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Places in Hawaii: Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u Crater

Basic Information

  • What: The Halema’uma’u Crater
  • Where: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  • Cost: $15 per vehicle or $8 per individual (more info)
  • More Information: National Park website

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

Narrative

During the visit I made to Hawaii’s Big Island, the top thing that my family and I wanted to see was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  I have been around active volcanoes before such as Mt. St. Helens as well as the North Island of New Zealand.  However, I have never been around a volcano that actually spew molten lava.  As I would later find out there is much more to Hawaii National Park than just volcanoes with its beautiful forests and coastline.  The main attraction though is without a doubt the Kilauea Volcano:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

Kilauea is a large rounded shield volcano that continues to spew lava and rise up from the ocean below.  It is hard to believe that from the National Park that visitors are actually 4,000 feet above sea level because of how massive this volcano is.  The temperature change was definitely noticeable and actually quite pleasant compared to the much hotter temperatures along the coast.  The best place to check out Kilauea is from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory which is inside the National Park:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The observatory traces its roots all the way back to 1912 as various researchers used the observatory to monitor Kilauea.  Today the observatory is run by the US Geological Survey:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

Inside of the observatory there is the Jaggar Museum that has a number of displays that explain the geology and history of Hawaii’s volcanoes.  However, the place is an absolute madhouse so the best advice I can give people is show up early if you really want to be able to read all the displays without feeling rushed by the crowds:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

What I did learn is that Kilauea is believed to be 300,000 – 600,000 years old and has various eruptions over the centuries to build it up to its current height.  Its latest eruption has been happening continuously since 1983.  Here is a map inside the museum that shows all the various lava flows over the years that can be seen on the Big Island caused by Kilauea, the neighboring Mauna Loa volcano and the Hualālai volcano outside of Kona:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The lava flows depicted on the map are pretty impressive when seen first hand like we had the chance to do during our visit to the Big Island.  Due to the crowds inside the observatory I spent most of my time outside taking in the views of Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u Crater:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The crater is absolutely enormous, but there is only a small part of the crater that is still spewing lava today.  From this smaller area of the crater only the hazardous smoke from this eruption can be seen:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

Outside there were also a number of displays that I found easier to read compared to dealing with the massive crowds inside the museum.  There has been many times when Kilauea has put on dramatic lava shows, but its current eruption pattern is very low key compared to prior eruptions:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

In fact at times the crater can become one giant lava lake:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

From 1823 to 1924 the lava lake filled the crater full time which must have been quite a site.  Famed British travel writer Isabella Bird wrote about Kilauea’s lava lake in her fascinating book about her trip to Hawaii in 1873 titled: “Six Months in the Sandwich Islands“:

Today the lava lake only sporadically occur.  Here is a Youtube video of the lava lake back in 2015:

After checking out the views from the observatory my family and I then followed a trail heading east along the crater:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The trail is part of the much longer Kau Desert Trail:

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Map

Probably most surprising about the hike was how lush portions of the crater’s rim are despite the active volcano and scorched earth down below:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

Even without looking towards the crater there was still plenty of signs that we were walking on an active volcano despite the lush foliage:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The trail also had periodic vents where hot air and gases from the volcano were blowing out:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The air pumping out of these vents was extremely hot and could only be bared for a short while before people had to step back away from them:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

The biggest vent of all though was always visible to the south though and always impressive to see no matter what angle we looked at it from along the trail:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

We walked about a mile down the trail before turning around and heading back to the observatory.  One final thing we checked out at the observatory was to come back at night and see the lava glow.  This is extremely popular thus we showed up just before sunset to make sure we were able to get a parking spot.  The observatory was not as busy as earlier in the day which allowed me to check out more of the Jaggar Museum.  As soon as it was dark my family and I went outside and enjoyed the lava show:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

During the day the lava flow is obscured by the smoke, but at night without light the lava can be seen through the smoke.  The pictures I took really do not do it justice because it really is a spectacular scene that has to be seen for one’s self to really be appreciated:

Picture from Halema'uma'u Crater

Conclusion

Overall visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and its Halema’uma’u Crater really should be a must see attraction for anyone visiting the Big Island.  Judging by the crowds I saw at the crater most people are heeding this advice for good reason.  The Halema’uma’u Crater is definitely one of the attraction on the Big Island well worth dealing with the crowds to experience.

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