Must do drive in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This review is from my notes in 2007 and 2008, the volcano is still active and new vents open all the time, so the landscape has likely changed. Check the NP website for the latest conditions and not recommended to go off trail. The road is 19 miles to the sea - Allow 3 hrs down and back with stops. Best time for photography of the landscape at the top of the road is either before 9 AM or after 3 PM (when sunlight slants off the lava). Make sure you wear hiking shoes, take lots of water even at night, but more in the day, and if it rains you’ll need something waterproof to protect your camera or phones, wear pants and hat, take flashlight and binoculars and stay on the trails. Should be at the end of the road by nightfall to see the lava glow - preferably 1-2 hrs before dusk (4:30-5) to see lava in the daylight as well as the dark. Allow time to hike to the lava – sunset is around 7PM (don’t forget your flashlight). Where lava reaches the sea, you will have a toxic cocktail of HCL acid and sulfuric acid, stinging the eyes and damaging sunglasses and cameras - commonly called "vog." Make sure to wipe off camera afterwards (air is acidic and is hard on electronics). If you get too close to the lava, the heat may consume your camera battery. Be prepared for intense sunlight and noxious fumes.
For about 4 miles as you head towards the coast, the route follows the upper part of the active East Rift Zone. Scenic turnouts and short walks bring you to the rims of several impressive craters, but don’t bother with the Kookoolau. First road to the right is Hilina Pali Rd with blind curves, sharp rises and fog (after 2.2 miles). At the end of the road (8.3 miles) is the impressive Hilina Pali Overlook, a lookout at 2280 ft with a GREAT view of the southeast coast – trails in this area lead to the coast but are long, hot, and dull. Back to CofC Rd and at .1 miles from the intersection stop at Devil’s Throat on left (60 sec walk & it is UNMARKED). Next take the turnoff on the left of C of C Rd (3.5 mile down C of C Rd - Distance from VC to TH is 8 miles/25 minutes) and park in the Mauna Ulu parking area to take the Puu Huluhulu Overlook Trail (first leg of the Napau Trail = 18 miles and 9 hrs long - the first 5 miles of the trail follows what was once C of C Rd), a 3 mile RT (2 hr) hike up to Pu’u Huluhulu to the overlook at the top - crosses over lava flows from 1974 and climbs to the top of a 150 ft cinder cone, where you will have a panoramic view of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Pu’u O’o vent (look for steam far to the east), Kilauea, the East Rift Zone, the ocean, and Mauna Ulu - the large steaming domelike hill directly to the south. Bring water. Prepare for hot and dry or wet and windy weather. Follow the (rock piles) over the lava flows. Sulfur fumes may be strong on some days. Next, back on the C of Craters Rd. you will drive over several miles of Pahoehoe lava flows produced when the Mauna Ulu formed in the 1970’s. At the turnouts you can stand on some of the newest ground on Earth (At the 14 MM look at the segment of the old partially covered CofC Rd and just past the 15MM there’s a lava tube on the left). This lava is more than 2000 degrees F and begins fluid then chills to a smooth, ropy surface. This rock contrasts with a’a – thicker, slow-moving lava that has hardened into a chaotic jumble of rough jagged cinders. Stop at turnouts to see sweeping views of lava flows and white-capped waves pounding the black shoreline (Picnic at Kealakoma at the covered picnic shelter). Then Petroglyphs trail area (1.25 hrs and 2 mile RT walk). About 21 miles offshore, a huge undersea volcano is building a future Hawaiian island, named Loihi. Next, just before the 19 MM, look for the sign marking the Holei Sea Arch (walk less than a minute) - the huge coastal shelf is breaking away and sinking into the sea. The road ends at a 2003 lava flow. Since 1986 an almost continuous flow of lava from Pu’u O’o has buried several miles of the road and a VC at the end - follow the reflectors to a safe observation point. Stay at least 400 yards inland and take your flashlights. RT can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hrs. Park rangers mark a path to a safe viewpoint close to current flows. Port-a-potties, but no water, check with rangers to see what’s happening, including what you can see at night. We've enjoyed this trip twice, each time is something new. Love the end of the road signs under the lava. Definitely an experience.
Other worldly! Depending on the weather, be prepared to smell and taste a lot of sulfur in the air. People with asthma and respiratory issues should be aware of that potential. Incredibly powerful landscape, teeming with an amazing range of life and destruction. Unforgettable.
Steaming bluffs. Where else can you see steam vents right by the trail. Some of them, if you take the trail to the left (clockwise around the crater) just appear out of nowhere as you go through the trees. This trail also intersects with the sulfur trail and crater rim trail. My advice is to get a trail map from the visitors center and go wild.
This trail was good to explore with the kids. There are signs that warn you against taking young kids, but so long as you keep to the path and don't linger too long, you should be fine. If you have binoculars, bring them so you can get good close up views of the sulfur crystals. My kids loved the trail, though they did complain about the smell!
NOTE: The trail info says 1 mile/1 hour. It does not take that long!
There are so many trails around the crater rim. Some sections were closed when we went, so this only covers those areas that were open (mostly on the East side).
- Great views for most of the trail!
- Vegetation changes from rocky to lush and back.
- Steam vents along one section are fun and warm you up on a colder day.
- Trail intersects many other trails. Explore!
- Parking spots all along the trail so you can start and stop where you like.
- Easy. Everyone can hike this trail.
The Not So Good:
- No water. Bring your own.
- Some areas are in full sun. Plan accordingly.
- Some sections are closed due to volcanic activity. Check with the rangers.
Bottom Line: All trails around here are fun. Pick one and explore!
This trail is part of a series of trails around the park. This one provided different views of terrain, sometimes rocky, sometimes lush. Kids can do this one very easily. By following this trail, you can go down in to the crater and walk along the floor. We only went a little way along the floor before we turned around (it was raining), but we had a great time. Bring water and good hiking shoes.
Hiked this in 2004 to the active lava flow at night. Was truly amazing but a little scary. Don't think I would go out that far again. We went out past the trail markers. You are allowed to do this as you could never get lost but also cautioned against it because of unstable land. The lava tube underground are what scared me. You can feel the heat above ground and on the return hike the cracks in the earth were glowing. Even if you don't go out that far it is a thought provoking hike, watching land at the moment of creation.