Stretching approximately 18 miles and going from 4,000 ft. elevation to sea level, the Chain of Craters scenic drive along the East Rift Zone of the volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is pock marked with craters of varying shapes and sizes, lava flows, petroglyphs, and much more.
If your ultimate goal is night time lava watching, you may want to start out on Chain of Craters several hours before sunset in order to reach the end of the road with enough time to get out to the lava before dark. Add extra time (2-3 hours) if you plan on doing any of the hikes along the road or if you plan on picture taking!
One of the stops along the road is the Lua Manu Crater - the first of several marked craters along this road. Lua Manu is a pit crater which is formed when magma below the earth's surface drains, causing the earth to collapse. The 1974 flow sent lava pouring into Lua Manu's basin which is 109 yards in diameter.
Further down the road, you will see a small pullout on the left which leads to another pit crater, Puhimau Crater. Its fascinating and a surreal feeling to be viewing craters so up front, and those that erupted not more than 30-40 years ago!
Thurston Lava Tube - don't miss it. What is a Lava Tube? As magma moves underground it flows through tubes. The main magma chamber will have side tubes which are fairly large... these will splinter off into smaller and smaller tubes just like the veins in your body.
The larger tubes can be quite big. They can have ceilings that are 30 to 50 feet tall. Typically the magma that normally flows through a tube fills it about 2/3 of the way up. The heat and pressure will sometimes cause portions of the roof of the tube to collapse, exposing the interior of the tube to the outside through the collapsed roof, called a skylight.
Thurston Lava Tube is an excellent example of a large feeder tube.
Hilina Pali Road The 8.2 mile trip down narrow Hilina Pali Road has its own rustic and raw appeal in terms of gorgeous scenery. Beauty as always lies in the eye of the beholder here. The barren desolate hardened ground speak of tumultuous times when lava erupted or earthquakes rattled at its very core breaking new ground, engulfing all that came in its wake. It is a story of death, devastation but also one of resilience, regeneration and power.
Although it is so desirable and alluring to trek for miles into this barren unobstructed underworld...the strong straight line winds whip you around testing your balance. Getting a picture here calls for some serious skills...where the camera, the subject, the surroundings and God forbid YOU all have to make it into one frame! Good luck.
However, the awe-inspiring views at the end of this road are worth the effort if you have the time. The road continues to twist and turn over the bumpy and rutted pavement until you finally reach the Holei Sea Arch. Sea arches are formed when lava is continuously pounded by the surf until it is undercut in the shape of an arch.In a park where the main attraction is an ever-changing force of nature, there is no telling how the landscape could change. Since 1983 Kilauea has been eating portions of the Chain of Craters Road and covering the villages on it with its lava flows.
Never-the-less its lure is in its drama. In experiencing the true youth of the Big Island and the reality that it is still being born.
Currently the park allows visitors to walk 5 miles (one-way) down Chain of Craters Road to where the lava begins. This is rough terrain walking. If you plan on hiking beyond where the lava meets the road please take a few precautions. Bring plenty of water, approximately three quarts for the entire hike. Carry rain gear, sun block, and flashlights. The temperature drops with the sun, so carry a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt just in case. There is another option of viewing the active lava flowing into the ocean. See Kalapana Lava Hike