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Best Drives In Hawaii: The Chain of Craters Road

Basic Information

  • Name: Chain of Craters Road
  • Where: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  • Distance: 18 miles
  • More Information: National Park website

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Narrative

There are many great drives to experience in Hawaii, but definitely one of the top drives can be found at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  It is the only place in Hawaii and in fact most of the United States where you can drive through an active volcanic rift valley. The road that traverses this rift valley inside of the National Park is called the Chain of Craters Road.  The road is only 18 miles in distance, but feels much longer because my family and I kept finding ourselves stopping to take in the incredible sites along this road.  My first stop was to take my family on the short half mile hike on the Thurston Lava Tube Trail:

After completing the hike we then got back in our car and next stopped at the Lua Manu Crater:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Lua Manu which is Hawaiian for “bird crater” was formed approximately 200 years ago, but received a fresh flow lava into the crater back in 1974 when a fissure opened nearby.  Lava from the fissure flowed into the crater filling it and then flowing across the Chain of Craters Road.  However the crater would later drain about 2/3 of the lava through pre-existing fissures in the ground leaving the crater to look the way it does today:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

The next stop I made was at the Pauahi Crater:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Pauahi is Hawaiian for “destroyed by fire” and is a crater much larger than the previously mentioned Lua Manu Crater.  This crater is approximately 1800-2000 ft. (548.6-610 meters) long, 300-500 ft. (90-106.7 meters) deep and 300 ft. (90 meters) wide.  The last eruptions in this crater occurred between 1973 and 1979.  This crater is still active and could come back to life at anytime judging by the steam I could see coming out from the bottom of this massive crater:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Something I noticed as I was walking to the crater was these lovely flowers called Kahili ginger.  This flower is not the type of ginger that humans eat, but instead is considered a destructive weed on Hawaii since it chokes out and kills native plants:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

I next stopped at the Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu lookout which is Hawaiian for “Long Continuous Mountain” due to the lava flows that extend out from the nearby Mauna Ulu volcano.  Views of the lava flow can be seen stretching all the way to the ocean:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

The lookout is also the start of the Keauhou Trail that can be used to access multi-day hiking adventures within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  From the lookout it is a 6.8 mile hike through the lava field down to a campsite located on the coast.  From the campsite trails to other destinations in the park can be accessed:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

There is another lookout nearby that provides views of the Mauna Ulu volcano which is Hawaiian for “Growing Mountain”:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

On May 24, 1969 a series of fissures opened up from the ground spewing massive lava fountains.  For four years lava poured from the fissures before finally piling up and building the small shield volcano seen today:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

The lava from this volcano repeatedly covered the Chain of Craters Road and forced it to have to be rerouted and reconstructed many times:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

From this lookout views all the way down to the ocean are also available:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

My family and I next stopped at the Kealakomo Overlook which is Hawaiian for “The Entrance Path”:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

This overlook had even more expansive views of the ocean and the coastal plan down below:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

The views were quite stunning, but considering the large rain clouds I saw coming in I decided we needed to hurry down to the coastline before it rained on us:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

From the lookout the Chain of Craters Road quickly descended down the lava flow cliffs to the coast line.  These 2,000 foot cliffs when viewed from the coastline are quite impressive:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Here is a panoramic view that shows how these cliffs form up into the Kilauea shield volcano.  All the various craters we saw in the National Park are all scattered on top of this giant volcano:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

As the road paralleled the coastline I saw a few signs warning visitors about the hazardous conditions along this coastline:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

At the end of the road there is a turnaround point and then cars have to park along the side of the road to explore the coastline on foot:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

So my wife, kids and I parked and walked over to the Hōlei Sea Arch lookout. As we walked over to the lookout we once again saw another hazardous coastline sign just in case we hadn’t gotten a clue yet that this coastline is in fact hazardous:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

As we walked over to the sea arch we were able to get a good look at various lava patterns that could be seen in the surrounding rock:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

From the lookout we had a good view of the sea arch which in my opinion wasn’t all that impressive:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

This sea arch was formed by the waves crashing against the lava rock shore.  In a few years or even decades from now this sea arch will eventually collapse due to the erosion, but others will continue to form on this coastline:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Here is a view looking in the opposite direction where many other arches and sea caves created by the eroding waves can be found:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

One thing that visitors will not see at this lookout is lava flowing into the ocean.  The nearest lava flow is to the north of the lookout and thus not visible from anywhere along the Chain of Craters Road:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

The active lava flow is located on the opposite side of the ridgeline visible from the lookout:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

The final thing we decided to do was to take a short walk down the gated portion of the road:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

This gate portion of the road make for a pleasant hike especially for someone with young kids like I have:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Along the road we could see how the plant life was slowly beginning to reclaim the lava flows that had destroyed the forests that had previously covered this area:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

There was a section of coconut trees we noticed that I can only think must have some how avoided being covered by the lava flows:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

We walked down the road for about a half mile before coming to another gate:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

My three year old son and six year old daughter were now pretty tired so we stopped our hike here.  The lava passed the gate appeared to be a newer flow due to its darker color, the smoothness of the rock and lack of vegetation.  It is pretty amazing to look back towards the cliffs of Kilauea and see how far this lava flowed towards the ocean:

Picture from the Chain of Craters Road

Conclusion

My family and I had a great time driving down the Chain of Craters Road.  We spent about six hours checking out the various sites along this road and were not able to see everything.  Keep in mind I was traveling at three year old speed so adults can probably check out all the sites within a day unlike us.  All this means though is that the next time we come to the Big Island we will definitely be back to see more of the sites along this amazing road.

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