National park visitors should take time to explore


As Hawaii is renowned for scenic grandeur and volcanic origins, it's not surprising that the state is home to two spectacular national parks as well as several significant national historical sites. In this first part of a two-part series, Travel Weekly takes a look at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park. The second installment will highlight the historical sites. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Covering more than 300,000 acres, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island includes a swath of volcanic landscape that ranges from the coast to the 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Loa, Hawaiian for "Long Mountain." En route, the park encompasses much of Kilauea Volcano, whose summit, called Halemaumau, is adjacent to the park's visitor center. 

Located 30 miles west of Hilo, HVNP has campsites and hikers' cabins. There are both easy and demanding trails. The variety of terrain includes dense forest, lava rock desert, coastal flatlands and rocky summits.

A visit to HVNP starts with a driving circuit of the park along the Crater Rim Road, an 11-mile drive that includes walk-through lava tubes; lush, fern-filled rain forest; and a look into Halemaumau's perpetually steaming caldera. The Chain of Craters Road links Kilauea's summit with the coast, following the active East Rift Zone to where it empties into the ocean.

Luckily for the millions of visitors who have seen it, lava has been flowing for the past 23 years, the longest eruption cycle on record. Cars park where lava covered the road some years back, with a well-worn trail leading to lookouts of the eruption zone.

Park rangers are present until sunset. If visitors arrive at dusk, flashlights are a must, as are sneakers or hiking shoes and water. 

Most visitors limit their time in HVNP to a day trip from the resorts along Hawaii's Kona and Kohala coasts, but the park is worthy of a few days' exploration.

Volcanic activity is best seen at dawn and dusk, difficult timing to incorporate into a visit for travelers staying at a western Hawaii resort. Visitors should plan a five-night stay with two nights in Hilo or Volcano Village and three at a Kona or Kohala property. 

They should start by making Hilo the point of entry and/or departure. There is no shortage of accommodations in the area. Volcano House, situated on Halemaumau's crater rim, is the only accommodations option, aside from camping, within the park.

There are numerous bed-and-breakfast inns and cabin rentals in Volcano Village, a township just outside the park entrance. There are several restaurants open for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Volcano Village. There are two general stores for food and basic supplies.

The volcano can be cool, since it's 4,000 feet above sea level and prone to misting rains that come and go, providing an appealing moodiness that suddenly clears to brilliant blue skies. 

Haleakala National Park

Not quite as large as HVNP, Haleakala National Park, on the neighboring island of Maui, is every bit as diverse and dramatic.

The park includes volcanic Mount Haleakala's 10,023-foot summit, its great sunken caldera and a section reaching from the summit to the coast, at Oheo.

Legends are told of the demigod Maui's lassoing the sun from Haleakala's summit, slowing its passage across the sky to give the Hawaiians time to grow and harvest their crops. Haleakala translates as "House of the Sun."

Watching the sunrise from atop Haleakala is a must for many visitors. While sunrise can be exhilarating and beautiful, I'd recommend the sunset following an afternoon hike into the crater, when there are far fewer people to disturb the serenity of the experience. Plus, it doesn't require a middle-of-the-night departure. 

There are several ways to visit the park. The three Park Service cabins in the crater and others on the summit's outer slopes allow for overnight stays that almost always require advance bookings.

Some travelers head into the crater on a five-hour horseback excursion offered by Pony Express Tours. Maui Mountain Cruisers offers downhill bicycling from the summit to the coast, a popular family option that includes stops on the two-and-a-half-hour journey.  

Most visitors reach the summit in rental cars, adding upcountry options to a day's itinerary. These include botanical gardens in Kula, historical churches and visits to Makawao and Keokea, which have small-town charm. Sweeping views mark the route on a two-lane highway that snakes its way to the summit.

After passing through groves of giant eucalyptus and sweeping alpine pastures, travelers reach the visitor center at the mountain's 7,000-foot level. 

Views from the summit are spectacular. The caldera, comparable in size to the island of Manhattan, is the largest dormant summit caldera in the world. Hiking trails offer half-day, full-day and multiday hiking options.  

From Haleakala's summit, the park's wild lands sweep down to the coast at Kaupo. Beyond lies Oheo, where the renowned Seven Pools are located, reached by car after a drive along the scenic Hana Coast.

Oheo, with a separate visitor center, is about nine miles past Hana Town and is a three-to-four-hour drive from Maui's coastal resorts. 

Rather than doing it in one day, travelers should stay a night or two in Hana at the upscale Hotel Hana-Maui or one of the small condominiums, cottage rentals or bed-and-breakfasts, which are the less pricey options. 

Even remote Hana can get crowded with day-trippers from the "outside," as Hana people refer to everywhere else. Being there early and late lets visitors enjoy the beauty before roads and lookouts get crowded, giving them time to experience the unique beauty and style of this isolated part of Maui and the hikes and horseback excursions the parklands offer.  

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For the second part in the two-part series on Hawaii's national parks and historical sites, see "Ancient to modern, historical sites bring Hawaii's heritage to life."


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