If you have never been to the Big Island of Hawaii I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is a lot to see and do. No lie. There is a ton. We stayed on the island for 2 weeks and never even cracked the surface of most of the top attractions. Volcanoes National Park was no different. This park is huge. It deserves a full day at the very least, more if you have the time. Many visitors head over for the day from the west side of the island, grab the highlights in just a few short hours and head back. Fortunately we were staying on the east side of the island so we had a little more time to explore.
The key to tackling the park with a toddler is to do a little research ahead of time. Figure out what you want to see the most and go from there. Everyone wants to see lava, but that isn’t always possible. Contrary to popular belief, lava isn’t always visibly flowing and shooting up into the sky (yes, I thought this too). If lava is on the move at the surface it may be impossible to get to or too dangerous to venture near. Guides at the visitors center will hand you a map with various sections X’d out in red to let you know which roads and trails are closed during your visit. Once you know the off limit areas look back at your list of must-see sights and head out to explore.
With little legs and a mom in her 2nd trimester of travel (that would be me) we needed some easy hiking. We chose to drive around the Kilauea Caldera to see the Halema’uma’u Crater with a side trip into the Thurston Lava tube. If we had time we planned on driving down Chain of Craters Road. Unfortunately we could not squeeze all of this into one day. The Chain of Craters Road would have to wait for another trip. We still feel like we managed to see quite a bit with the time we did have and the entire family was able to enjoy.
- If you don’t have to make it a quick day trip don’t. Stay the night on the east side at the very least. You owe the volcano that much.
- Don’t plan on seeing the Sulphur Banks unless you and your partner each take turns. The fumes are not recommended for young kids or pregnant women. The whole family can enjoy the Steam Vents just across the street though.
- Definitely take a stroll through the Thurston Lava Tube. They are well lit and short enough for little legs to walk through. If your kids are a little scared, show them how cool your echo sounds bouncing off the walls. When all else fails, let them jump in a puddle or give them a flashlight to hold.
- The Jaggar Museum offers loads of information for volcano enthusiasts along with some spectacular views of the crater smoking up a storm.
- Stay at the park until at least 6:30pm so you can see the Halema’uma’u Crater lit up as the sunsets. You might not get to see flowing lava, but this is a close second to be sure. The Jaggar Museum stop along Crater Rim Drive is the most popular viewing spot, but there are several around the Caldera that can give you a nice view with fewer crowds.
Know Before You Go
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
- Cost: one time fee of $10 per car (as of this posting) lets you return for up to 7 consecutive days with receipt.
- Hours: Open 24-hours a day, 7 days a week
- Kilauea Visitor Center: open 7:45am to 5pm (Park rangers lead free guided walks throughout the park each day)
- Thomas A Jaggar Museum: open 8:30am-7:30pm
- Restrooms are at the visitor center and most stops along the crater rim
- Food is not available in the park, but you can bring your own
- Check with the guides at the visitor center to see what roads are closed and if there is any easily accessible lava sightings. Don’t let them push you into only seeing the crater at night with a toddler. There may be some good hiking spots you can still get to.
- Pack a baby carrier or kid hiking backpack. Little legs might not be able to navigate all of the trails, at least not at a nice pace if you want to actually see anything. Strollers are pretty much useless throughout most of the park if you want to see anything.
- Dress warmly and in layers! Even though it is a volcano on a tropical island temperatures can get pretty chilly (lows of 40s and 50s F). We were in jeans and sweatshirts and still I could have used an extra layer.
- Rain is not uncommon on this side of the island. Come prepared with gear that will still allow you to explore the park no matter the weather condition.