Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Established in 1916, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is located on the Big Island of Hawaii. The park includes two active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Mauna Loa is the most massive shield volcano worldwide, while Kilauea is among the most active volcanoes in the world. Next read: 25 Best Places to Visit in Hawaii Photo: hqphotography/Fotolia

»Kilauea Visitor Center

Kilauea Visitor Center

The Kilauea Visitor Center can be found close to the entrance of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The center is usually where visitors to the Kilauea Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, stop first. The content and design of the Kilauea Visitor Center's exhibits reflect consultations with Hawaiians, as well as with the islands' leading botanists, biologists, volcanologists, entomologists, and ornithologists. These exhibits focus on island formation, ecosystems, the arrival of life, invasive species, people who make a difference in resource protection, and the sounds and sights of the rainforest. The stories and wisdom of the indigenous people of Hawaii are interwoven throughout the exhibits. Photo: Nikki/Fotolia

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»Jaggar Museum and Overlook

Jaggar Museum and Overlook

Named after Thomas A. Jaggar, a M.I.T. geologist, the Jaggar Museum is only two and a half miles from the visitor center and is the gateway to the Kau Desert Wilderness. The museum's emphasis is on volcanology. There are many displays showing the types of lava, real-time monitors, working "state of the art" electronic seismographs, eruption "by-products," and equipment scientists once used to study the volcano in the past. Several Hawaiian cultural displays showcase the close relationship of the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes, Pelehonuamea.

Visitors will find a spectacular panoramic view of the Kilauea Caldera just outside the museum at the overlook. Halema'uma'u Crater's continuing gas eruption from March 19, 2008 can be seen from the recently renovated overlook. The sight of the erupting crater can be breathtaking on a clear night. The erupting vents were previously 125 feet in diameter before the 2008 eruption. The diameter is now approximately 525 feet.

After an earthquake in 1908 near Mount Etna in Italy that killed 125,000 people, Jaggar stated that "something must be done" to support ongoing, systemic studies of seismic and volcanic activity. In 1909, he traveled to Hawai'i and was approached by Lorrin A. Thurston, who thought that Kilauea was an ideal site for a permanent volcano observatory. Thurston and other businessmen raised the money needed for the Hawai'i Volcano Research Association within a year, and a small observing station was built on the rim of Halema'uma'u Crater. The current site of the Jaggar Museum was built in 1985. Photo: Fominayaphoto/Fotolia

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»Crater Rim Drive Tour

Crater Rim Drive Tour

It's easy to visit Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park by car. Visitors will travel along Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road during the Crater Rim Drive Tour. It's best to start the tour at the Kilauea Visitor Center near the park's entrance where information trails, road conditions, safety precautions, and ranger-led activities is provided. A short film called "Born of Fire, Born of the Sea" is played in the visitor center every hour.

The next stop on the Crater Rim Drive Tour is the Kilauea Overlook. The overlook is a little less than a mile from Steaming Bluffs. While the a sign shows it's an area for picnicking, it also provides a spectacular view of the Halema'uma'u Crater and Kilauea Caldera. The view is comparable to the one at Jaggar Museum, however, the Kilauea Overlook is typically less crowded. The Kilauea Caldera is over three miles long and about two miles in width, and the highest point of the rim of the caldera is near Kilauea Overlook. Photo: Melastmohican /Fotolia

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»Steam Vents, Steaming Bluff, and Ha‘akulamanu - Sulphur Banks

Steam Vents, Steaming Bluff, and Ha‘akulamanu - Sulphur Banks

The Steam Vents, Steaming Bluff, and Sulphur Banks area is the third stop on the Crater Rim Drive Tour. About .8 miles from the Kilauea Visitor Center are the Steam Vents. First seeping down to the hot volcanic rocks, ground water then returns back to the surface as steam. The area between Kilauea Caldera's outer cliffs and the caldera's edge is a plain without trees. The ground only a few feet below is too hot for tree roots to survive, however, shallow-rooted plants and grasses are able to grow in the area. Just a short walk from the parking area near the Steam Vents along a trail is Steaming Bluff. The bluff along the edge of the caldera is a meadow of grass with concentrated steam in fractures and ground cracks.

Crossing the street from the Steam Vents and Steaming Bluff parking area will bring visitors to the beginning of the trail leading to the Ha'akulamanu-Sulphur Banks. Thanks to some renovations in 2005, the banks are accessible to those using a wheelchair along a boardwalk and paved path. Volcanic gases mix with groundwater steam as they flow out of the ground at Sulphur Banks. These volcanic gases are abundant in sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide. Pure crystals are deposited by some of the sulfur gases at Ha'akulamanu-Sulphur Banks, while others create sulfuric acid. Lava is broken down into clay by the sulfuric acid. Iron oxide has stained the clay brown and red. Photo: Alessandro/Fotolia

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»Kilauea Iki Overlook & Nahuku-Thurston Lava Tube

Kilauea Iki Overlook & Nahuku-Thurston Lava Tube

Kilauea Iki Overlook

The next stop along the drive tour is Kilauea Iki Overlook. Another option is for the driver to drive over to the overlook while the remainder of the group walks the half mile to the area on the Crater Rim Trail. The Crater Rim Trail in its full length is eleven miles, and circles around the caldera at the summit of Kilauea. The scenery is diverse, from rainforest to desert terrain.

While it seems fairly tranquil today, back in 1959, Kilauea Iki was a boiling lava lake that contained lava fountains that reached up to 1,900 feet. Kilauea Iki crater is 3,000 feet across and a mile in length. 400 feet beneath the overlook is the floor of the crater. The Kilauea Iki Overlook is the start of the four mile loop trail around Kilauea Iki.

Nahuku-Thurston Lava Tube

The surrounding forest as visitors drive the half mile to the Thurston Lava Tube from the Kilauea Iki Overlook becomes more dense. A short trail leads to a lighted cave-like, prehistoric lava tube through a tree fern forest. The area is a great spot to listen to birds, and visitors might catch a glimpse of the red apapane among the ohi'a, feeding on the plant's red blossoms. Lorrin Thurston discovered the lava tube in 1913. When it was found, lava stalactites covered the lava tube's roof. Unfortunately, they soon disappeared due to collectors or souvenirs. A good thing to consider when walking through the Thurston Lava Tube is that red lava once rushed through this tube several hundred years ago. Visitors should also watch their head since there are a few spots where the ceiling is low. Photo: John Penisten/Fotolia

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»Pu'u Pua'i Overlook & Keanakako'i Crater

Pu'u Pua'i Overlook & Keanakako'i Crater

Pu'u Pua'i Overlook

The Pu'u Pua'i Overlook is the next place to stop on the Crater Rim Drive Tour. Forceful trade winds easily show on most days how this cone was created during the 1959 soaring lava fountaining. Road rerouting and rebuilding is an everyday reality at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, as such, sections of the old road are buried under Pu'u Pua'i. The spatter cone known as Pu'u Pua'I came to be from lava pumice cinders that close to the fountaining of Kilauea Iki, were hot enough to weld themselves together. The overlook is the upper starting point of Devastation Trail where visitors can get a complete view of Pu'u Pua'i.

Visitors can also drive to the Devastation Trail parking area which is half a mile from Pu'u Pua'i. From the parking area, a thirty minute hike leas to the cinder outfall of the eruption of Kilauea Iki in 1959. The half mile trail is paved and wheelchair accessible.

Keanakako'i Crater

Visitors aren't able to drive to Keanakako'i Crater, however, it can be reached by a .8 mile hike. The crater shows evidence of a short eruption that happened in 1982 which resulted in several hundred feet of roadway being covered. This lava has a smooth surface and is known as pahoehoe lava, while the chunky lava is known as a'a. The road was rebuilt after the eruption within six weeks.

Keanakako'i Crater is a pit crater and lies on the boundary fault that encircles the summit of Kilauea. Hawaiians had used stone from Keanakako'i to make tools until 1877 when its floor was buried. Another twenty feet of rock covered the crater's floor during an eruption in 1974. Visitors can view the fissures from the eruption in 1974 with still smoking fumaroles by carefully crossing the road and walking to the overlook. The overlook offers a spectacular view of the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea's summit is home to some of the largest astronomical observatories in the world. Photo: pikappa51/Fotolia

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Most of the caves that are found within the borders of Hawai'I Volcanoes National Park are lava tubes. Other subterranean voids, such as tree casts, volcanic vents, earth cracks, pit craters, sea caves, caves created from inflation of lava sheets, and rift magma chambers can also be found in the park. Next read: 25 Best Places to Visit in Hawaii Photo: nfsphoto/Fotolia

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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park