Taking toddlers to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Posted on Jun 3, 2015

Taking toddlers to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

We stayed for a week in Pahoa on Hawai’i island. We really wanted to visit the Volcano national park and we had been waiting for ten months now to finally get here. The islands of Hawaii are all created by volcanic activity and here on Big Island you can still witness this creation. Over the course of a week we visited the park in total three times. When we researched for our trip we did find very little information on activities for toddlers, so here is our guide on taking young kids into the Volcano park.

On the first day we were eager to do some hiking, so we checked out 2 short hikes that are very easy walking for the kids. After visiting the visitors centre to get up-to-date info on the latest developments we parked our car at Kilauea Overlook and we enjoyed the view of the massive, and I mean ‘Massive’ Kilauea Crater, and then hiked up to the Jaggar museum. The weather was overcast, which is very normal at the park, but during the short and enjoyable hike the clouds came down into a very thick mist and by the time we arrived at the museum there was very little to see of the crater and the lava lake in it. Over the past few weeks there had been a lot of action in the lava lake and we knew that the best way to see this was to come back after dark to see the lava glow. So we decided to check out the museum instead. It is very informative and interactive and the kids loved that they were allowed to make their own earthquakes. It was difficult to get them to look at anything else but that… they had a great time though, and so did we!

The mist continued, so we went to the one place where weather really doesn’t make that much of a difference… the Thurston Lava Tube, a cave tunnel created by lava that you can walk through. The hike down to the tube is a bit slippery and steep, but the kids loved the descent into the forest, looking for the red birds and climbing down the path. We had expected the tube to be quite dark, but none of that as there was plenty of artificial light! It was very wet inside, lots of mud pools to jump in (tip: wear shoes, this walk is really not meant to be made on slippers…) The kids playfully acted as if they were lava, which was fun, and after that the tube was, well… kind of boring… Till someone started singing! Oh, the acoustics in that tunnel is just amazing!

After a healthy and enjoyable lunch at cafe Ono in Volcano on our second day that we visited the park we started with a special activity, so first we went to hand in the Hawai’i Volcanoes NP Junior Rangers book the kids had picked up on our first day and they were awarded a special Junior Ranger certificate and received a very special Junior Ranger badge, which they Loved!

Then we chose to hike up to the Sulphur banks as the air quality was very good that day. The gases could be a problem for young children – please read the signs when you go and choose for yourself if you want to go or not. It is a nice walk through native bush and we saw the bright yellow sulphur crystals, which was fun. Taco walked back to the car as I walked on with the kids and he picked us up at the steam vents where lots of steam rises up into the air from cracks and holes in the forest floor. As it started raining a bit we decided to head over to the other side of the crater to see how the weather was over there. It was dry at the Devestation trail, so we wandered onto the path to see the starkly black desert left behind by the 1959 Kilauea eruption. Incredible to see how slow new life develops in this area. The kids loved that they could run and go full out for a bit, while we enjoyed the beauty of this barren place. After we returned to our car we couldn’t resist driving the first six miles of the Chain of Craters Road and stop at the four main craters. And we were glad we did this as the craters are truly impressive. We chose not to drive down all the way to the sea, as it is 45 minutes non stop one way, which would be to long for the kids.

We had packed a picnic dinner as we wanted to stay in the park till after dark and see the lava glow. As it was raining quite firmly we had our picnic in the car, very romantic, and we let the kids watch some tv shows on the ipad till it was dark at 7:30pm, and luckily by then it was dripping but not really raining anymore. We headed for the glow and were pleasantly surprised. Because of the heavy clouds the glow was very bright and deep in colour, we were glad we stayed! Our youngest found it a bit scary (and probably she was a bit tired as well), but luckily the Jaggar museum was open and one of us could sit on the bench inside with her while the other enjoyed the view with our son. We could have stayed for hours, but as it was already quite late we decided to head back home after about 30 minutes and bring the kids to bed. We had experienced the fun day we had envisioned and went to bed with a smile on our faces.

On our third visit to the park we were high up in the air, on a helicopter tour. We flew over the east rift zone, an area inaccessible over land, and witnessed the active Pu’u ‘O’o Crater and lava flows and breakouts on the route to Pahoa, what’s currently called ‘zone 1’. We chose Blue Hawaiian Helicopters because they suited our values of safety and comfort. We weren’t sure if the kids would enjoy a helicopter ride, so it was a big leap to decide to pay for 4 seats… but it was on our bucket list to experience this as a family, so we went ahead. Our 4 year old really enjoyed it and he loved looking around, pointing things out for me to look at and taking it all in. Our 2 year old, I guess she didn’t really know what to look for, but she enjoyed having a new experience. Once we arrived at the active lava area the pilot made sure we could all have a good look at it and enjoy what we came for. He was circling quite a bit, so if you get motion sick easily, make sure you take something for that! We had not done that and unfortunately our 2 year old who gets motion sick quickly felt really awefull for up to 10 minutes, which was very unfortunate for her. Poor girl! For Taco and myself the helicopter ride had been incredible, very much worth the money and effort. (tip: When you choose to do a helicopter tour, make sure you are informed about where they will take you and let them show you on a map, it is a big investment and you don’t want to end up disappointed!)

The other days we stayed in Pahoa we did not go to the park, but we did see volcano remnants everywhere. One day we went snorkelling in the Kapoho tide pools, which are created from lava rocks. One of the other days we did a short hike through the Lava Tree State Park where you can see (surprise) trees covered with lava.

So, here’s a shortlist of what we found very doable with a 2 and 4 year old in the Volcano NP:

  1. Hiking from the Kilauea Overlook to the Jaggar museum and back
  2. The Thurston Lava Tube walk
  3. The Sulphur banks hike and Steam vents
  4. Devastation trail, half way through and back
  5. Chain of Craters Road, the first 6 miles
  6. Lava glow (after dark) at the Jaggar museum – a must-do
  7. and if your budget allows for it – take a helicopter ride for a totally different perspective


General tips:

  1. Don’t forget to ask for the Hawai’i Volcanoes NP Junior Rangers program when you pass by the visitors centre!
  2. Check the air quality before you go anywhere in the park at the visitors centre.
  3. When visiting with young kids, stay at least one night nearby so you have time to explore the park. There is so much to see! You could drive to the park from Kona side of the island, but that would make it a very long day.
  4. Maybe have lunch in Volcano town, at cafe Ono in the Garden Art Centre. They have delicious vegetarian food (for kids too) that you can enjoy in a beautiful garden where the kids can run around freely.