AUTHOR’S NOTE: We travelled Hawaii before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the world went on lockdown. So rest assured we’re blogging post-travels and currently at home. Stay safe, everyone. — Heather & Pier
This is the must see sight on The Big Island. Most tourism material recommends staying overnight in the park or in the nearby town of Volcano, but we only did a day trip. In hindsight, I wish we’d stayed overnight so we could spend more time here, for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post. But one thing is for sure: Volcanoes National Park is not to be missed!
Distance – 17.2 km
Average Speed – 8.7 km/hr (cycling & walking)
Top Speed – 42 km/hr
Climbed/Descended – 470m in total
Elevation (Highest/Lowest) – 1,210m / 950m
Steepest Grade – 14%
Hilo -> Volcano = 🚍Bus
Unlike apparently everyone else visiting the park, we arrived by public transit. Only two buses leave from Hilo for Volcanoes National Park in the morning — one at 5am and one at 7:40am. If you miss the second bus, you have to wait until 1:40pm! So we got there early and the bus was right on time.
This Hele-On bus was a big, clean, comfy tour bus, and besides two others, we were the only passengers on it! We sat in the front seats which perfectly fit our Bromptons.
We chatted with the bus driver, who told us that there are usually a few more people on the bus going to Volcanoes National Park, but it had been very cold in Hawaii this year so people weren’t out and about. We assured him we were ready for high altitude cold since we were coming from subzero temperatures in Canada! And it’s true – we were dressed in layers under our stuffable winter jackets. We’d also packed our rain capes and sun hats. Turns out we would need ALL of our different weather outfits as the day went from cold to rainy to sunny to hot to rainy and back again.
At another stop in Hilo, a man got on who lives in the town of Volcano — Daniel of the band 7th Order. He chatted with us the whole way, giving us tips on what to see and life in Hawaii. Of course, he and the driver knew each other. It seems as if all the bus drivers know everyone who takes their buses!
An hour and 15 minutes later, we arrived at Volcanoes National Park! The bus drops you off in the parking lot in front of the Visitors Center. It was pouring rain and cold, so we ducked into the building after locking our Bromptons to the bike rack out front—the park employee at the door said we weren’t allowed to fold and bring them in. That was fine; nobody comes to a national park to steal bikes.
Inside the Visitors Center we watched the park information video to learn which trails were open and which were closed. After the eruption in 2018, half of Crater Rim Drive was completely gone, but even the section that was still open had closed areas that day. Which was alright — we only had one day in the park and didn’t have time to see everything anyway!
Sulphur Banks Trail = 🚴Bike
When we came outside a half hour later, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining! It was still very cold, so we put on our winter jackets and set out on the closest trail — Sulphur Banks Trail.
Then we headed to Crater Rim Trail. Notice the “no bikes” sign.
We saw this a lot in Hawaii, as if the belief is that the only way to cycle is fast (road racing) or trail-ripping (mountain biking). We, of course, were just out for a sight-seeing cycle, so we ignored the sign and rode on since we weren’t going to speed past hikers or rip up the ground with knobby tires. However, if the narrow trail had been busier, I can understand why bikes would be unwelcome.
Crater Rim Trail = 🚴Bike +🚶🏽Hike
That said, we’d soon find out that parts of this trail aren’t the best for cycling. The section where Sulphur Banks Trail meets Crater Rim Trail over to just before the Kilauea Military Camp is perfectly ridable.
But after that the trail has some steps and rocks and roots that make casual biking less accessible. Luckily, our Bromptons are light so we just carried them, but this obviously isn’t an option for everyone.
As we were heading back, it started to pour! It was time to put the rain capes over our winter coats.
We retreated to the only place left to eat in the park, Volcano House, which serves as a hotel and restaurant, and parked beside the rental bikes out front.
Upon entering, we were thrilled to find a lit fireplace in the lobby! We dried off and warmed up while we waited for the restaurant to open for lunch at 11am. We were early and it wasn’t too busy yet, so we got one of the coveted tables by the window with a view of the Kilauea Caldera.
After lunch, we considered taking the Crater Rim Trail east from Volcano House, but found it closed.
So we cycled down Crater Rim Drive to see the Thurston Lava Tube.
Crater Rim Drive = 🚴Bike
Traffic on Crater Rim Drive was light the day we were there. For most of the ride, we had the road to ourselves! Only a couple motor vehicles passed us. Of course, it’s also a smooth, gentle downhill ride, so we were cruising along at about 30km/hr, which is close to the speed limit on this road anyway and might explain why few vehicles passed us.
As usual, there’s no official bike parking, so we locked our bikes to the railing by the car parking area. We were the only bicycles there! Which was kind of a surprise because parking is very limited and it’s such an easy bike ride, we don’t know why more people don’t cycle to the park’s sights.
While motorists jockeyed for parking spots, we ambled across the road to the Thurston Lava Tube.
Thurston Lava Tube =🚶🏽Hike
If this is the first lava tube you’ve ever seen, it would be pretty cool. But Thurston isn’t much compared to the lava tubes we saw outside of Hilo at Kaumana Caves, which were much bigger and had more diverse lava formations. So in a mere ten minutes, we saw the Thurston Lava Tube and used the bathroom and were back by the railing where we’d parked our bikes to begin the…
Kilauea Iki Crater Trail =🚶🏽Hike
- Distance: 4 mile (6.4 km) loop
- Time: 2 to 3 hours
- Descent/Ascent: 400 feet (122m)
On our ride down Crater Rim Drive, we’d stopped at a lookout point and seen a worn trail spanning the Kilauea Iki Crater. Could we go down there? Looked like it! Sure enough, right where we’d parked our bikes at the Thurston parking lot was an entrance down to the crater.
We recommend starting here because this is the steepest part of the trail, and it’s better to go down it than up! Of course, one must go up eventually, but the other side has more gradual uphill stages.
Starting from this side, it’s easy to see the trail without the help of the Ahu (stacked rocks), but those Ahu would come in handy on the other side where the trail ceased to be so obvious!
It took us an hour to walk the crater end to end, though we stopped to take lots of photos, so we certainly weren’t booking it, but we weren’t slow either. As soon as we were halfway up the other side, it abruptly started to pour!
At the top, the Kilauea Iki Trail continues to the right, and to the left is the Byron Ledge Trail. We went left, but turned back when we got to this fence.
However, not long after we turned back, we encountered some American tourists who informed us that the trail is open, you just have to go through the gate! Turns out, the gate is to keep out wild pigs—and overly polite Canadians who think a closed gate means no access.
The extra hike was worth it for another view of the Kilauea Caldera!
The Americans were continuing on to Devastation Trail, but we circled back to the Kilauea Iki Trail.
This section goes through the forest above the crater and has lots of beautiful views and opportunities to marvel at the ant-sized specs of people walking across the crater.
We were almost back to Crater Rim Drive when another rainstorm rolled in. The photos below are taken exactly 2 minutes and 30 seconds apart:
It soon stopped raining, and we returned to our bikes and cycled back up Crater Rim Drive to Volcano House, ate a Hawaiian Kalua Pork Pizza, and caught the very last bus back to Hilo at 5:50pm. We were the only passengers on the bus! To keep her company, this bus driver had two friends riding with her in the front seats, and one had a dog!
Trip Notes & Recommendations
When we were planning this trip, we decided to make Hilo our home base. We did this for two reasons: 1) After bike-packing across the Yucatan (Mexico), we concluded that we prefer sightseeing when our Bromptons are not loaded down with bags; and 2) It’s nice to not have to repack our things every morning and relocate. That said, in hindsight I wish we’d stayed one night in Volcanoes National Park. There is so much to see and do, and we only saw a fraction of it. Also, catching the only bus back to Hilo was a bit stressful; there were no signs indicating where the Hele-On bus would pick us up, and the Visitor Center was already closed so we couldn’t ask. We were nervous that it wouldn’t come. After all, the buses are not used much and often get cancelled. It was doubly nerve-racking that we were the only people waiting for the bus. We were so incredibly relieved when we saw the bus drive in! And, no surprise, we were the only passengers on it!
So, if we were to do this trip over, we would stay in Hilo for a few nights and use it as a home base to see Puna and Akaka Falls. Then we’d take the bus to Volcanoes National Park, stay there for a night, and either catch a bus or cycle to Pahala for the next night, and catch a morning bus to Kona (the same commuter bus we took on our first day that goes to the resorts in the morning and returns in the afternoon).
Coming up next…
We complete our stay in Hilo with a cycle to Akaka falls and ride in a torrential downpour the likes of which we have never before experienced!