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Kilauea’s Crater Rim Drive

The 11-mile road that circles the Kilauea Caldera and passes by nearly all the main sights in the park is Crater Rim Drive. For the past few years a part of the road has been closed due to elevated levels of sulphur dioxide gas. You can still drive on the road, but you can’t always complete the entire circle. However, don’t let this deter you. A large part of the road is still open, and there are so many intriguing nooks and crannies to stop at along Crater Rim Drive that you’ll have to force yourself to be picky if you intend to cover the park in one day.

Steam rises up in great white clouds from the crater of Kilauea volcano.
Crater Rim Drive circles Kilauea Caldera, the heart of the park. Photo © Paul Moore/123rf.

Along this road you will travel from a tropical zone into desert, then through a volcanic zone before returning to lush rainforest. The change is often immediate and differences dramatic. Since you can’t circle the caldera, the following sights are listed in two sections: those to the right of the visitors center and those to the left of the visitors center. The sights to the left of the visitors center can also be reached by turning left immediately after you pass through the entrance gate of the park.

To the Right of the Visitors Center

Sulphur Banks

You can easily walk to Sulphur Banks from the visitors center along a 10-minute paved trail. Your nose will tell you when you’re close. Alternatively, walk the 0.6-mile trail from the Steam Vents parking lot. A boardwalk fronts a major portion of this site. As you approach these fumaroles, the earth surrounding them turns a deep reddish-brown, covered over in yellowish-green sulphur. It’s an amazing sight, especially in the morning when the entire area seems to look pink. The rising steam is caused by surface water leaking into the cracks, where it becomes heated and rises as vapor. Kilauea releases hundreds of tons of sulphur gases every day. This gaseous activity stunts the growth of vegetation. And when atmospheric conditions create a low ceiling, the gases sometimes cause the eyes and nose to water.

Steam Vents

Within a half mile you’ll come to Steam Vents, which are also fumaroles, but without sulphur. In the parking lot there are some vents covered with grates, and if you walk just two minutes from the parking lot toward the caldera on the gravel trail, you’ll see how the entire field steams. It is like being in a sauna or getting a wonderful free facial. There are no strong fumes to contend with here, just other tourists. If you walk back toward the caldera, you’ll see a gravel trail that follows the caldera around. This is the Crater Rim Trail, and you can walk it from here to many of the sights, including the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum—an easy 20-minute walk (one-way) through the woods from here.

Kilauea Military Camp

If you continue in the same direction on the road, you’ll pass the Kilauea Military Camp. It’s where military families come to vacation. Although it looks like it’s not open to the public, many parts of it actually are open to nonmilitary personnel, including the post office, the Lava Lounge bar, the cafeteria, the bowling alley, and the Kilauea theater, used for community events.

Kilauea Overlook

Some distance beyond the Kilauea Military Camp is Kilauea Overlook, as good a spot as any to get a look into the caldera, and there are picnic tables near the parking lot. Here too is Uwekahuna (Wailing Priest) Bluff, where the kahuna made offerings of appeasement to the goddess Pele. A Hawaiian prayer commemorates their religious rites. Unless you’re stopping for lunch or making your own offering, it’s perhaps better to continue on to the observatory and museum, where you not only have the view outside but get a scientific explanation of what’s happening around you.

Left of the Visitors Center

Kilauea Iki Overlook

The first parking lot you’ll pass on the right is the gateway to Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea). In 1959, lava spewed 1,900 feet into the air from a half-mile crack in the crater wall (there is an amazing picture showcasing this occurrence on a board in the parking lot). It was the highest fountain ever measured in Hawaii. Within a few weeks, 17 separate lava flow episodes occurred, creating a lake of lava. In the distance is the cinder cone, Pu‘u Pua‘i (Gushing Hill), where the lava flowed from its brownish-red base in 1959. The cone didn’t exist before then. Present day, if you look down from the overlook into the crater floor you’ll see something that resembles a desolate desert landscape that is still steaming in spots. Unbelievably, you can fairly easily walk across this on the Kilauea Iki trail. Surrounding the crater is a rainforest filled with native birds and plants.

Thurston Lava Tube

Just up the road from the overlook is the remarkable Thurston Lava Tube, otherwise called Nahuku, which resembles a Salvadar Dali painting. As you approach, the expected signboard gives you the lowdown on the geology and flora and fauna of the area. The paved trail starts as a steep incline, which quickly enters a fern forest. All about you are fern trees, vibrantly green, with native birds flitting here and there. As you approach the lava tube, it seems almost manmade, like a perfectly formed tunnel leading into a mine. Ferns and moss hang from the entrance, and if you stand just inside the entrance looking out, it’s as if the very air is tinged with green. The tunnel is fairly large and shouldn’t be a problem for those who suffer from mild claustrophobia. The walk through takes about 10 minutes, undulating through the narrow passage. At the other end, the fantasy world of ferns and moss reappears, and the trail leads back, past public restrooms, to the parking lot. The entire tunnel is lit and paved; however, for some extra fun take a flashlight to visit the unlit portion. As you walk up the stairway to exit the tube, you’ll see on your left an open gate that looks into the darkness: This small unlit section is open to the public at their own risk. If you’re good on your feet, take a quick look.

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