After spending the better part of two days recently at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I certainly wasn’t in any hurry to leave and found myself feeling bad for so many of the visitors who often spend only a few hours within the park’s confines.
For travelers booked at Kona-area resorts on the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, it can take around three hours one way to reach the park, and many who make the long road trip only manage a depressingly brief amount of time there before hopping back into their car for the daunting trip back to their accommodations.
“You can’t see the park in two hours,” insisted Cindy Orlando, the park’s superintendent. “You can’t even really see the park in six hours. When people say they’re going to drive over from Kona for the day and see the park and then turn around and go back, we try to discourage that because people are tired, and it’s not safe to drive after such a long day but also because you just see so little of the park.”
Around 520 square miles in size, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is only slightly smaller than the entire island of Oahu, and the best way to maximize the attraction’s extraordinary collection of highlights is to stay at least one night nearby.
That’s a great deal easier thanks to the official June 1 reopening of Volcano House, following an impressive $3 million renovation to the 33-room property’s restaurant, public areas and guestrooms.
Hawaii’s oldest hotel, Volcano House has been welcoming visitors since 1877 and is located right on the rim of Halemaumau Crater, featuring unobstructed views, from both its redesigned restaurants and several of its guestrooms, of the smoldering plume of gas rising from a deep lava lake hidden beneath a ring of cliffs carved into the crater floor.
“Now you can actually sit down and enjoy a dinner and watch the glow from the lava pond at night from the dining room windows at Volcano House,” Orlando said. “There’s no place else on Earth where you can sit at the edge of an active volcano and have dinner.”
Volcano House certainly offers tremendous views, but it also offers flexibility and easy access to the park. White-outs caused by afternoon clouds occur frequently at Halemaumau Crater, obscuring the stunning vista sometimes entirely, but the weather changes in a hurry at the nearly 4,000-foot altitude around the crater’s rim. If travelers aren’t in a rush to return to to their hotels elsewhere on the island, they can take advantage of better viewing conditions at other times throughout the day. And according to Orlando, mornings are often cloud-free and clear up at the crater, a phenomenon that was definitely true during my recent stay at Volcano House.
“A beautiful time to see the glow is at dawn or even just before dawn,” Orlando said. “At 4 am or 4:30 am, it’s just incredible, and I’m not sure why but it always seems to be clear at that time.”
Home to 150 miles of trails, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an exquisite place to hike and boasts not only an incredible array of geologic environments shaped by not-so-distant eruptions but also protects some of the state’s best preserved native forests, where visitors can see what Hawaii looked like before Westerners brought the host of invasive plants, flowers and trees that are choking out many endemic species across the state today.
The park’s moderately challenging but easily accessible Kilauea Iki trail, about a five-minute drive from the Kilauea Visitor Center, offers an excellent combination of native rain forest, birds and stunning crater views and can be enjoyed without completing the entire four-mile loop trail.
Another bit of advice Orlando offered agents, and an approach that made a great deal of sense to me, was to be honest up front with clients about molten lava at the park. While travelers can certainly enjoy a view of lava’s red glow reflecting off Halemaumau’s gas plume from several vantage points very near the Kilauea Visitor Center after dark, and especially at Jaeger Museum about 10 minutes up the road, seeing actual flowing, molten lava directly currently requires a highly challenging 14-mile, roundtrip hike, a private helicopter tour or a group boat tour not recommended for those prone to seasickness.
Clients who arrive expecting to see molten lava flowing just a short walk or drive from the visitor center will definitely be disappointed.
“Travel agents should find out the latest conditions, because chances are there aren’t any 150-foot lava fountains blowing into the air,” Orlando said. “The main thing is to make sure we’re very honest with our visitors about what they are going to see when they get here because we don’t want people to come and be unhappy.”
Agents can go to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park's website
to get current updates about lava conditions within the park, and there are phone numbers folks are encouraged to call if they’d like to speak with a park official about lava-viewing details.
To learn more about tour operators offering guided products that enable visitors to see molten lava and a listing of some terrific bed and breakfast accommodations near the park, visit www.gohawaii.com/bigisland