Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Best Hikes and Activities for Kids

I’ve always wanted to witness flowing lava, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is one of the few places in the world where you can do this. But while lava flowed freely from the park’s Kilauea volcano for several decades, it completely stopped flowing in 2018 (bummer). Then it began flowing again in December 2020 (yay!), which is when I booked our trip to the Big Island. Then it stopped flowing again in May 2021, exactly one month before we showed up (BUMMER). But I can honestly say, lava or no lava, this national park is worth the visit for the truly unique hikes it offers. 

Where to Stay

While visiting the Volcano area for a couple of days, we stayed at an adorable rental home called the Lava Tube Hale. The two-bedroom hale (or small Hawaiian structure) is cozy and situated in the middle of the rainforest, just five minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I particularly enjoyed the outdoor shower and fireplace, and we all loved the hot tub on the back deck after a long day of hiking. This little retreat isn’t grand by any means (and could use a dishwasher), but I really appreciated the host’s sweet little touches, such as the fresh fruit and bread as well as the robes in the closet.

What to Do

If lava is flowing from Kilauea, it would most likely be visible from the Kilauea Overlook, which is an area that you can drive right up to. Sadly, the lava wasn’t flowing during our visit to the park, but it was still an impressive vantage point from which to view the crater. 

On our first day at the park, we warmed up with a 1.5 mile hike along the Sulfur Banks (Iliahi) Trail. The hike is more like an easy stroll along a boardwalk, and you can get really close to the steam vents and smell the sulfur. 

You can also wander off the path on some offshoot trails, but be careful not to fall into the many crevices!

Instead of taking an out-and-back route, we came back on the Crater Rim Trail for some slightly different scenery. Also along this path is the Steaming Bluff Overlook, which is where we spotted our first (very faint) rainbow of the trip. 

What made this hike extra special for my son was a charming baby plant that we started noticing everywhere (and which I later learned is the uluhe, or false staghorn fern). The sprouts look almost fake, they are so colorful. 

Along the hike, we started noticing the plant in various stages of growth, from that cute sprout to a taller sprout that split into two, to a plant with leaves. By the middle of the hike, we realized that these little sprouts and the overwhelming carpet of fern leaves covering the area were one and the same! 

My son became obsessed with documenting the different stages he saw.

The next day, we tackled a more difficult hike, but it was definitely manageable with our 10- and 12-year-olds. In fact, I was the one slowing us down! The Kilauea’iki Trail is a popular 4 mile loop that starts along the north rim of the crater, in a lush rainforest environment.

You can peek over the edge of the trail from certain viewpoints and see the crater floor underneath. People (who resembled ants from this height) can be seen making their way across the length of the crater, treading a thin white line across the floor. 

Eventually, you reach a point where you can descend into the crater itself…

...and become one of the ants that the hikers above are seeing! 

Once inside the crater, you start off by walking on some really uneven terrain, before eventually reaching the smoother surface at the center. Once on the smooth part, you need to start following the cairns (or rock piles) placed as markers along the way, so you can stay on the “path.”

We were fortunate that a large cloud came along just as we were descending into the crater and shielded us from the beating sun the entire time we were down there. It even drizzled a little, which felt nice. I recommend doing this hike as early as you can to beat the heat, since you can’t always count on a giant rogue cloud to save you! 

After reaching the other side of the crater, we’d been hiking for about 2 miles, so we took a break to eat a snack. It was nice to perch on some shaded rocks and enjoy the view of the crater as we ate our spam musubi. Then we began the tough ascent back to the top, which was essentially a set of switchbacks. At least we were back in the shady rainforest again, so it was at least cool. 

Back at the top, you can choose to detour off into the Thurston Lava Tube or take the Crater Rim Trail back to your car. We decided to do the former. A lava tube is basically an underground pathway carved by flowing lava, and this one is more than 500 years old. It resembles a really long and narrow cave, and it's pretty cool when you think about the fact that lava once flowed through the exact tunnel you’re walking through. 

The Thurston Lava Tube takes about 10 minutes to walk through, and it was a nice way to stay cool and check out something different. 

What to Eat 

My favorite meal in the Volcano area was lunch at The Rim restaurant inside the park. The view from the restaurant’s panoramic windows is spectacular (it's kind of cloudy in this photo, but trust me  it's usually amazing!), and our food was quite good, especially for a national park menu. I recommend the Taste of Hawaii sampler plate!

What’s Nearby

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is situated in the southeast quadrant of the Big Island. The cute little foodie town of Hilo is about 40 minutes north of there, and the beautiful beaches of the Kohala Coast, on the western side of the island, is about two hours away. Here’s my itinerary for our travels around the Big Island.