As they say in the Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning, the very best place to start,” i.e., the park’s Kilauea Visitor Center (808/985-6000, daily 7:45am-5pm) and headquarters. It’s the first building you pass on the right after you enter through the gate to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. By midmorning it’s jammed, so try to be an early bird. The center is well run by the National Park Service, which offers a free film about geology and volcanism, with tremendous highlights of past eruptions and plenty of detail on Hawaiian culture and natural history. It runs every hour on the hour starting at 9am. Free ranger-led tours of the nearby area are also given on a regular basis, and their start times and meeting places are posted near the center’s front doors. Also posted are After Dark in the Park educational interpretive program activities, held two or three times a month on Tuesdays at 7pm. If you are visiting with kids, ask the rangers about the free Junior Ranger Program. They’ll give each child a park-related activity book, pin, and patch.
The museum section of the visitors center looks like it was constructed at least 20 years ago before museums got technological updates, but it still offers relevant information about the geology of the area, with plenty of exhibits on flora and fauna. If you are interested in these topics, a quick stop here will greatly enrich your visit. A walk around the museum will only take about a half hour. If you’re looking for more volcano-specific information, you’ll find that at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum a few minutes up the road.
The small gift shop in the visitors center has park posters, postcards, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and raincoats as well as lots of books and maps to help navigate you through the park and kid-friendly volcano-related toys, too.
In addition to all the fun stuff at the visitors center, there is serious business that takes place. For safety’s sake, anyone hiking to the backcountry must register with the rangers at the visitors center, especially for sites that have occupancy limits. There is no charge for camping, and rangers can give you up-to-the-minute information on trails, backcountry shelters, and cabins. Trails routinely close due to lava flows, tremors, and rock slides. The rangers cannot help you if they don’t know where you are, so it is imperative to let them know where you’re going.
Many day trails leading into the caldera from the rim road are easy walks that need no special preparation. Before you head down the road, ask for a trail guide from the rangers at the visitors center, fill up your water bottle, and use the public bathroom.
Even if your plans don’t include an overnight stop, go into Volcano House, across the road from the visitors center, for a look. A stop at the lounge provides refreshments and a tremendous view of the crater. Volcano House still has the feel of a country inn. This particular building dates from the 1940s, but the site has remained the same since a grass hut was perched on the rim of the crater by a sugar planter in 1846. He charged $1 a night for lodging. A steady stream of notable visitors has come ever since: almost all of Hawaii’s kings and queens dating from the middle of the 19th century, as well as royalty from Europe. Mark Twain was a guest, followed by Franklin Roosevelt. More recently, a contingent of astronauts lodged here and used the crater floor to prepare for walking on the moon. Since 1986 the hotel has once again been under local management as a concessionaire to the National Park Service.
Volcano Art Center Gallery
Across the parking lot at the visitors center is the Volcano Art Center Gallery (808/967-7565, daily 9am-5pm except Christmas), which lives in the original 1877 Volcano House. A new show featuring one of the many superlative island artists is presented monthly, and there are always ongoing demonstrations and special events. Artworks on display are in a variety of media, including canvas, paper, wood, glass, metal, ceramic, fiber, and photographs. There is also a profusion of less expensive but distinctive items like posters, cards, and earthy basketry made from natural fibers collected locally. One of the functions of the art center is to provide interpretation for the national park. All of the 300 or so artists who exhibit here do works that in some way relate to Hawaii’s environment and culture. Volcano Art Center is one of the finest art galleries in the entire state, boasting works from the best the islands have to offer. Definitely make this a stop.
As a community-oriented organization, the Volcano Art Center sponsors classes and workshops in arts, crafts, and yoga, the Kilauea Volcano Wilderness Runs, and a season of performing arts, which includes musical concerts, hula, dance performances, and stage plays. Some involve local performers, while others headline visiting artists. Performances, classes, and workshops take place at the Kilauea Theater at the military camp, at the hula platform within the park, or in Volcano at the Niaulani campus building. Tickets for performances are sold individually at local outlets or you can buy a season ticket. For current information and pricing, call the Volcano Art Center office (808/967-8222) or check out its website for what’s happening.