See my article on other activities on the Big Island
The National Park Service, which manages national parks, national monuments, and other federal properties, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Just 3 of the 59 national parks, Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, and Lassen National Park, turn 100 in 2016. My mom and I were in Hawaii Volcanoes NP on NPS's actual anniversary!
Volcanoes NP is located on the southeastern part of the island, encompassing almost 500 sq mi from lush forest down to the arid coast. The park is easily seen in a day, with short to moderate hikes along the 35mi Chain of Craters road. The current lava flows aren't easily seen short of an 8mi exposed hike along the coast.
The visitor center looks out over the Halemaʻumaʻu crater, where you can see the occasional blip of orange lava.
[above: Halemaʻumaʻu crater from the visitor center. It's said that Pele, a Hawaiian Godess, lives in the crater. She's feared and revered, someone you don't want to cross. She's a creator (of things beautiful, like the Hawaiian Islands), and a destroyer, with a temper as hot as her passion. She's a shape-shifter, taking the form of a beautiful woman or old white-haired beggar, ready to test you. Hawaiian folklore is full of her stories, and growing up in Hawaii, you learn from a young age to respect her and the Hawaiian land. Removing lava rock or sand from Pele's home will bring a mound of misfortune (and I still adhere to that to this day).]
The type of lava varies from chunky, rough a'a to smooth, wrinkly pāhoehoe. The texture depends on the temperature and the flow's velocity at time of cooling. Below you can see a relatively recent flow within the last few hundred years that reached the sea, and the smooth pāhoehoe in the foreground with mounds of a'a.
[above: The different types of lava from the lighter to darker]
Chain of Craters Road
Most of the park is accessible from the Chain of Craters Road, about a 30mi drive from the Visitor's Center to the coast. Plan time to drive it, stop at various lookouts, and hike.
[above: Driving down the Chain of Craters road, you can see the old 1000yr flows in brown compared to newer black flows.]
[above] Old flows that came down from the craters to the sea.
[above] The current flow that's hitting the ocean originates from the Pu'u O'o crater, which is on land that's not accessible to the public. You can hike 8mi round trip along the exposed, hot, and wind-swept shoreline to see where the flow reaches water.
Kilauea Iki Trail
Stops along the Chain of Craters are very well marked. The Kilauea Iki trail is a 4-mile hike down through the Kilauea Iki Crater that erupted in 1959. I highly recommend downloading the pdf guide that explains what you're looking at for the 15 trail markers--it's really fun and informative.
[above: Descending into the crater.]
[above: The crater floor, with the first life post-eruption, the ʻŌhiʻa tree with Lehua blossoms. (Big Island Bees sells honey from the Lehua flower)]
"The legend says that one day Pele met a handsome warrior named ʻŌhiʻa and she asked him to marry her. ʻŌhiʻa, however, had already pledged his love to Lehua. Pele was furious when ʻŌhiʻa turned down her marriage proposal, so she turned ʻŌhiʻa into a twisted tree. Lehua was heartbroken, of course. The gods took pity on Lehua and decided it was an injustice to have ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua separated. So, they turned Lehua into a flower on the ʻŌhiʻa tree so that the two lovers would be forever joined together. So remember, Hawaiian folklore says that if you pluck this flower you are separating the lovers, and that day it will rain." --lovebigisland.com
Thurston Lava Tube
[above: The Thurston Lava Tube, a <0.5mi jaunt. It's right off the Chain of Craters road in the denser forest section. You can also walk through it by linking it to the Kilauea Iki trail.]
If you're short on time for the Kilauea Iki trail, the 1mi Devastation Trail is a good alternative to see the varying terrain from the same 1959 eruption.
[above: Desolate lava flow with the first sprouts of green leads to a forested area.]
Farther down Chain of Craters road, almost to the sea, are the Pu`u Loa petroglyphs, a 1.5mi round-trip hike on flat land.
[above: Most of the petroglyphs are where childrens' umbilical cords, or piko, were buried, to give a long and prosperous life.]
End of Chain of Craters Road
[above: Arch at the very end of Chain of Craters road.]
It was really awesome to finally get to Kilauea after growing up with its legends. Volcanoes NP, as a federal property, doesn't go much into the mythology, but it's a really fun read, especially for kids, before you go.
And, before you leave, check your shoes and empty out any lava rock and sand stowaways from your shoes and gear!