Today Park Chasers is kicking off a brand new series on epic drives within the National Parks. Each year, thousands of Americans embark on road trips and driving adventures within the National Park Service. This series will showcase the roads and scenic drives you won’t want to miss. First on our list is Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
In August 2016, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is celebrating its 100th birthday. Travelers from around the world are flocking to the park to watch the same lava flows that fascinated visitors a century ago. No where else in the world can you get as up close and personal with an active volcano than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the southern coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Few travelers think of the Hawaii as a spot for an epic road trip. It only takes a little over 2 hours to drive coast to coast on the Big Island. However Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to one of the park system’s most famous roadways: The Chain of Craters Road.
About the Chain of Craters Road
Chain of Craters Road was dedicated in April 1928, only a few years after the park was founded. At the time it cost $148,000 and was meant to take travelers through the active volcano areas. Many ancient Hawaiian villages were located along the route, allowing visitors to see hundreds of ancient Hawaiian artifacts and petroglyphs.
As of 2016, the road is just over 18.8 miles one way, with an elevation change of about 3,700 feet. It begins roughly 3 miles south of the Kilauea Visitor’s Center off Crater Rim Drive.
In the 1960’s Chain of Craters Road was expanded to allow drivers down to the southern coast of the island. Over time, lava flows repeatedly covered the road and changed the route. In the 1980’s Chain of Craters Road was completely covered by lava and had to be reconstructed. Since 2003, the road has been closed to travelers just beyond the Hōlei Sea Arch, a famous lava rock formation that reaches out into the Pacific.
Stops Along the Chain of Craters Road
- Kilauea Visitor’s Center – Travelers along the Chain of Craters Road should first stop at the Kilauea Visitor’s Center. Rangers provide daily lava updates of air quality conditions and current flows. The bookstore stocks a nice selection of maps and historical records of the sights along the road. If you’re squeamish about bathrooms use them here or risk the primitive toilets along the road. Also stock up on food and fuel. There are no amenities along the Chain of Craters Road.
- The Thurston Lava Tube – While technically located along Crater Rim Drive en route to the Chain of Craters Road, the Thurston Lava Tube is one of the most famous stops in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Visitors should plan a special stop or add it to their stops along Chain of Craters Road. Check out Park Chaser’s post on Hiking the Thurston Lava Tube.
- Lua Manu Crater – The first crater stop comes just 0.5 mile from the start of Chain of Craters Road. This is the uppermost crater on the road and was formed about 200 years ago. At one time, the lava was more than 50 feet deep in this location.
- Mauna Ulu Flow and Lookout – During the 1969 eruption of Mauna Ulu, the Chain of Craters Road was covered with lava in this location. Hikers can look out across the volcanic fissure that covered the road on its trek to the ocean. Several ‘lava tree molds’ can also be seen near the lookout. These form when the lava flow covers the outside of a tree, incinerating the wood and leaving behind a shell in the shape of a tree.
- Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs – Roughly 16 miles from the start of the road visitors can find the parking area for the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. More than 20,000 petroglyphs can be spotted in the field, dating back to 1200-1450 A.D. Visitors hike 1.5 miles round trip across lava rock to the boardwalk area where the petroglyphs are visible.
- Hōlei Sea Arch – Lastly, at the end of the Chain of Craters Road is a small ocean viewing area where visitors can spot the Hōlei Sea Arch. Formed when the waves of the Pacific Ocean slam against the lava rock, the arch is one of the most famous spots in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.