These dramatic volcanoes are sure to make for a memorable national parks trip.
Hawaii Volcanos National Park
Credit: Christopher Chan

You don’t need to be a “Lord of the Rings” fan to harbor an obsession with the idea of seeing an erupting volcano and molten lava in real time. That’s the sort of thinking that draws nearly two million visitors annually to the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where two volcanoes including Mauna Loa, earth’s most massive active (but not as of this writing erupting) volcano and Kilauea, which has been slowly erupting for more than a year. The latter—which is erupting in two places, with a simmering pit of lava in one location and lava streaming towards the sea at another—has been the big draw, says Public Affairs Specialist Jessica Ferracane, but there’s plenty more to see in this park. Here’s what not to miss and how to visit this fascinating national park, which sprawls over 520 square miles of Hawaii.

See an erupting volcano

Kilauea is indeed (as of December 16, 2016) erupting, and you can check on its activity every day online. It’s the only volcano on earth, says Ferracane, currently erupting from two locations: the summit and a site called Puʻu ʻŌʻō, which oozes lava right down to the ocean—and is not, currently, posing a threat to humans. Because “the closest we let you get is a mile away,” says Ferracane, the best spot for a view is the observation deck at the Jaggar Museum visitors’ center near the summit. You can watch the lava rippling, see steam, and safely avoid both the lava and the sulfur dioxide it emits! (Note: This overlook is also wheelchair-accessible.)

And go at off hours

A smart move is to check in at the visitors’ center right when you arrive at the park, because weather conditions are always shifting and rangers can give you handy tips. But also keep in mind that the park is open 24 hours a day, says Ferracane, and “seeing the lava lake at night before the sun comes up in the morning is hugely dramatic and so much more impactful.” It’s “jaw-droppingly beautiful,” she says, and “if you come before the sun comes up in the morning you can have that view almost all to yourself.”

Walk through a lava tube

For a distinctly Jurassic Park-esque experience, walk through a tube in the earth carved by lava about 500 years ago. Called the Thurston lava tube, it is the park’s second-most popular attraction, says Ferracane, and because it’s “right in the middle of a rainforest, it’s a really good perspective” on how volcanoes can actually create life—the islands themselves were formed by an eruption. Walk through the tunnel—these days, lit by humans—which hasn’t seen lava for hundreds of years, and be amazed as native birds chirp all around you. And keep in mind that there’s an observatory stationed right in the park, notes Ferracane, so there are scientists keeping an eye on both volcanoes while you’re underground.

Learn about native Hawaiian culture

Though the volcanoes and the biology get the most press, notes Ferracane, don’t forget to learn about native culture. “Native Hawaiians were really exceptional stewards of the land,” she says. They were, in a sense, the “original rangers living in very close harmony with … things happening here.” Today, the park makes a point of employing many native Hawaiians. It’s worth taking a ranger tour and visiting the museum to learn more. If you’re lucky, your ranger will tell tales of Pele, the goddess of fire whose home is Kilauea, and whose exploits and adventures are credited for much of the local geology.

Go on foot

“This park is best explored on foot,” says Ferracane, an avid hiker. With more than 150 miles of hiking trails, there’s something for everyone, and although her favorite is Halape, a tough backcountry hike that requires a permit, she also recommends the “exceptional” Crater Rim Trail. “You can jump on that from the visitors’ center, and [see] a large crater. It’s pretty easy, there’s not much of an elevation gain, and you’re walking along the edge of the world’s most active volcano.” Among its charms, she says, are that you can “feel the heat coming out of vents in the ground… that’s pretty special!”

It’s Hawaii, but bundle!

Steam vents from an active volcano aside, don’t forget to bundle up for your trip here. Remember your elevation and the weather that will entail, says Ferracane. “People are used to sun, sand, and surf. They don’t realize that at 4,000 feet it’s cold, and at night it’s really cold.”

Sleep near the volcano(!)

For those with a yen to nap near an active volcano, there are a couple of ways to fulfill that desire. One is the Volcano House Hotel, where you can stay overnight, grab a meal or have a drink—while watching the simmering, smoking caldera of Kilauea. Or you can sleep at a campground—in a house or in your tent—at Namakanipaio, situated right in the. It’s a half-mile hike from the visitors’ center, and “from your tent at night you can see the incredible reddish-orange glow from the volcano.” It is, says Ferracane, “completely mesmerizing.”