Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii - Drive Through an Active Volcanic Area

This 18.3 mile drive through the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park features many scenic pullouts and side trails. It varies in elevation from sea level to 4,000 feet. There are no special facilities or services along the way, other than simple toilets. They are located at Mauna Ulu, mile marker 3.6, and at the very end of the road. It is a good idea to come prepared with plenty of drinking water and sunscreen. A hat and good walking shoes are recommended if any off-road hiking is planned.

The first site along the way is at mile 0.2, where a two-car pullout is located. This is the trail head for the Keanakakoi Crater Hike. About a third of a mile along, several shade trees can bee seen jutting out from the dark landscape-The Lava Trees-survivors of the 1974 lava flow.

Back on the road, which begins rising to a height of 3,500 feet, stops can be made at mile 0.4 to see the Lua Manu Crater, 0.9 for the Puhimau Crater and Thermal Hotspot, and 2.2 for the Devil's Throat pit crater, formed in 1912. At mile 2.5 is the Hi'iaka Pit Crater, 300 feet deep and 1,200 feet in circumference. At mile 3.1 is the Pauahi Crater, active as recently as 1979 and measuring about 350 feet deep, 300 feet wide and 1,800 feet long.

The Pu'u Huluhulu and Mauna Ulu craters at mile 3.6 are noted for their fissures, odd rock formations, and the Pu'u O'o vent. Trails are numerous here and well worth exploring. At mile 4.1 is the Ainahou Ranch, built in 1941 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Other volcanic sights to see along the route are Mauna Ulu at mile 6.2 and Muliwai a Pele at 7.2. The outlook at marker 9.6 is called Kealakomo. An excellent view of the coast can also be had at mile 10.2, known as the H?l?na Kahakai pullout.

From here the road begins to descend about 1,500 feet. At mile 11.5 the road cuts through solid lava rock and takes a 180 degree hairpin turn. Alanui Kahiko can be found at mile 13.7, a place where lava has covered the old road. At mile 14.9 is the Skylights Climb, a trail that leads up a hill with a hole in it-the Lava Tube Tumulus-where magma was once vented.

Among the top attractions to be seen during this drive are the ancient lava rock carvings known as the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs, at mile 16.5. They are accessible from the parking area, a 0.7-mile walk over undulating pahoehoe bedrock where more than 23,000 petroglyph images appear. Most of these are cupules or holes, but others are clearly human forms, circles, and canoe sails. They were made in the early 15th century, when the area was still inhabited and a frequent stopping point for visiting seafarers.

A final must-see attraction is hot lava pouring into the sea at mile 18.3. The molten rock throws up plumes of steamy white vapor as it hits the cool water, but it is best viewed in the evening when the red glow of the lava can be seen as it flows down to the coast. Any attractions missed on the way in can be seen on the return journey, for the road dead-ends here, where solidified lava has crossed the road en route to the Pacific Ocean. The only way back is the same road that led in.

To get to the start of this scenic drive, take State Highway 11 to the entrance of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Pass the park gatehouse and turn left onto Crater Rim Drive for three miles to the intersection of Chain of Craters road. Turn left onto Chain of Craters road. The park is open from 7:45am to 5pm daily. The entry fee is $10 per vehicle.

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