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A Walking Guide to Hawaii's Volcanoes. General information for visitors.

Sun, surf, and VOG - Hawaii's active volcanoes.

The original Drive-In-Volcano, Kilauea volcano on Hawaii Big Island is possibly the most accessible active volcano in the world - and active it most certainly is.

Barring a few moments of respite, the current eruption has been going almost continuously since 1983, and has delighted lava-hungry visitors from across the world.


Right: the steam plume created by molten lava flowing into the sea at the Kalapana ocean entry on Hawaii Big Island.
© Mat & Niki Adlam-Stiles 2008

Mount Etna viewed from the Piazza in Zafferana Etnea

General character

Having become so familiar with the character of Mount Etna, a visit to the active volcanoes of Hawaii was bound to have some surprises.  The two biggest surprises were the sheer scale of everything, and the variety. Hawaii is an island of contrasts - with tropical coastal areas, lush rain forest, arid deserts, and high mountains.  And prices range from fantastically inexpensive, to absurdly expensive.  You'll also regularly hear the phrase "it's a big Island".  "Bah Humbug", we thought, as we studied a map, noting that Big Island is a meagre 95 miles from tip-to-toe.  But when it's taken you two hours to drive less than 1/2 way around the island, you conceed.  It is, indeed, a big island!

The other thing that will strike you about Big Island is how very organised they are! You could argue that this slightly "sterilises" the experience, and when we visited, there was no hope of getting right close to the action. That said, the authorities do actively want people to have the best volcano experience they can - but a safe one!


Time to Visit

The Big Island of Hawaii claims to have near perfect weather all year round - a claim they can make by virtue of the fact that somewhere on the island it will almost certainly be sunny (except at night of course!). Somewhere else on the island though, it will almost certainly be raining!

The key thing about the weather, is that if it is raining, all you need to do is wait 1/2 an hour, or drive for 1/2 an hour, and you'll probably be out of the worst of it. Trade winds tend to blow fairly consistently all year round, with the Hilo (east) side of the island catching the rain, and the Kona coast (west) being fairly arid. Kilauea volcano covers a huge area. It sits pretty much in the middle of Hawaii Big Island, so has quite a mix of dry/wet weather.

Temperatures are a pleasant 85o in summer / 75o in winter down by the coast, but can drop to sub-zero when you get up at alititude. Mauna Kea is nearly 4200m high!

We visited in mid-late September as the seasons are changing from Summer to Winter. The coast was pleasantly warm, but up in Volcano village (~1100m altitude) it was certainly cool at night. If the weather was rubbish, we just went somewhere else, and it was beautiful! In bright sun, it was about 4o at the summit on Mauna Kea. On our visit, it rained every single day, but not once did it stop us getting out and about and enjoying the island.


Places to stay

Accommodation on Big Island varies massively in price. At the cheap end of the market, there are a few hostels with bunk-room style accommodation, such as the simple but inexpensive Hilo Bay Hostel (, and there are camp-grounds available, although these tend to be more oriented to short-stop semi-wild camping on the hiking trails. Stay Kona side, and you can wave good bye to a significant wedge of your hard-earned on some top-notch hotels, and there's every level of accommodation in between.

There's a good selection of places to stay listed at Look carefully at where your chosen accommodation is, and what activities you hope to do on the island - you can spend a lot of time driving around. We took a small vacation rental in Volcano Village that was listed on and were very pleased with it. We've heard some good reports of the My Island B&B - in Volcano Village also.

If you want to go posh, then the Kona side of the Island is for you. There are some large, luxurious hotel complexes with large, luxurious hotel prices - but that's not very "Winster Cavers", so you'll be looking elsewhere for recommendations!

Watching Hawaii's volcanoes from a distance:

The main source of information on Kilauea comes from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, based at the Jaggar Outlook in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Whilst many sites report on Kilauea, it seems as if all paths eventually lead to HVO.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory produces informative daily reports, and has webcams pointing at the two main active vents, Pu'u O'o and Halema'uma'u. A webcam pointing at the Kalapana ocean entry would be nice, but (at the time of writing) doesn't seem to exist.

Guided Excursions on Kilauea:

There are a whole host of organisations that will guide you around Kilauea and the surrounding area. Providing you're happy hiking on rough, isolated terrain, then our advice would be to spend your hard-earned on a 4x4 hire car instead. The trails through the Volcanoes National Park are excellent, hiking maps are readily available, and a guide is unlikely to get you closer to the action that you can get going solo.

There are frequent ranger-guided walks. These are very informative, and usually free! You'll learn a great deal about the island by attending one of the ranger guided walks - highly recommended. Just call in at the Kilauea Visitor Centre for the latest details.

And having saved a few pennies (cents!?) by going largly self-guided, you could always treat yourself to either a helicopter ride, or a boat trip. Neither are cheap, although the helicopter rides somehow seem to better justify the expense. There are some "no-fly" zones because of the volcanic fumes that could potentially stall a helicopter's engines (oouch!), and if you're going out to sea, make sure your captain has a suitable certificate of competency - the surf can be vicious.

Getting around Hawaii Big Island

Put simply - hire a car! But more seriously, look carefully at where you can take your vehicle. Many hire companies do not allow you to go up the Saddle Road, despite the recent upgrading. And look out for the extras on your insurance!

Harpers Car Hire will allow you to off-road, but you pay for the privilege, and we've heard you're well advised not to dent your motor! We ended up with a big Chevvy 4x4 from Alamo Car Hire which we were allowed to take up the Saddle Road at least.

Hawaii is a "No Fault State", so you'll need your own SLI insurance. We found ourselves suitably covered by our car hire policy from - an annual CDW/LDW policy that you can use instead of taking out the often expensive cover touted at the car hire booths.

Self-guided excursions on and around Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii

From our various visits, we've compiled together a series of walking guides for Hawaii Big Island: