Explore Crater Rim Drive
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Crater Rim Drive is an 11-mile road that skirts the edge of the Kilauea Caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and contains several scenic views and hiking opportunities.
If you had to choose only one thing to do in HVNP (may that never occur!), this drive would be it. The Park entrance station is just off Hwy 11, 95 miles south-east of Kona and 30 miles south-west of Hilo. Keep right onto Crater Rim Drive for Kilauea visitor center in 0.3 miles. They will be able to answer any questions you may have about the road/trails ahead.
*** At this time, several attractions along Crater Rim Drive remain closed due to the most recent volcanic events & activity. Check with the ranger station for details about closures during your visit. ***
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Sights you will see along the drive
Listed in order driving clockwise around Crater Rim Drive
Kilauea Visitor Center
The visitor center is on your right once you pass the park gates and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. This is a good place to get out, stretch your legs, and learn a little bit about the park you will be visiting. The rangers are available to answer your questions and provide maps. A brief 25-minute video about the volcano with footage from recent eruptions is shown here during the day. Take a few minutes and wander around the museum to gain a greater knowledge of the plant and animal life, geology, and culture of this area. Some ranger-guided tours are given daily, check the front door for times. If you are planning on hiking in the backcountry, please ask for a permit from one of the rangers. The park is a living breathing entity, and the landscape can change quickly, it is a good precaution to let the rangers know where you are going. Public restrooms are available.
Volcano Center Art Gallery
This small building is located to the left of the visitor center. Inside is an outrageous collection of local artwork such as native wood carving, painting, pottery, and jewelry. Even if you aren't in the market for a souvenir, stop in anyway and marvel at the artistry. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The ultimate room with a view, Volcano House, has been lodging park visitors since 1846. Perched on the edge of Kilauea Caldera, Volcano House has some superb views in the park. The building seen today is the grandchild of the original grass house built by Benjamin Pittman Sr. in 1846. In 1877 the first wooden building was erected only to be burned later on in 1940. George Lycurgus, who purchased the hotel in 1895, rebuilt it in 1941. Some notable guests of the Volcano House include Mark Twain and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even if you don't plan on sleeping here, go inside for a look around. The main showcase is the massive fireplace, which, according to legend, has been burning for 125 years (apparently some embers were salvaged from the 1940 fire). There is also a dining room, snack bar, and several gift shops.
The trail to this very stinky place starts near the Volcano Art Center. The path will lead to an open area with banks covered in bright yellow sulfur deposits. Fissures in the earth allow Kilauea to release sulphuric gases. The rising gas allows the sulfur crystals to form. While fascinating to observe, the stench of rotten eggs can be a bit overwhelming. The volcanic gas also includes other toxins that should be avoided by people with heart or respiratory problems, young children, and pregnant women.
It's easy to forget as we scoot along the Crater Rim Drive that the heart of a volcano is actively beating beneath our feet. You can feel its breath at this unique location on the side of the crater. On your left is the large parking lot with pathways to the steaming bank as well as fenced-off holes that belch warm, sulfur-free steam. When the rain falls, it seeps into the hot rocks below the ground, which produces the magnificent warm plumes. They are most stunning early in the morning when the air is cooler. Not to mention, there will be few people cramming around the vent for a facial. A small path begins from the parking lot and leads to the Crater Rim Trail, which provides smashing views of the caldera and a few more steam vents. Across the road from the parking lot is a small paved path that leads to the Sulphur Banks.
The parking lot for the lookout is on the left about .7 miles past the Steam Vents. From this vantage point, you can truly appreciate the magnitude of the Kilauea Caldera, which spans two miles and drops 400 feet. Imagine this vast space oozing with molten rock. A frightening and awe-inspiring thought for sure. Geologists now believe that the bubbling lake of lava exists 2 miles below the floor. In the distance to the right is a large depression. This is the famous Halema'uma'u Crater. A better view is coming up at the Jaggar Museum. Visitors often overlook this area, but it is a great location for a picnic or a restroom stop.
Jaggar Museum & Hawaiian Volcano Observatory - Currently Closed
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was built in 1912 by Dr. Thomas Jaggar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally located by the Volcano House, it was later moved to its current location on the highest point of the crater rim. Here scientists use the latest technology to monitor the volcano. It is off-limits to the public. Next door is the Jaggar Museum, one of the most popular stops in the park. If you reach the museum later in the day prepare to have a lot of company and for a good reason. Inside is a treasure trove of geological specimens and equipment. Of particular interest is some of the equipment used by geologists who monitor the volcano. Seismometers and a tiltmeter show the daily activity of the volcano for visitors to view. Video screens also show footage of some historical and recent flows. Step outside onto the veranda for a spectacular view of the Halema'uma'u Crater. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Southwest Rift Zone
Back on the Crater Rim Drive, after the museum, you will cross over a huge fissure in the volcano called the Southwest Rift. This is a weak part of the volcano where it is being pulled apart. This huge crack begins at the summit and continues down to the ocean. Magma flows through the rifts, occasionally erupting on to the surface. This happened recently in 1971 and 1974. Be cautious in this area as it is downwind from Halema'uma'u, and volcanic gases can settle here.
Halema'uma'u Overlook - Closed Currently
If you were to have visited this overlook in the 19th century, you would understand how it earned the name "firepit." During this time, a swirling, fiery lake of lava filled the crater. The parking lot is on the left and a short 10-minute walk down to the lookout. It is not paved, so wear close-toed shoes with a good grip. Once you reach the overlook, you will be peering into the volcano goddess Pele's sanctuary. Although her flows are plunging into the ocean elsewhere, her home is in Halema'uma'u. Cultural ceremonies are held, and offerings are sometimes left for her on the crater rim. As you gaze into the 300-foot deep crater, imagine what it was like, as a visitor in the 19th century, to look into the bowels of hell. In 1924 the plug was pulled on Halema'uma'u, like a hellish bathtub. The lava rapidly disappeared from the crater, leaving a gaping hole in the volcano that allowed rain water to penetrate. This set off a series of huge steam explosions that catapulted rocks out of the crater, which can be seen on your walk to the rim. Although the lava is long gone, sulphuric fumes can still linger. Small children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with heart or respiratory problems should steer clear. The Halema'uma'u Trail begins at the lookout and continues 3.2 miles across Kilauea Caldera. It is a lovely day hike with concludes at the Visitor Center on the other side of the park. Just down the road from Halema'uma'u is the site of the September 1982 lava flow. This eruption lasted 15 hours as fountains of lava shot up out of the fissures. Two new cracks developed during the eruption, which allowed the lava to flow to the northwest and south.
Keanakako' i Overlook
Keanakako' i is up the road on the right. The ancient Hawaiians would visit this crater to harvest extremely hard stone for use in tools. In 1877 a lava flow covered the entire floor of the crater, shutting off access to the stone. Across the street from Keanakak' i is a fissure that erupted continuously from July 19, 23, 1974. The reddish coloration of the rock is the result of oxidation by the escaping gasses.
Devastation Trail (parts are currently closed) and Chain of Craters Road
The Devastation Trail section leading to the Byron Ledge Trail is currently closed due to the most recent volcanic activity.
Just one mile past Keanakako' i Crater Crater Rim Drive intersects Chain of Craters Road to the right. To the left is a road leading to the Devastation Trail parking lot. We will return to Chain of Craters later. For now, turn left into the parking lot. The half-mile Devastation Trail is a 10-15 minute walk that reaches from the parking lot to the Pu'u Pua'i Overlook further down the road. From this end, you will begin your stroll along a paved path through an ohia jungle until suddenly the canopy opens to a stunning barren moonscape. In 1959 Kilauea Iki erupted, spewing this portion of the trail with lava and incinerating the forest. Now a blanket of tephra (pumice) serves as a resting place for bleached ohia limbs. Little sprigs of life are working their way through the crusty surface in an attempt to rebuild the forest that once stood there. The trail continues to Pu'u Pua'i Overlook, where you can turn around and head back the way you came or circle around and take Crater Rim Drive back to the parking lot.
Pu'u Pua'i Overlook
Pu'u Pua'i means "gushing hill" in Hawaiian, a name that is quite appropriate for this cinder cone. During a 1959 eruption in Kilauea Iki Crater, cinder and ash were shot into the air and blown to the southwest where the cinder cone was formed. From this overlook, you can see into the Kilauea Iki crater and across to the Kilauea Iki Overlook.
Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
As we head toward Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube), you will notice the change in scenery from barren to lush jungle forest. The abundant rainfall in this region of the park feeds the tropical vegetation. Nahuku is one of the main attractions in the park, and congestion builds up from all the tour buses. If you get up early, you might have the chance to experience it in relative privacy. About a mile from Pu'u Puai Overlook, the lava tube has parking on the left side of the road with the entrance on the right. Like veins leading from the central "heart" of the volcano, lava tubes direct molten earth toward the ocean. As the lava flows, the outer crust begins to harden while the inner lava continues to flow. Once the flow stops, the tunnel formation remains. Thurston Lava Tube could date back some 350-500 years. You will take a short trail through lush vegetation replete with tropical ferns and singing honeycreeper birds called Apapane. Cross a short bridge, and you enter the damp, dark world of a lava tube. Lit for safety, the tube is a fascinating experience that ends too quickly. When you reach daylight, you have the opportunity to continue through a gated area into the un-lit portion of the cave if you so choose. Make sure to bring a strong flashlight! Restrooms are available near the entrance to the trail.
Kilauea Iki Overlook and Hike
Half a mile down the road on the left is the parking lot for Kilauea Iki Crater, which is home to one of the most amazing lava eruptions in the park's history. In November 1959 Kilauea Iki began gushing streams of incandescent orange lava. The glowing fountains of molten earth reached heights of 1,900 feet. At one point, Kilauea Iki was a 414 ft. Deep lake of bubbling lava. As you stand at the overlook, you can see a lightly-etched trail stretching across the crater floor. From your 400 ft high vantage point, you might be able to see little specks walking the path: those are people. Kilauea Iki is an approximately four-mile loop that takes 2-3 hours. It skirts the rim of the crater, dips down and across the floor, and back up to the overlook. You can either take the Crater Rim Trail to the right around the rim of Kilauea Iki and then down to the crater floor, then back up the other side or go left and begin the hike with the descent into the crater. We prefer the first option simply because you can enjoy the beauty of the rim rainforest at the beginning of the hike, and the ascent is slightly less arduous. The portion of Crater Rim Trail that runs along the rim is a dense high-elevation jungle populated with flowering ohia trees and graceful ferns. If you are not in a hurry, take a few minutes to gaze overhead, and you may catch a glimpse of the apapane. They are one of the most common Hawaiian forest birds, but their deep red feathers and black beaks make them a beautiful sight. The apapane loves to flit from ohia blossom to ohia blossom drinking its nectar. Gaps in the jungle cover reveal breathtaking views of the black crater floor, a stark contrast to the thriving forest. The trail descends into the crater with a mixture of stairs and steep terrain. Make sure you have applied plenty of sunblock because the sun seems much more intense on the exposed floor. Once you have reached the bottom, whole new alien landscape envelopes you. What looked like a pebble from the rim is now a massive pile of lava rock. Along the cliffs, you can see a high watermark or a lava ring in the crater. Although you are walking across solid land, just below you molten earth still stirs. If the elements are right, you may even see steam sneaking between the cracks and crevices - reminders that this volcano is still alive and breathing. The path back up the crater rim will branches off at to Thurston Lava Tube parking lot, or you can continue back to the Kilauea Iki overlook. If you have a good day to spend and have the stamina, you can also hike to Kilauea Iki from the park visitor center on the Crater Rim Trail or the Byron Ledge Trail. From here, the rest of Crater Rim Drive is a gorgeous curvy road through lush vegetation until you read the park entrance.