10/01/2013 03:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Traveling With Kids: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park rocked my kids' world. Heck, it rocked my world. Where else on the planet can you see prehistoric landscapes, land boiling to life, LAVA!, and such stark lessons of the geology of the earth? Um, exactly, nowhere! That's why it is one of Hawaii's best places to take kids.


This 350,000 acre lava field is like nowhere else on the planet. Since 1983 Kilauea Volcano has been erupting from the Pu'u 'O'o vent (near Pahoa), and while it is challenging to see this particular lava flow unless you have gobs of cash or tons of time, chances are you'll be able to see some version of magnificence to blow your mind.

Of course, eruptions are not guaranteed -- this is Pele, the goddess of fire, we are talking about, and this lady has her own agenda. When the lava is flowing, people sojourn from all over the world to view it. But most days (warn your kiddos), you'll pretty much be seeing steam that, in the evenings, glows in a creepy red hue.

If your kids are like mine and wake at before dawn (especially when jetlagged), you can make a visit to the volcano a day trip. If you have time to stay in the area a few nights and want hotel recommendations, pick up a copy of my Backroads and Byways of Hawaii.

A word of warning: The vog (a mixture of fog and volcano ash) hangs heavily in the air and is hazardous to young children, people with breathing issues, pregnant ladies, and the elderly. This always thwarts my plans of staying by the volcano for a few days, instead making me opt to schlep from another part of the island. If this worries you, check the daily Vog Index to see if the air is extra hazardous that day.

No matter what, start your journey in the Visitor Center, where a seemingly endless supply of rangers can instruct you on the best ways to plan your time in the park, including if it is possible to see lava flow (if it is happening), information on air quality, and hiking trails to suit your skill levels. This is also where you can purchase a sweater in case you've forgotten yours, as it get downright chilly up here after dark.

Don't forget to ask about their junior ranger program: a fun activity for little kids who like rewards.

When the kiddos can handle strapping the seat belts back on, hop on Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road that circles the summit's caldera towards the Jaggar Museum. The museum offers a sheltered view of Halema'uma'u Crater, home to a lava lake that glows a hellfire red after dark. If conditions are right, motor back here after the sun sets to see this spectacular sight of the glowing interior of the crater.


Back on the road, you'll see signs indicating a picnic area, turn into this lot. Kilauea Overlook provides a spectacular view of the two miles wide and three miles long caldera and the crater. There are a few other spots along this road, but my kids get bored, and the air quality is pretty crappy near the steam vents.

Park at Kilauea Iki Overlook and take in the former lava lake that, in 1959, had fountains of lava spewing up to 1,900 feet high. The crater is a mile long, 3,000 feet across, and the floor is 400 feet below the overlook. You can hike around the rim, or with teens, descend into the crater on the four-mile round-trip Kilauea Iki Trai.


If you have smaller kids, just take the half-mile meander to Thurston Lava Tube (you may also drive there in a jiffy). The Jurassic forest of dripping ferns hugs the lava tube. The sheer size of these roads for lava is humbling. And most kids will love creeping through the tunnel-just bring a flashlight or headlamp.

The trails and drives of this magnificent park can keep you busy for a lifetime, so I'll stop here. For more information on lesser visited parts of the park, places to grab food and drink, or sweet B&Bs and inns in the area, purchase a copy of my new book, Backroads and Byways of Hawaii.

For more ideas about Hawaii travel, check out my blog Planet Playground.

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