Hike of the Week: Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

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Hello again and welcome back to this weekly series post, highlighting a marvelous day hike or backpacking trip! We want to provide some inspiration and offer some help so you can get out and experience these places for yourself. So here we go again, on the quest to get you out the door and into the wild!

This week's hike is a trek through Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park.

Featured Photo: Hale Ma'uma'u Volcano Crater (photo by ahhoi)

Why this hike?

Unlike any other place on Earth, Hawaii is our United States volcano paradise. Aside from being a popular relaxing vacation hot spot, this collection of islands offers hiking and backpacking like you’ve never experienced. Great weather and a short distance from the beach, Volcanoes National Park is about to be the hottest destination on your trek wish list.

  • Total distance of 57 miles
  • One of a kind hiking through lava fields
  • Ever-changing, never the same landscape
  • Closely monitored park, lots of natural forces at work
  • Round trip, so you end up where you started and parked!

However, keep the following in mind:

  • Strenuous and lengthy hike with varying terrain
  • Volcanic atmosphere, so the weather, conditions and access is varied based on the volcanic activity
  • Hot and desert-like environment - bring lots of water!
  • Getting to the Big Island can be expensive

How do I get there?

In order to take on volcanic territory, you have to get to Hawaii’s Big Island. This means there is no chance of driving to Volcano National Park unless you already live on the Big Island. Step one is to fly into either Kona International or Hilo International airports. From these airports, you can rent a car, motorcycle, bike or whatever mode of transportation you desire. You could also catch one of the Big Island’s buses, Hele On. These service both airports, take the scenic route by making a few stops throughout the island to arrive at the park’s headquarters.


Volcanoes National Park Map

Source: National Park Service - Volcanoes National Park

We recommend a 5-day, 4-night itinerary, each with a full day of hiking. That will also give you plenty of time to enjoy side trips to explore the beautiful but obscure scenery along the way, especially on the days where you have a little less distance to cover. The total distance is about 57 miles.

  • Day 1 - Kilauea Visitor Center to Kulanaokuiaki to camp (13 miles)
  • Day 2 - Kulanaokuiaki to Ka’ana to camp (11 miles)
  • Day 3 - Ka’ana to Keauhou to camp (7 miles)
  • Day 4 - Keauhou to Napau, end of trailhead, to camp (16 miles)
  • Day 5 - Napau to Kilauea Visitor Center (10 miles)

Trail Description

This trip is amazing because it will be unlike anything else you will ever witness. The strange rock formations that you will scramble across for miles will meet with some crooked, struggling plants that have fought their way to inhabit the hot pumice soil. With the ocean in view as you reach the sloped summits of the tops of the volcanoes, you might run into a few lava trees breaking up the skyline with their oddly-shaped, rocky skeletons.

As the trek continues into the second and third day, you’ll have some time to scamper around the beds of rock and go for a quick frolic by the ocean cliffs. And if you’re lucky, and if Mother Nature permits, you may even stumble upon, in the distance, a thick stream of bright and fiery orange lava oozing from a crevasse. By the time you return to the Visitor Center, you will probably feel like you have spent the past few days on another planet. The best part about this expedition, though, is that it will never be the same again, so each time you come back you will be surprised over and over by the magnificence of the Volcanoes National Park.

What will I need?

Since you will literally be hiking on top of one of the greatest forces in nature, a few extra things are required to make this a safe, comfortable adventure. Let’s start with shoes. The trails are not the usual dirt and duff that you might be used to. In Volcanoes National Park, you will be walking on the grooves of hardened lava rock, over rubble and through plants that are able to survive in this strange terrain. This calls for a solid hiking shoe, with a little extra rubber and stiffness to alleviate toe-stubbing and save your ankles. Long pants are also probably a good idea, because falling on lava rock is like falling on broken glass. And although this National Park is located in lush Hawaii, the barren landscape doesn’t offer much shelter from the sun and no alternative water supply either, so be prepared with sunscreen, covering clothing, and always have lots of water with you.

Also, even though this isn’t required, we recommend that you have some kind of personal location device on you. Volcanoes are volcanoes. They’re super cool to hike on, but they can still erupt unexpectedly. Having a PLD on you will ensure that you know where you are in the case of emergency and will help others find you if needed.

Beyond this extra baggage, you should bring the gear you would normally need for a multi-day backpacking trip. As always, check out our Ultimate Backpacker’s Packing List which is full of recommendations for overnight trips in the backcountry. It also includes an easy, printable checklist.

Do I need a permit?

Yes, you will need a permit for any backcountry hiking you do, even if you decide to stay at an established campsite. You can get a permit for just $10 at the Backcountry Office, which is really close to the Kilauea Visitor Center. Once you are at the center, you will see signs to get you to the Backcountry Office. Even if you have grabbed a permit online beforehand, it is still recommended that you check in to hear the latest information. Since you’ll be hiking on real, live volcanoes, there are lots of shifting forces that you should be aware of and some parts of the National Park might be closed due to gas emissions or unstable ground. Either way, your trip through this park is going to be nothing short of an adventure.


Volcanoes National Park Backcountry Planner
Volcanoes National Park Backcountry Hiking Page
Hele On Bus

Have you spent any time hiking near volcanoes and have any good insights? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

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