Our National Park Series: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

As National Parks and Recreation Month comes to a close, we’re exploring the exotic and culturally distinct Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. We spoke with Jessica Ferracane, a park public affairs officer and 30-year Hawai’i citizen, who serves as an excellent unofficial travel guide, whether you’re a beginner hiker an outdoor enthusiast.


How many visitors does the park have annually? What’s usually their favorite part of the park?


More than 1.3 million people visit the park annually, both tourists and residents combined. Almost everyone wants to know one thing: Where’s the lava?


Lately, day visitors have been dazzled by magnificent views of Halema‘uma‘u Crater and its plume of volcanic gas and ash wafting into the sky.


Halemaumau from Summit - photo credit: Jay Robinson


At night, the plume and the crater glow a mesmerizing orange-red as the lava lake, roiling 200 feet below the earth’s surface, lights it up.


Halemaumau - photo credit: Keith Burnett


Halema‘uma‘u is a crater on Kīlauea, which is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. There are several vantage points of Halema‘uma‘u from the park, including Jaggar Museum Overlook (the closest you can get); Kīlauea Overlook, a quiet place to contemplate the power and beauty of the eruption; and the overlooks at Keanakāko‘i Crater.


Jaggar Overlook, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, USA


What is your favorite part of Hawaiian culture that you get to share with visitors?


I think the most profound Hawaiian cultural concept I can share is that everything has life – not just the plants and animals, but every molecule of water, every rock and mineral, every fragment of lava, flowing or hardened, is alive. Hawaiians call that universal life force mana. Being able to share the world through a Hawaiian perspective with visitors and watching them embrace a whole new respect for the living ground beneath their feet is very humbling for me.


Puuloa Petroglyph Boardwalk


How does the park reflect the culture of Hawai‘i?


Many of our 200-plus employees are native Hawaiian, and the rest of us feel we are Hawaiian at heart, so there is a shared embracing of the host culture here. How we share that with visitors is very special, too, from the ranger-led interpretive hikes and programs to the free Hawaiian music concerts and cultural demonstrations like lauhala weaving, ukulele lessons and more that are offered almost daily. Our cultural programs are very hands-on, and visitors are encouraged to make their own ‘ohe hano ihu (nose flute), to try carving a petroglyph into a rock with a special tool or to create their own kāhili (feather standard).


Hawaiian pounding Kapa cloth

Hawaiian pounding Kapa cloth


Park Ranger Adrian Boone at Jaggar Museum Overlook

Park Ranger Adrian Boone at Jaggar Museum Overlook


Where’s the “best” spot to watch the sunrise?


From the new lava landscape at sea level, near the end of Chain of Craters Road, which faces east on the Pacific Ocean. Catching a sunrise and a full moon rise simultaneously is an extra bonus. Been there, love that!


Best spot to watch the sunset?


For the hard-core backpacker, the summit of Mauna Loa, Earth’s most massive mountain and volcano, is most impressive. It’s for experienced, prepared and in-shape backpackers only who can handle the high altitude (13,677 feet) and freezing temperatures. For the less rugged, there are some sweet vantage points along Devastation Trail as the sun slips behind Mauna Loa.


The most surprising oasis you can find in the park?

The upper Kahuku section of the park, which comprises the southern slopes of Mauna Loa. Sections of rainforest here serve as a pristine refuge for the rare Hawaiian plants and wildlife that inhabit this treasured kīpuka – an oasis of rainforest that thus far has been spared by lava.


‘Apapane and nestlings, photo credit: David Boyle

‘Apapane and nestlings, photo credit: David Boyle


Okay, now which one do you consider the “best,” a true “diamond in the rough”?


Right now, Kīlauea is erupting simultaneously in two places: at Halema‘uma‘u as described above and at Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō vent. The surface flows from Pu‘u ‘Ō’ō are currently visible on the coastal plain and have been flowing in- and outside the park since 1983 when the vent began to erupt. If the flows are in the park, intrepid visitors can make a grueling 10-mile round-trip hike to see molten lava. And the distance varies depending on what the lava is doing. No matter what is happening, there isn’t really a marked trail, as this section of the park is constantly being covered in various lava flows, but during eruption, rangers place beacons along the way so visitors can find their way there and back. Again, it’s a remote backcountry hike that isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly a diamond in the rough!


Where would you go to find the most surprising wildlife?


The rain forest is a great place to enjoy not talking and to turn off cell phones and listen to the singing forest birds like ‘apapane, ‘amakihi and ‘ōma‘o. These honeycreepers are endemic to Hawai‘i – there’s nowhere else on Earth you’ll find them, and they are exceptionally rare in Hawai‘i as well, but thrive in the protected sanctuary of the national park. People who live in other parts of the state are speechless when they hear what the Hawaiian forest is supposed to sound like.


Nahuku Rainforest - photo credit: Dave Boyle


If I’m an outdoorsperson and I’m planning a trip to your park, what are some things you’d tell me?


The first thing I’d say is that the lava is everywhere, volcanic activity formed these islands, and it is everywhere. Take time to marvel over the plants that pioneer new flows and eventually create our rainforests and harbor so much diversity, endemism and life. Enjoy nature’s sculptures in the hardened lava, and take your time. This park is nearly the size of O‘ahu, and there is much to see and enjoy.


The second thing I’ll say is be prepared! The park has many different climate zones and the weather and temperature change dramatically from the entrance station at the summit of Kīlauea (4,000 feet) to the summit of Mauna Loa (13,677 feet) to sea level. Read about how to prepare for your hike on our Web site, http://www.nps.gov/havo and http://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/hike_bc.htm


Have you been to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park? What are some of your own tips for prospective visitors?


  1. Mary | August 2, 2012 | 11:59 am

    As I live 30 minutes from the HVNP I consider it in my “backyard”. We enjoy camping, hiking and day trips to the vast and diverse landscape the area offers. Tips for prospective visitors include……get out of your car and walk for at least 30 minutes in any direction! Have rain gear and be prepared for abrupt changes in the weather! Enjoy a bike ride through the park, explore the coast line, hike to a summit…….so much to see and do!

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