You can expect to hear one question above all others if you tell people you're planning a visit to Big Island. "Are you going see the Volcano?"
"The Volcano," as it were, loosely refers to two active volcanoes in the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park; specifically, it's Kilauea that's the real must-see. A 4,000-foot-tall mountain, Kilaeua has been spitting, spewing and oozing since Jan. 3, 1983 and steadily increasing Hawai'i's land mass on its southeastern side. National Geographic reports that more than 500 acres of new land have been added to the island of Hawai'i since this volcano began erupting 27 years ago. Most people who come to the park hope to see some lava flow; some travelers see a little bit, others find nothing. Check in Kilauea Visitor Center for up-to-date information on trails, safety precautions and where to expect lava flow.
Mauna Loa is overshadowed by Kilauea's fame, but not its height — this occasionally snow-capped volcano reaches nearly 14,000 feet and is the second-largest volcano on Earth. Exploring Kilauea will probably eat up much of your time and energy, but don't worry; majestic Mauna Loa is clearly visible and picture-ready in much of the park. Stop to snap a photo from afar even if you don't get up close and personal.
Many choose to spend several days hiking in the park, visiting the Jaggar Museum (where you can learn about volcanography and seismographs), or trekking the Chain of Craters Road (where 2003 lava flow naturally dead-ended a paved road). But if you only have one day, opt for the three-hour hike or 11-mile drive along Crater Rim Drive. You'll pass by the Kilauea caldera and through a magnificent rain forest, enjoying the park's unique vegetation. One thing to skip in a time-crunch: The Thurston Lava Tube, also on Crater Rim Drive, which is almost always overrun with tourists, too cramped and too dark to really enjoy.
The Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is open all day and night year round. Admission to the park costs $5 per person or $10 per vehicle and is good for seven days. You'll find the Kilauea Visitor Center on Crater Rim Drive, south of Hilo off Highway 11. It's open daily from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Jaggar Museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m to 7:30 p.m. Visit the park's official website for more information on operating hours, entrance fees, safety precautions and nearby places to eat. Also check the National Park Service's page on closed park areas.
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