Kilauea Volcano

Kilauea Volcano Facts

Country:United States
Coordinates:19°25'16" N 155°17'13" W
Elevation: 1,247 m / 4,091 ft
Volcano type: Shield volcano
Typical eruption type: Hawaiian
Recent eruptions:Jan 1983 - current
Activity status:Active, currently erupting

Kilauea volcano is probably the best choice for travelers who want to watch erupting volcano. Kilauea is located within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, in the southeastern part of the Big Island. Kilauea is a shield volcano, relatively flat, with a summit caldera at 1,247 m (4,091 ft) altitude, 4 km (2.5 mi) wide, 3.2 km (2 mi) long and about 120 m (400 ft) deep. Halema'uma'u is a crater inside the caldera. Kilauea's activity is concentrated at the summit and along two rift zones: The East Rift Zone and The Southwest Rift Zone. In the past years the most active vents where those in the East Rift Zone, including Pu'u O'o, Kupaianaha as well as Kamoamoa fissure that opened with a lava eruption in March 2011.

Most of the Kilauea Volcano areas are within a very well organized Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The authorities do their best to allow volcano tours and watching them during activity periods as long as it's safe. There are usually special trails set up to watch eruptions from a safe distance. The hazards may include "lava bombs" - rocks ejected from the vents that can fall even hundreds of meters away, collapses of the ground near vent areas or potentially lethal concentrations of sulfur dioxide. It's impossible to predict which, if any of the volcano sites or trails will be restricted during the activity. It is recommended that visitors check the status of the volcano with the Visitor Center located just north of the Kilauea Caldera. Visitors will find countless interesting sites in Kilauea during repose or away from the active vents. The views of dramatic volcanic landscapes are breathtaking and definitely worth a trip to the National Park.

Kilauea Volcano Tours - Sites and Trails

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Map
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Map. Modified from map by National Park Service

Kilauea Visitor Center

The Kilauea Visitor Center is located north of the Kilauea Caldera, near the Park entrance. This is the recommended starting point of the visit - tourists can obtain there valuable information about current activity (and currently restricted areas or closed roads), they can also purchase trail maps, books or videos.

Volcano House

The Volcano House is located near the Visitor Center, built on the site of former Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the crater rim. It's a hotel with 42 rooms, where non-guest visitors can stop by and spend some time at the bar or in the restaurant from where they can enjoy beautiful views of the Kilauea caldera, or Mauna Loa Mountain. The Volcano House belongs to The National Park and is currently closed, undergoing renovations. The Park authorities estimate that it will reopen in early 2012.

Crater Rim Trail and Crater Rim Drive

The Crater Rim Trail is a 17.5 km (11 mi) loop around the Kilauea Caldera. It starts by the Visitor Center. For visitors who have enough time, a whole day walk on this partly paved trail can be an excellent introduction to the volcano. The trail goes parallel to the Crater Rim Drive, so visitors with less time can also drive around the crater making stops in well marked most interesting points. One of the most interesting points of the trail and the Rim Drive include: Steam Vents, Kilauea Overlook, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Jaggar Museum, Keanakako'i Overlook, Thurston Lava Tube or Kilauea Iki Overlook.

Inside Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volocanoes National Park
Inside Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National
Park. Photograph by The Big Scout Project

The Halema'uma'u Trail

The trail is 5.1 km (3.2 mi) long and starts at the Volcano House and goes southwest across the Kilauea caldera to the Halema'uma'u Crater overlook. The barren lava landscape on the caldera floor is really breathtaking. Visitors can admire stunning views of lava flows, spatter cones or yellow sulfur deposits from earlier eruptions. The Halema'uma'u Crater is the highlight of the trail. It is around 1 km (3,000 ft) in diameter and about 83 m (270 ft) deep. There are no trails down the crater floor. The Halema'uma'u Crater can also be reached from the south side, from the Crater Rim Drive where a small trail starts at the parking lot.

Thurston Lava Tube

Lava tubes form when a lava channel from an eruption cools faster on the surface at the same time allowing hotter lava to flow in the center of the channel. In time the cooled surface lava builds walls and roofs, forming a tube. If at the end of eruption lava drains the tube, what's left is a spectacular tunnel-shaped cave.

The Thurston Lava Tube is about 400 years old and well worth visiting. The trail inside the tube is about 120 m (400 ft) long and since the ceiling is up to 6 m (20 ft) high, visitors can comfortably walk inside it.

The Thurston Lava Tube is located south-east of the Kilauea Visitor Center, short drive on the Crater Rim Drive or by foot on the Crater Rim Trail.

The Sandalwood Trail

The Sandalwood trail is a loop about 2.4 km (1.5 mi) in length that starts at Volcano House. It's an easy walk that first goes through rainforest then along the steam vents at the edge of the caldera (called Steaming Bluff). There are also nice views on the Kilauea Caldera, Halema'uma'u Crater and Mauna Loa. A short walk from the trail is the Sulfur Bank - a hillside with many sulfur and gypsum deposits. There you can smell the sulfur fumes in the air coming from the vents (the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide).

Chain of Craters Road

Holei Sea Arch - the end of Chain of Craters Road
Holei Sea Arch - the end of
Chain of Craters Road.
Photograph by LuxTonnerre

The Chain of Craters Road runs from the southeast of the Crater Rim Drive towards the coast of the island. It's relatively short, only about 32 km (20 mi) but you will need a full day if you want to explore the attractions along the road.

First attractions begin just south of the Crater Rim Drive, in the East Rift Zone, where you can see many fractures, spatter cones and pit craters. The pit craters like Puhimau ("Ever Smoking"), Lua Manu ("Bird Pit") or Ko'oko'olau, Pauahi ("Destroyed by Fire") and Hi'iaka are the highlights of this part of the road. The next attraction down the road is Mauna Ulu. It's a 100 m (300 ft) high lava shield created by flows from Kilauea's eruptions in the East Rift Zone from 1969 to 1974. The Napau Crater Trail that starts at Mauna Ulu leads to a spatter cone called Pu'u Huluhulu ("Shaggy Hill"). There are great panoramic views of the East Rift Zone, Mauna Loa as well as Pu'u O'o from the top of the cone (on a clear day).

Other interesting stops down the road are overlooks called Muliwai a Pele ("River of Pele"), Kealakomo ("The Entrance Path"), Halona Kahakai ("Seashore Peering Place"), Alanui Kahiko ("Old Road") and Holei Pali. Then you can explore a short (about 1.6 km / 1 mi) trail that leads to Pu'u Loa Petroglyph Field that has over 15,000 individual petroglyphs (carvings on lava boulders). This is one of the best and largest petroglyph fields in Hawaii.

Down the road from the Pu'u Loa Petroglyph Field the road curves to the left and continues parallel to the coastline. It ends near the place where it was overrun by lava flows from Pu'u O'o in 2004. At the end of the road there is a small trail that leads to the ocean and an overlook of Holei Sea Arch.

During activity of Pu'u O'o it was many times possible to see active lava flows from designated viewing points located near the end of the road.

Hilina Pali Road

The Hilina Pali Road, about 13 km (8 mi) long, starts at the intersection with the Chain of Craters Road, about 3.2 km (2 mi) south from its beginning. In its first part the road passes through the active Koa'e Fault and then reaches Kulana'okuaiki Campground. Then this scenic drive leads to the edge of a steep cliff of Hilina Pali ("Cliff Struck by Wind"). At the end of the road is Hilina Pali Overlook - a picnic area with a stunning view of the coast and the cliff that is about 518 m (1,700 ft) high. Note that Hilina Pali road is paved but very narrow so everyone needs to drive there very carefully.

Airplane and Helicopter Volcano Tours

Airplane or helicopter volcano tours are becoming more and more popular as they provide a unique opportunity to see Volcano craters, active vents or lava flows from a save distance while saving time and sometimes strenuous hikes. The views could be so extraordinary and breathtaking that such tour will most likely last in your memory forever (not to mention some amazing aerial photographs that you can take and bring home). For those who can spare some extra money such helicopter or airplane volcano torus are strongly recommended.

Some of the tour companies that offer Kilauea Volcano tours are Safari Helicopters (departures from Hilo, prices start from around $160 per person for 40-45 min tour), Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (from Hilo, from around $200 per person for 50 min tour), Sunshine Helicopters (from Hilo or Hapuna, from around $175 per person for a 35-45 min tour) or Paradise Helicopters (from Hilo, prices from around $200 per person for a 50 min tour). In addition to helicopter tours, Iolani Air Tour offers airplane tours that depart 5 times a day from Hilo airport ($175 for one hour tour), Maui Air offers flights from Kahului and Kapalua - from $355 per person for two hours tour.

Other Hawaiian Volcanoes: Mauna Loa Volcano  •  Haleakala Volcano