Lava inside Kilauea's crater lights the night sky.

Big Island Volcano Tours: Which tour should you take?

by Suzanne G.

A Big Island volcano tour is a must-do whenever visiting the island. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the Big Island’s main attraction and home to Mauna Loa and the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea. The volcanoes can be experienced in a variety of ways, each with different levels of commitment when it comes to physical activity, learning, time, and money. The types of volcano tours are broken down below to help you choose the best tour for you. 

Helicopter circling over volcano crater filled with smoke

The four main types of Big Island Volcano tours:

1. Helicopter Tours

Seeing the volcanoes from the air is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all who have taken one. An experience like the Circle of Fire Helicopter Tour is unforgettable, even when lava is not present below. These tours are fully narrated, by pilots knowledgeable about the volcanoes and the island’s natural history. However, they are also short (50 – 120 minutes) and more expensive ($400-$800). These tours are great, but many travelers also want to see the volcanoes from the ground. Tours such as the Helicopter & Volcano Adventure Tour let you do both.  

2. Hiking Tours

Big Island volcano hiking tours are another great way to see the volcanoes up close and personal. Hiking tours are led by park-certified naturalist guides. These guides are not only knowledgeable of the volcanoes but also the flora and fauna within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Often these tours, such as the Elite Hike (from Kona or Hilo), will hike within Kilauea’s caldera, getting as close to Halemaumau Crater’s edge as you can safely hike.

The tour-led hikes are usually not longer than a few miles. And they are certainly worth the extra miles, as you will encounter some stunning views of the crater. However, they aren’t for everyone. There are steep inclines out of the crater and the hikes are shadeless. And the lava rock is slick, sharp, and uneven. The hikes themselves take a few hours, which may sound like a perfect afternoon for some or a waste of limited island time for others. However, if you want to spend time in nature and get close to the volcano, this tour is for you. 

3. Educational Tours

Educational tours, such as the Twilight Volcano Unveiled tour, have a strong focus on science and history, but in a way that is hands-on, fun, and engaging. For example, they will take you to their privately owned lava tube so you can explore up close and personal. This lava tube is brimming with life and remnants of past eruptions, unlike Nahuku Lava Tube in the park which has seen so many visitors pass through it that it is almost devoid of interesting characteristics. “Volcano school” begins as soon as you get in the van and doesn’t end until the final dropoff.

Educational tours will take you to the main sites within the park, with a guide right beside you to explain what you’re seeing, how it was formed, plus any interesting anecdotes that may come up along the way. Learning tours can be mentally taxing and slightly more expensive than a sightseeing tour. However, you will leave the tour feeling like you got your money’s worth. These are exceptional tours, but if you aren’t that interested in science or nature they probably aren’t for you. 

4. Sightseeing Tours

Sightseeing volcano tours are the best option for those on the Big Island for a short time. Whether island hopping or on a cruise ship, sightseeing tours are great for seeing a lot of the island quickly. Tours like the Volcano Adventure Tour include a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and notable Hilo area attractions. These stops usually include places like Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, and Hilo’s historic downtown attractions. Meanwhile, sightseeing tours starting in Kona, such as the Evening Volcano Explorer will take you on a tour of a Kona coffee farm and Punaluu Black Sand Beach and other stops along the way to Hilo.

These tours are sometimes shorter in length, and less expensive, and you get to see a greater variety of the Big Island’s attractions overall. However, you may have to sacrifice on the narrative part of the tour. While knowledgeable local guides will always guide you, they won’t necessarily be at your side at every stop on the tour and the topics of discussion will be more general and probably not as specialized as you would get on a different type of tour. However, if you are looking for an easy day and would like a broad overview of the island and you want to buy a few souvenirs along the way a sightseeing tour is probably the best tour for you. 

So as you can see, there are many exciting ways to see the Big Island’s volcanoes. It’s always best to match your tour to your physical and mental needs. Only you know what your ideal day exploring the Big Island looks like. Whichever way you choose to tour the volcanoes they will be spectacular! 

Exiting the privately owned lava tube on the Twilight Unveiled volcano tour.

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