We’ve been back to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii three different times, and each time we’ve been to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This past summer was our first trip with the kids, and we knew we wanted to make time to visit again – because the obvious choice of excursion with a 3-month old baby and a toddler is a big pit of lava! It was actually a really fun place to take the kids, and while our baby seemed underwhelmed, our 3-year old loved it! Take a look at my guide for making visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with kids fun for everyone.
What is it?
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii, close to Hilo, and about a two-hour drive from Kona on the west coast. The entire Big Island is made up of five volcanoes that overlap each other, and of those five, Kilauea and Mauna Loa make up the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. These two are active volcanoes, and their activity changes every day. This means that every time you visit the park, something different could be happening, and often there are certain areas of the park that are closed due to lava or ash clouds. When we visited in July 2016, the volcanoes were fairly quiet and most of the park was open, but we’ve visited in the past to find whole roads closed because of lava flow! It’s pretty exciting, but can make planning a trip difficult. If you want to visit, definitely keep your eye on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park official website for all of the current conditions and alerts. The park is generally open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, although hours on the visitors center change.
Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service
What is there to do?
When you enter the park, your first stop should be the Kilauea Visitor Center. The center offers guide maps, restrooms, and a gift shop, as well as exhibits and stories of Hawaii’s indigenous people. I would definitely stop there with little ones; it is an easy (and clean) place to change a diaper or use the bathroom, and a great place to pick up a map and get your bearings. Weather surrounding the volcano can also be unpredictable; in July it was 85 degrees in Kona, but at the National Park it was cool and chilly. We bought a sweater for our 3-year old Harrison in the gift shop and not only did it keep him warm, but it was a great – and practical! – souvenir.
Once you leave the visitors center, you’re free to explore the park as you wish. Traveling with little ones, I would definitely recommend the Crater Rim Drive tour, which is a self-guided tour through the best areas of the park. You’ll hit all of the best stops, without going too far from bathrooms or places to take a break if the kids get tired. Always pay attention to the signs throughout the park, especially ones that warn of volcanic fumes in the area; they can be particularly hazardous to babies, young children, and pregnant women (while we were there, we had to skip a few places because we were traveling with a young baby).
Stop one on the Crater Rim Drive will be the Jagger Museum. The museum is extremely informative and goes into great detail about the history and formation of the Big Island, and there are working seismographs and equipment used to study volcanoes. My little guy was fascinated by the models of the volcanoes, and loved learning about what made them erupt. There is also a gift shop here with some really great activity books and coloring books for kids; we left with a coloring book on Hawaiian fish that provided entertainment on the plane ride home! The museum also has the always important bathrooms!
The best bit about the Jagger Museum, however, is the Halema’uma’u overlook, where you can see down into one of the volcanoes craters and look out for lava. When we were there, we saw a lot of steam but no lava, although just a few weeks after we left, visitors were able to see lava spurting out from the crater. The next stop on the Crater Rim Drive is the Kilauea Overlook, which overlooks the same crater, just with far fewer people. If the Jagger Museum is crowded and you want a better look at the crater, move on to this next stop.
After the Kilauea Overlook, the drive takes you to the steam vents and steaming bluff. This is the stop we had to skip while traveling with a baby because of the volcanic fumes, so if you have a little one, you might want to consider skipping this one. The next stop takes you to another overlook, the Kilauea Iki Overlook, which overlooks a fairly quiet crater, and then after that, drive on to the Thurston Lava Tube.
The Thurston Lava Tube was one of Harrison’s favorite things about the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park! The lava tube is nestled in a lush fern forest, and walking through the forest to the actual tube feels a little like being in Jurassic Park! The large, cave-like tube is so much fun to walk through, and it’s amazing to think that hundreds of years ago, lava was rushing through it! The tube is dimly lit and the ground is a little uneven; my little guy almost tripped a few times. This is also 100% NOT stroller friendly! Carrying a baby or a baby carrier would definitely be the way to go here!
After the lava tube, head to the Devastation Trail. This is a 30-minute walk (that is completely stroller accessible) where you can really get a feel for the barren land that lava leaves in its wake. This is a good place for kids to burn off some steam, as the trail is paved and it’s easy for them to walk. Depending on the age and activity level of your kids, from here you could also hike to the Keanakako’i Crater, where you can see evidence of a 1982 volcanic eruption. On a clear day, this is also an amazing place to see Mauna Loa’s 13,677 summit.
Where to eat
You have a couple of options for food within the park. The easiest and most popular is to bring a picnic. You’ll be driving anyway, so leaving a cooler in the car is easy, plus there are plenty of picnic spots around the park. Pack some sandwiches, chips, and fruit, and have lunch overlooking the lava – because you can’t do that every day!
If you’d rather have a sit-down meal, then stop by Volcano House. The lodge offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, with tables overlooking the Kilauea caldera and Halema’uma’u Crater. The menus feature traditional Hawaiian dishes such as Kalua Pork, as well as burgers, salads and fish, and a fantastic kids menu. We thought the food was fantastic, and it was nice to enjoy the view of the crater while inside in the warmth for a while! The bartender also made a great mai tai!
Overall, this was easily one of our favorite places that we visited on our trip to Hawaii last year. The sight of actual lava is kind of amazing and terrifying, and Harrison thought being on a volcano was just the coolest thing. It’s really fun to find out more about the island and its history, as well as see just how the volcanoes are shaping its future.
Have you visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with your family? What are your best tips on what to see? Let me know in the comments!