorite would be the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Bubbling lava pools, steam rising off the ocean as the lava hits it, eerie lava tubes left behind from old eruptions. The Big Island of Hawaii volcanoes provide an amazing variety of awe-inspiring sights.

Read on for essential tips to seeing volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii!

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

Where Should You Stay?

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the southeast side of the island. I recommend staying in Hilo for easy access to the volcanoes.

If you plan on visiting other parts of the island, I recommend switching hotels mid-way through your trip so that you’re closer to the other places you’d like to visit. It can take 2+ hours to drive across the island and you don’t want to spend a lot of time driving.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii


You’ll likely need a rental car. There is a lot to see around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and a rental car gives you the freedom to see it on your schedule.

TIP: There’s no public transportation in the park.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii


Entrance fees to the park are $25 per car for a 7 day period, so you can come back multiple times on the same pass.

I recommend taking a boat or helicopter tour (see more about these below). These are spectacular ways to see the volcanoes and well worth the cost.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

Air Quality

Active lava flow creates volcanic emissions called “vog.” This can be harmful to people with respiratory ailments. You can read more about vog and find out current conditions here.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

What to Pack

Here are some essential items to bring with you to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:

  • Rain Jacket: The wind and altitude can make it chilly in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A rain jacket is light enough to keep out the chill without making you too hot. Plus, a rain jacket will serve dual-purpose to keep you dry on the windward (wet) sides of the island.
  • Comfortable shoes: You’ll want to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes that don’t have any mesh openings. The park has a lot of crushed volcanic rock that will get inside your shoes if you have any openings. Hiking shoes are a must if you plan on walking off-trail.
  • Hats: Even though it can be chilly, the sun is still very intense. Pack a close-fitting hat that won’t blow away in the wind.
  • Water bottle: Pack a water bottle. You can refill it at water fountains in the park.
  • Food: There are two sit-down restaurants near the visitor’s center, but no other real food options. If you want something other than a sit-down restaurant, pick up sandwiches or snacks at a grocery store before you go to the park in the morning.
  • Sunscreen: Because it can be chilly in the wind, it’s easy to forget how intense the sun’s rays are that close to the Equator. Reapply sunscreen regularly.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

What to Do: Lava Ocean Entry

Take a boat ride to see lava enter the ocean

My favorite experience in Hawaii was taking a boat ride to watch the lava enter the ocean. It was amazing! I recommend this experience to all my friends and family.

These boats get up close and personal with the lava. You can see the lava pouring into the ocean. You’ll feel the steam rising up from the water. If you’re lucky, you’ll see minor explosions, like we did (see my video below!).

We used Lava Ocean Tours for our lava boat ride and highly recommend them.

TIP 1: If you’re prone to motion sickness, take dramamine before getting on the boat. The trip can be a little rocky. I’m very prone to motion sickness, but was fine with dramamine.

TIP 2: You might get wet by the ocean spray on the boat ride to see the lava. Put on a poncho or rain jacket before the boat ride starts.

Take a helicopter ride over the volcanoes

If a boat ride isn’t for you, but you still want an up-close view of the lava, take a helicopter ride to see the lava.

What to Do: Self-Guided Crater Rim Driving Tour

The National Park Service provides great information about taking a self-guided driving tour of Crater Rim here. These are some highlights from our drive:

Visit Kīlauea Visitor Center

At the Kīlauea Visitor Center, Park Rangers provide you with information on walking and driving trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Be sure to ask the Park Rangers all your questions – they have an amazing amount of knowledge!

At the visitor center, you’ll find a schedule of **free** tours around the park led by Park Rangers. Take advantage of these! It’s a great way to learn about the volcanoes and the history of the park.

Kids up to 12 years old can be sworn in here as Junior Rangers. It’s a cool program that encourages kids to be stewards of the National Parks.

The only real food options in the park are two sit down restaurants at the nearby Volcano House. Bring food with you if you’d like more options.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

Visit the Jagger Museum

At the Jagger Museum lookout, you’ll get your closest view of the lava lake from the Kīlauea volcano.  You can see the bubbling lava from the museum’s binocular viewers.

Inside the museum, you can learn more information about how volcanoes work and the Hawaiian culture.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

Thurston Lava Tube

Lava tubes are tunnels formed by lava that flows underneath prior, hardened lava flows. Once the lava stops, it leaves behind a long cave. It’s crazy to think that you’re walking through a former lava river!

While you’re at the Kīlauea Visitor Center, see if there are any Park Ranger tours of the Thurston Lava Tube. Attend one of these tours or walk through the lava tube yourself.

Volcanoes Big Island Hawaii

What to Do: Self-Guided Chain of Craters Driving Tour

If you have a couple more hours of time to spare, continue your driving tour along the Chain of Craters Road. Follow the National Park Service’s guide for the best locations to stop.  There is no food, water, or gas along this road, so come prepared before you start the drive.

I hope you enjoy the volcanoes of the Big Island of Hawaii just as much as I did!

Volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii are a must-see bucket list item. Read for essential tips to seeing volcanoes in Hawaii!

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