Established in 1916, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has provided visitors with a window into the Big Island's geothermal past for the better part of a century. On display here are the results of 70 million years of volcanic activity, migration, and evolution. The terrain ranges from lush rain forest to desolate igneous bedrock, and it includes miles of newly formed coastline created by lava flows. The park also varies in elevation from sea level to the summit of the world's most massive volcano - Mauna Loa - which rises to a height of 13,677 feet.
Here at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the current main attraction is an active volcano, Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. It has been calculated that it pours out some 250,000 to 650,000 cubic yards of lava every day. Impressive plumes of steam rise up from the Pacific Ocean where the lava comes into contact with the cool water. At night, the red glow of molten rock can be seen from miles away.
The Kilauea Iki Trail leads 3.3 miles around the rim of the volcano's crater and down 460 feet to its center. Sulfurous vapor still escapes from the cracks in the crater floor. The most active part of the volcano, the 1,320-foot-deep Halemaumau caldera, is closed to visitors, owing to its noxious fumes, but one of Kilauea's dormant vents - the Thurston Lava Tube - is accessible and well worth visiting for its eerie environs.
Also located at the Kilauea Crater on its rim is Volcano House, the only guest lodgings located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The original accommodations were built in 1846 when the U.S. Geological Survey Team was located here. Today, the hotel has 42 guest rooms, a dining room overlooking the smoldering caldera, and a welcoming fireplace whose embers have burned uninterrupted for over 135 years.
More than half of the park has been designated wilderness, and it provides visitors with a number of unusual hiking and camping opportunities. Kipuka Puaulu, for example, is known as the "Bird Park Trail,'' owing to the many species of birds that make this area their home. The 0.7-mile loop is a study in flora and fauna, having survived lava flows to provide refuge for native plants and animals.
Another big attraction is the 18.3-mile Chain of Craters Road. As its name implies, it provides access to a number of craters that can be hiked and studied. It also leads to a site of ancient petroglyphs before terminating near the ocean where lava has enveloped the pavement.
The Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs Field at mile marker 16.5 of the Chain of Craters Road features more than 23,000 carvings into the lava rock. They were made by natives and visitors to the area in the early 15th century, showing human forms, canoe sails, circles and other geometric patterns that chronicled their ancient lives.
The Kilauea Visitor Center provides maps, brochures and short films to help visitors get the most out the park. It is located just beyond the gatehouse at Crater Rim Drive, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii 96785. Just 96 miles from Kailua-Kona and 30 miles from Hilo, the park never closes, operating 24 hours a day, year round, although the Visitor Center's is open only from 7:45am to 5pm. The entry fee is $10 per vehicle and ample free parking is available.