Kilauea is far from dormant. The latest eruptions within the crater date only back to the 80's, and steam and sulfur vents can be seen and smelt in different areas. On the north rim of the crater, the steam vents of the Steaming Bluffs/Akanikolea provide visceral evidence of the ongoing processes. The overlook lies just off the Crater Rim Drive.
This is the heart of the Park, a two-mile wide crater - an open-air museum of vulcanism. Here you will find 80-90% of the Park's visitors assembled in their ubiquitous rental cars. The Park Visitor Center and Headquarters is here just off the northeast rim near HI 11 - the highway that leads from Kona to Hilo. The Volcano House Hotel lies directly on the caldera rim at 3980 feet/1213 m offering rooms with a view. Camping - and cabins, too - can be found just off the northwest rim at Namakani Palo along HI 11.
Most people drive the 11 mile Crater Rim Drive - there is also a trail which parallels the road - which goes around the rim, visiting subsidiary craters, traversing volcanic deserts and rainforests, acting as a starting point for hikes into and around the caldera. There are over 150 miles of trails within the Park. Water, sunscreen and sturdy footgear should all be considered before heading out To see all around the crater, figure on the better part of a day or more.
Sometimes visitor centers are like traps, but National State Parks are different. They are usually packed full with all the information a curious traveler will want. Visit the visitor center before making your drive/trek along Chain of Craters Road ... many things will be explained and you will get so much more out of your tour.
The Kilauea Caldera makes for an excellent day hike, but for those with little time, the park service has established turn-outs with very short walks to a safely controlled viewpoint. Old folks, children, wheelchairs, etc., can all appreciate the beauty of the nominally active volcano. To fully appreciate the steam vents from afar, binoculars are very useful though, so don't leave those behind. The turn-outs are well marked by signs and parking is controlled, even if congested at times.
This was our first trip to the Volcano National Park. We wanted to see everything so I found it was best to ask one of the rangers at the information centre. Her name was Sandy and she recommended to start at the Steam Vents, then Sulfur Banks and follow Crater Rim Drive to the craters such as Halema'uma'u and onto Thurston lava tube. A tip..take your torch when into the tube. Not for seeing but when you exit you can go into another section which is only accessible with a torch. Finally at dusk drive the 38 miles down Chain of craters road to the end then walk along the old lava flow to see the lava pour into the sea. It rounds off the great day.
There are several places along Crater Rim Drive where you can view the Kilauea Crater. From Visitors Center, walk across the street and past Volcano House to the short trail to Caldera Overlook. Since Volcano House was temporarily closed, I don’t think many people know about this overlook so it was the least crowded. There was only 1 other couple who came by while we were there. It offers a great view of Kilauea Caldera and the steaming Halema’uma’u Crater.
Further down Crater Rim Drive, the Kilauea Overlook offers a closer view of Kilauea Crater & Halema’uma’u Crater. Restrooms and picnic tables available at this overlook.
Kilauea is called a summit caldera (or crater). It is two-and-a-half miles long, two miles wide and about 400 feet deep. At other times it has been as deep as 800 feet but lava flows from and near Halemaumau have, over the years, filled it to its present level. The most recent lava flows in this caldera were in 1974 and 1982.
Many visitors come to the summit of Kilauea, take a quick look into the caldera, say, "Hmmm, that's nice," shrug their shoulders, and move on. All they see is a hole in the ground, big and black and steamy to be sure, but not something that jumps out and grabs them. Well, there's more to this place than that!
The caldera that you can look at today, only one of many down through the centuries, was created around 1500AD when the roof literally caved in after the lava drained from an underground magma chamber, causing the unsupported volcano summit to collapse and various steam explosions to occur.
Scientists know this because explosive and lava-fountain deposits dated at about A.D. 1500 are plastered against the vertical walls of the caldera so clearly the walls were there when the explosions occurred. How deep the caldera was then is unknown, but it was, at least part of the time in the next three centuries, 1500 feet (500 m) or possibly more, deeper than at present. There may have been periods when parts of the floor collapsed still farther.
So, the history of the modern Kilauea caldera has been dynamic. There is much more there than just a hole. There is a past rich in lava eruptions and explosions, and there is a future with similar events in store. We happen to live in a time when the caldera seems quiet and passive. Had we been here in the 15th century, we would have seen a mountain, and in the 16th century, a hole. Nothing is permanent except change.
In the picture you can see Kilauea's crater as well as the pit crater of Halema'uma'u -- an impressive sight discussed in another Must See activity.
My grandmother found from talking to one of the rangers (she talks to everyone) that there would be a ranger led walk to the Kilauea Crater that morning at about 10:30, so I did that. He gave us a talk at the visitor's center first and it was very interesting. We went through a tropical rainforest to the very edge of Kilauea Caldera
If you are going to the Big Island, you HAVE to see the Kilauea Crater. It's way larger than I ever imagined. Compared with the lush growth of the rest of the Island, the Crater is a wasteland. Along the way, stop and get out to look around. There is a museum as well which offers some history on the Volcano.
Signs mark Lava crossings on the road from past eruptions. I use the term "crossing" lightly because the Lava obliterates everything in it's path.
Some of the hiking trails in the park will take you down to extinct lava tubes which look like caves.
You can hike down in here though I didn't get a chance to do that last time I went. You will most likely be hiking on the side of the caldera along one of the many trails in the area. Make sure you stick to traveled pathes and don't venture off into a pig path. Many of the trails are badly marked which is how I got lost the last time.
You'll find two craters here. The big one far off in the distance is called Halema'uma'u and the one near the walking paths is called Kilauea Iki.
The views from the look out points are awesome!
The walk to the Halemaumau Overlook was beset with fumaroles issuing a nasty mix of steam and sulfur dioxide. The breathing here was quite unpleasant, and the fumes were hot enough to burn a hand held over the ground exit?so don?t do it! Much of the dust and many of the angular blocks littering the surface here were torn from the walls of Halemaumau in the unusually violent steam eruptions of 1924.
Hot smelly gases issuing from numerous fumaroles deposit elemental sulfur on the rocks at the summit of the Kilauea Caldera. These faults provide passage for the gases, which presumably emanate from the hot magma plumbing still running beneath the caldera. Some plants, like the Ohia Lehua can grow surprisingly close to the gas vents.
There are also some nearby sulphur banks which contain sulphur deposits left where volcanic gases have seeped out with groundwater steam.
Stay on the Chain of Craters road and you will come to Kileuea Iki. There are two overlooks here so you can see the smooth lava floor 400 feet below.
I think this is the best chance to get a spectacular view to lava and several volcanoes in the park. Highly recommended to do that!