Hiking Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: The Thurston Lava Tube

We’re just over 1 month away from the 100th anniversary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  Visitors from around the globe are traveling to celebrate the park centennial on August 1st, 2016.  Where else can you catch a glimpse of a nēnē, get up close with an active volcano, and hike in an underground tunnel all in the same day? It must be time to plan your Hawaiian national park getaway!

But first, just what is a lava tube?

Lava tubes form when scorching hot magma travels underground during a volcanic eruption.  Tubes form anywhere there is space for the molten rock to squeeze through.  As a result, the magma slowly melts the rock around the cracks to form large hollow channels below ground.  Once the eruption is over the rock hardens and leaves the tube formation behind.

There are few lava tubes in the world as accessible as the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It makes it one of the top attractions in the entire park.

Inside the Thurston Lava Tube - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Inside the Thurston Lava Tube – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Planning Your Visit to The Thurston Lava Tube

The trailhead for The Thurston Lava tube begins just past the Kilauea Iki Overlook, a short car ride southeast from the Kilauea Visitor’s Center on Crater Rim Drive. There is a parking lot off the right side of the road but arrive early as it fills quickly during the day.  Cross the road and start your 1/3 mile hike. The park service estimates the paved trail will take approximately 20 minutes. ParkChasers recommends you allow the full amount of time to explore and take some good photos underground.

This a loop trail.  Most hikers begin the trail by descending first into a lush, tropical pit crater and then into the tube. The dense plant life will slowly start to close in on the trail. The humidity increases and the leaves may even begin to drip.  Add that to the jungle sounds, and you’ll be wondering if you stepped on to the film set for the latest Jurassic Park movie. Just tell yourself to keep going, even if stepping into a giant dark hole in the ground doesn’t seem like such a great idea anymore!

Once you’re through the pit crater, the tube itself is only about 600 feet long.  It is lit by a set of dim electric lights, just enough to look around at the hardened lava rock walls and to watch your footing on the damp walkway. At the end of the tube you’ll walk back through the dense forest on a short paved trail to the parking area.

ParkChasers hiked the trail backwards without any challenges in navigation, just know you’ll encounter a small set of steps first as you enter the lava tube and exit through the pit crater.

Entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Travel Notes

  • If you’re looking for more hiking in the same area as Thurston Lava Tube, check out Park Chaser’s post on the nearby Kilauea Iki Trail.
  • Plan to do this hike early or late in the day. Parking fills up quickly in this popular spot. The trail can be busy at peak times.  Watch your footing in the cave as it is damp and dark. Depending on the season you may experience water on the trail edges.
  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park also offers a ranger-led lava tube hike.  This $30 tour goes through Puapo’o Lava Tube near the Thurston site.  Hikers climb down a 15 foot ladder into the lava tube, lit only by their headlamps and flashlights. The total distance is around 4 miles and takes 2-3 hours to complete.
  • If you happen to be a big fan of Thurston, Lava Beds National Monument in California has the largest concentration of lava tubes in the United States.

Hawaii Volcanoes Lava Tube2

For More Information about Hawaii Volcanoes

To see other hikes, visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park hiking information site:

Or contact the Kilauea Visitor’s Center
Crater Rim Drive
Volcano, HI 96785
(808) 985-6000



Greg & Amy
Chasing a visit to all 400+ units in the NPS
Current Count: 130/423
Next Stop: @hawaiivolcanoes


2 thoughts on “Hiking Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: The Thurston Lava Tube”

  1. Pingback: Celebrate the Centennial: Hawaii Volcanoes Turns 100 - Park Chasers

  2. Pingback: Great National Park Drives: Chain of Craters Road - Park Chasers

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