From red-hot calderas to smoking craters, oozing lava flows to blackened lava fields, smelly steam vents to surreal sulfur banks, and seven (yes, seven!) unique ecological zones spanning the sea-level to nearly 14,000 feet, exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an absolute must for families heading to the big island of Hawaii. We visited the park this year and can’t wait to share our best tips and tricks for visiting the park, as well as offer a bucket-list filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Explore the best things to do in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with kids in tow.
Lead Photo by: NPS/Keith Burnett
Must-See Park Experiences
Curious about what you’ll see when you head to the park? In addition to seeing the expected active volcano, there is actually a wide variety of must-see park experiences while visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Photo by: Bigstock/DCPhotograph
See active, flowing lava. First things first. Every visitor to the park wants to see the active volcano. It’s kind of a big deal (and part of the name). And while seeing the red hot, flowing lava is still an absolute must-see experience, it isn’t exactly an easy (or often inexpensive) endeavor. Current options to get to the lava flows include:
Hike. Currently, conditions do allow park visitors to hike to portions of the volcano where lava is actively flowing, but it is not for the average family. Although it changes regularly, the hike is typically a very difficult, 10-12 mile roundtrip hike from the Coastal Ranger Station. Tour groups do offer guided hikes and tours for able-bodied families not wanting to do the hike on their own.
- Pros: Up-close viewing with little-to-no financial investment.
- Cons: This super-strenuous activity will take a full day to complete and is likely way too difficult for young children.
Boat. Although not directly affiliated with the national park itself, there are a few boat tour operators who will take paying customers to the lava flow, if it happens to be flowing in the ocean. We were lucky enough to see this amazing feat for ourselves during our visit as the flow direction changed and pushed lava into the ocean for the first time since 2013. It is an experience we will never forget.
- Pros: Seeing the hot lava hit the cool ocean against the jagged cliffs is truly incredible. You’ll be close enough to feel the incredible heat of Pele.
- Cons: In addition to a hefty price tag (about $200/person for most tours), conditions on the water can make for a very bumpy ride that is not recommended for those with any back/neck troubles.
Read reviews of boat operators Lava Tour Adventures, who offer amazing up-close looks at the volcano by sea.
Helicopter. Chartering a helicopter to see the lava flow is a good option for those who can’t hike and don’t want to brave the rough waters of the ocean for viewing. A wide variety of tour operators take visitors over the flows on a very regular basis.
- Pros: The only way to see both the above ground and into-the-ocean flows, a Helicopter is very private, very comfortable, and typically offers incredible views.
- Cons: In addition to the expense, smoke from the lava can sometimes impede overhead viewing.
Photo by: Bigstock/kelpfish
The Jaggar Museum & Halema’uma’u Volcano Crater & Caldera. The Thomas A. Jaggar Museum is a small, but informative museum that teaches kids about volcanology while in the park. In addition to a variety of displays showcasing the history of the Hawaiian volcanoes, kids will love checking out the actual equipment used by scientists to study volcanoes in the past and today. My littles LOVED jumping up and down to make their own mini earthquake register on a seismograph. The museum also boasts stunning indoor and outdoor views of the Halema’uma’u, the main crater of the Kīlauea volcano.
Tip: Don’t miss a night visit to the Kīlauea lookout. What appears mostly just as steam during the day turns into a stunning and bright-red show each night. The overlook is open 24 hours!
Ha’akulamanu – Sulphur Banks. An easy boardwalk trail leads to the Ha’akulamanu sulphur banks that feature venting steam, unique red-stained clay, and extremely smelly sulphuric gases (think rotten eggs!) perfect for the gross-you-out elementary aged kiddos.
Tip: Although this short hike is accessible, flat, and an easy walk, it is not recommended for babies, small children, pregnant women, or anyone with asthma or other respiratory difficulties due to the highly concentrated levels of sulfuric gas in the air.
Photo by: Katie Bodell
Steam Vents & Sulphur Bluffs. Directly across from the parking lot, you won’t want to miss the incredibly accessible steam vents, where ground water returns from the hot volcanic rock to the surface as steam. A short, easy walk across a treeless plain takes you to the Sulphur Bluffs where you can get great views of Kīlauea without the crowds.
Tip: This area is actually a park picnic area. Encourage your kiddos to feel the ground in this region as it is actually warm to the touch thanks to the volcanic activity below, but stay on the trails and follow all signage to keep safe.
Photo by: Bigstock/nstanev
Thurston Lava Tube. In the middle of a lush, tropical forest, you’ll find the Thurston Lava Tube, that was discovered in 1913 by Lorrin Thurston. The hike to get to the Lava Tube is very short, but does have a few steps and inclines. Feel free to choose either direction at the fork, the journey through the massive lava tube, carved out by a massive prehistoric lava flow, goes in a loop.
Tip: You might get a bit wet while exploring the lava tube! Ground water seeps through the surface and drips into the lava tube like sprinkles of rain (and then makes lots of puddles!)
Photo by: NPS Photo/J. Ferracane
Lava Flows. A drive to the “end of the road” on the Chain of Craters Road, presently just over 18 miles, allows your family to see the handiwork of many recent slow-moving lava flows (often crossing previous road sections). Because the lava has cooled, hardened, and even begun to grow new life (as early as 30 days after cooling!), you can walk on large portions of the cooled lava.
Tip: The road is pretty intense with an elevation change of 3700 feet; no food, water, or fuel; and only vault-type toilets. Plan ahead!
Photo by: Bigstock/JPrescott
Puʻu Loa Petroglyphs. The largest petroglyph field in the state of Hawai’i, Pu’u Loa is a sacred place that dates back over 800 years. More than 23,000 images of circles, anthropomorphisms, canoe replicas, and other archaic images are found throughout this historic section of the park.
Tip: To get to the petroglyph field, families will need to walk 1.5 miles (roundtrip) over lava fields (hardened of course, but still a bit challenging and bumpy) to get to a boardwalk that keeps visitors observing the images at a distance.
Photo by: NPS Photo/S. Geiger
Hōlei Sea Arch. A bonus for making the trek to the end of the Chain of Craters road is the stunning views of the Hōlei Sea Arch. Presently standing about 90 feet tall and beautifully framing the ocean and skyline behind it, the 100-year-old arch will not stand as a permanent feature in the park (due to natural crumbling and shifting of the landscape from lava flow).
1. Don’t Miss the Kīlauea Visitor Center. We always try to start our national park adventures at a Visitor Center, and a visit to the Kīlauea Visitor Center, located just inside the park’s entrance, is a must. The stop here is a great place to get oriented with the park, find out about trail conditions and ranger-led activities, and read up on safety precautions while visiting the park. An informative video (“Born of Fire, Born of the Sea”), a variety of interactive displays, gift store and clean restrooms round out the location.
2. Pick up a Junior Ranger Booklet. Booklets are available at the Visitor Center and at the Jaggar Museum. The packets will keep your kids focused, learning, and having fun while in the park. Although some parks junior ranger booklets can be tedious to complete, this packet can be completed in one day’s visit. The Jaggar Museum is open quite a bit later than the Visitor Center in case you run out of time.
3. Follow all safety advisories. Although visiting the park was actually a lot less terrifying than my children thought it would be, it is still a great idea to obey all park signage and recommendations, including carrying water, wearing closed toe shoes, staying on marked trails and paths, and observing ranger regulations.
4. Book your lodging. The park boasts two campgrounds and one in-park lodge, the Volcano House. Reservations can be hard to secure at the Volcano House, so plan ahead; bookings open 18 months in advance. If you can’t get a room there, but aren’t keen on packing your own tent on your Hawaiian getaway, consider a cabin at the Nāmakanipaio, also operated by the same lodging company. In addition to campsites and cabins, they also offer services where you can rent a tent from them for a very nominal fee (they even set it up!) so you don’t need to pack your gear.
If staying onsite is not an option, plan your lodging wisely. Hilo is much closer to the Volcano, (although still a 45-minute drive) while the Kona coast, where most major resorts are based, is a 2-3 hour drive away. Add this long drive (there and back) to a day exploring in the park and you have a REALLY long day with kids. Volcano, HI, located just outside the park, boasts a few small bed and breakfasts and inns.
5. Pack snacks. Although you can purchase a few sundries and snacks inside the visitor center, Jaggar Museum, and Volcano House, it is definitely recommended to bring your own snacks and drinks — especially water– while visiting the park. The only onsite restaurants are at the Volcano House; and they include one fine-dining restaurant (reservations highly recommended), and one lounge. Although pricey, these both afford simply stunning views. About 15 minutes away, in Volcano, HI, a few other dining options are available.
6. Study up. Before we set off on our Hawaii Volcanoes National Park adventure, we did some at-home research and reading to learn about the history of the islands, the role volcanoes have played in their development, and details about how volcanoes work. This made the actual exploration of the park so much more interesting for all of us. I’ve included a handy list of some of our favorite resources below.
Tip: Some books about volcanoes can be terrifying to an already fearful child; I skimmed all of the books before sharing with my children; a few of them would have brought tears.