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Hawaii is known across the world for its active volcanoes that shape the islands. If you’re planning a trip to see some volcanic action, Hawaii has several incredible options.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the top places to see volcanoes in Hawaii are Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, Haleakala National Park on Maui, and Waimea Canyon on Kauai.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about experiencing volcanoes on the Hawaiian islands. You’ll learn about the different volcano sites, what makes each one unique, and tips for visiting to have the best experience possible.

Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea

The most active volcano on the Big Island, Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983, making it one of the world’s most remarkable sites of active volcanism. Located within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea offers incredible opportunities for visitors to see flowing lava making its way across the land and into the ocean.

One popular area is the end of Chain of Craters Road, where lava often collects in a lava lake that eventually overflows down to the sea. This provides a rare change to see red-hot molten rock cooling as it meets ocean waves.

In 2018, Kilauea had a major eruption event that caused destruction in nearby residential areas but also led to breathtaking changes in the park itself. New steam vents, fissures with fast-moving lava flows, and a collapsed summit crater now reshape the landscape.

Monitoring equipment allows scientists to study Kilauea closely, improving predictions about what areas may be impacted next. As the most active site for lava in Hawaii, Kilauea brings in visitors from all over the world hoping to witness Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, create new land before their eyes.

Mauna Loa

While less active than its neighbor Kilauea, Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the world when measured from the sea floor to its summit caldera. At 13,679 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa also claims the title for tallest sea mountain on our planet.

Despite having erupted 33 times since 1843, this shield volcano has a somewhat mysterious side – there are only written accounts for about half of those events. An eruption in 1950 came with almost no warning, racing down the slopes at up to 35 miles per hour and prompting the creation of Volcano House hotel as a way to boost tourism during less lively periods.

Today visitors can drive to Mauna Loa’s summit, taking Saddle Road across dried lava flows from past eruptions. While molten rock may be elusive, the views from here are unforgettable – on clear days you can see all five volcanoes that form the Island of HawaiĘ»i.

Mauna Loa also has numerous fissure vents along rift zones where lava emerges far downslope during eruptions. Keep your eyes peeled while exploring the park; you never know when small spatter cones or tricky lava tubes may appear!

Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park is home to the towering Haleakala volcano, which forms the eastern half of the island of Maui. The massive crater at the volcano’s summit measures 11 miles across and 2,600 feet deep, with stunning geological formations carved by erosion.

Two remarkable sections of Haleakala National Park that showcase the power and allure of volcanoes are Haleakala Crater and the lava fields and cinder cones dotting the landscape.

Haleakala Crater

The yawning crater is unquestionably the highlight of Haleakala National Park. Millions of visitors peer over the edge each year to witness the crater’s raw, rocky slopes and undulating multi-hued sands. The alien landscape almost resembles the surface of Mars!

According to astronomers, the summit’s clear air and minimal light pollution make Haleakala one of the world’s best spots for skygazing – you can even view planets and galaxies with the naked eye. Talk about an out of this world experience!

Lava Fields and Cinder Cones

While most lava flows occured in Halekala’s distant past, the persevering 1949 flow from Mauna Ulu vent proves volcanoes still smolder within the park. Twisty pahoehoe ropes of rocks line this flow following Mauna Ulu’s impressive 5-year eruption stint.

Cinder cones resulting from trapped gas bubbles spewing cinders also dot the landcape, with names like White Hill and Halemauu tracing their origins. The dormant Haleakala volcano may well burst forth again one day, as the Hawaiian Islands creep northwest by around 3 to 4 inches each year over the Hawaiian hotspot.

Oldest dated lava flow 1790 AD
Newest dated lava flow 1949 AD
Tallest cinder cone Pu’u Ola’i at 1,650 ft

For an even closer look, travellers can descend into the crater on hiking trails leading 722 feet down the Sliding Sands Trail to the crater floor. Just be aware the steep route is challenging and those with heart or respiratory issues should avoid the intense descent.

Or simply soak up bird’s eye panoramas along crater rim points like Kalahaku Overlook. However you choose to take in the raw spectacle of Haleakala Crater and Mauna Ulu lava fields, it’s guaranteed to leave visitors in awe of nature’s fearsome force.

Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is a must-see natural wonder for any visitor to Kauai, Hawaii. Carved over countless centuries by the Waimea River, this gorgeous canyon stretches over 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and more than 3,500 feet deep.

There are several excellent vantage points from which to admire the breathtaking vistas of Waimea Canyon. One of the most popular is the Waimea Canyon Lookout, located along Highway 550 near mile marker 10.

From here, you can take in panoramic views of the reddish canyon walls streaked with gray and green. The lookout has a small gift shop and restroom facilities. Further up the road is Waimea Canyon Overlook, which offers an even better elevated perspective at 3,336 feet above sea level.

Hiking Trails

For those looking to explore Waimea Canyon on foot, there are several scenic hiking trails to choose from. One great option is the short but steep Waipoo Falls Trail, which leads to an 800-foot waterfall.

The more challenging hike to Koai’e Canyon rewards efforts with gorgeous views down a side canyon filled with tropical foliage. For those with less time, taking even just a short walk down one of the trails at Waimea Canyon Lookout provides a taste of the natural beauty.

When to Visit

Waimea Canyon is beautiful all year long, but the best conditions for clear views are typically during Kauai’s dry summer months from April to October. During the winter rainy season, clouds and fog may obscure visibility within the canyon.

Sunrise and early morning tend to offer the clearest views before clouds have a chance to roll in.

No matter when you visit, you’ll be treated to unforgettable vistas of this iconic Hawaiian landscape. Just be sure to bring a jacket or sweater, as it is typically at least 10 degrees cooler at the higher elevation of Waimea Canyon.

Mauna Kea

Towering nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is Hawaii’s tallest mountain and the tallest mountain in the world when measured from base to summit. Despite its incredible height, most of Mauna Kea is actually below the ocean’s surface – only about 4,200 feet of the volcano rises above sea level.

This makes it an ideal location for astronomical observatories, as its high elevation provides excellent viewing conditions and its distance from city lights allows for incredibly dark night skies.

Mauna Kea’s summit is home to 13 telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 countries around the world. These include some of the world’s most advanced telescopes, like the Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter telescopes and the Subaru Telescope’s 8.2-meter primary mirror.

Using these exceptional instruments, astronomers have made many important discoveries about our universe from the summit of Mauna Kea.

In native Hawaiian tradition, Mauna Kea is considered a sacred site. The summit is thought to connect the sky and earth realms, making it a place of immense spiritual significance. Ancient Hawaiians came to Mauna Kea to deliver offerings and celebrate various rituals.

Today, some native Hawaiians continue these practices and consider the mountain’s astronomical development to be sacrilegious. This has led to ongoing tensions and protests about the use of Mauna Kea’s summit.

For visitors wanting to experience Mauna Kea, there are a few options. Checking out the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet is a great way to acclimatize and learn about the mountain’s unique ecosystem.

Hardier travelers can take a four wheel drive tour up to the actual summit, but should come prepared for the high altitude, cold temperatures, and lack of amenities. And several operators offer Mauna Kea stargazing tours, which combine visiting world-class telescopes after dark with awe-inspiring views of the clear night sky.

Planning Your Hawaii Volcano Tour

Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit Hawaii’s active volcanoes depends on your interests. For observing lava flows, May to July tends to be peak season when Kilauea Volcano is most active spewing molten rock. The big island sees less rain and cloudier skies during its summer months, offering prime volcanic viewing.

If you’re lucky, you may witness the dramatic spectacle of lava meeting ocean along the island’s southeastern side. For exploring volcano terrain, aim for April to October when weather conditions are milder for hiking adventures across hardened lava beds and through volcanic craters.

Beware summer’s heat and higher daytime temperatures. For peak whale watching nearby, target the winter months of November to March when humpbacks are migrating and calving in Maui’s waters.

Safety Tips

When touring active eruption zones, be aware of health and safety hazards. Heed all warning signs, stay on marked trails, and avoid venturing out onto cracking ground which could break away. Beware of volcanic smog called vog, containing sulfur dioxide and other gases which can irritate lungs.

Lookout for falling rocks around unstable crater rims. Bring approved N95 face masks for filtering fine particles, plus gloves and protective eyewear. Stay upwind of lava entry points where bursts of hot acidic steam containing hydrochloric acid and volcanic glass particles can cause injuries.

Keep skin covered against irritation from acidic particles settling on exposed areas. Bring plenty of drinking water to stay hydrated in hot conditions. For overnight stays, choose accommodations with air filtration systems.

Check Hawaii’s volcano observatory website for latest eruption updates and safety advice. https://www.usgs.gov/observatories/hawaiian-volcano-observatory

Accommodation Ideas

The best places to stay while visiting Hawaii’s volcanoes depend on your budget and interests.

  • Volcano Village is the closest community to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the big island, with cozy cabins, lodges, inns, and vacation rentals nestled in rainforest surrounds.
  • Hilo town on the island’s eastern side offers more amenities and affordable hotels and motels within reasonable driving distance to park sights.
  • Upscale eco-resorts edged by black sand beaches, like HVNP’s historic Volcano House hotel, offer premium park access through guided ranger hikes showcasing volcanic highlights.

Where possible, book accommodations with air filtration systems which filter out vog particles during active eruption periods. Compare peak versus off-peak pricing when planning dates. Consider vacation home rentals for extra space and convenience for larger groups and families.

Conclusion

With its cluster of active volcanoes, Hawaii offers some of the world’s best volcano viewing and unique landscapes formed by lava flows over millions of years. From lava lakes to volcanic craters, each volcano site has something different to discover.

Visiting Hawaii’s volcanic peaks and valleys is an unforgettable travel experience. Use this guide to help you choose which incredible site to visit on your next trip to Hawaii.

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