A female hiker wearing a backpack stands looking into Kilauea's caldera from a viewing platform on the Iki Trail

Exploring Kilauea: Book a tour or DIY?

by Alison H.

No visit to Hawaii is complete without a stop at the summit of Kilauea. Even when the world’s most active volcano isn’t putting on a show, gazing into its caldera and exploring the sites within Hawaii Volcanoes National National Park is an exciting day.  If you’re looking to explore active volcanoes in person and learn more about them, then Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the best place to start. But what’s the best way to explore Kilauea?

There are two ways to see Kilauea when you’re in Hawaii.

  1. Book a tour
  2. Go on your own

Guided tour or do-it-yourself?

Guided tours are fairly effortless. You’ll have a schedule, an itinerary, transportation, and sometimes even a meal and snacks all planned for you. On the other hand, if you go at it alone, you have a bit more freedom to choose and plan all these things for yourself. Freedom does, however, come with a price – especially if you don’t already know a lot about volcanoes, Kilauea, the Big Island, or have time to do enough research.

There is no right or wrong way to do it, but there are a few things you should know:

  • There is no public transportation to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and there is no transportation system within the park, so you will need a vehicle to get there and to get around.
  • The park is roughly 45 minutes away from Hilo and 2 hours away from Kailua-Kona or Waikoloa. And no matter which way you drive there are going to be lots of interesting things that you’ll want to stop and see along the way.
  • There is only one lodge with a restaurant (Volcano House) and two small campgrounds inside the park. There is also limited lodging and a few restaurants in Volcano, a town located just outside the park boundary which is a five-minute drive from the Visitor Center.
  • There is a $30 entrance fee per vehicle for a seven-day pass to the park.
A red Jeep pulled over on the side of a coastal road on the Bi Island
Road trips are a fantastic way to see the Big Island – if you have the time.

If you have a rental car and time to explore, a road trip to see Kilauea can be phenomenal. But, you’ll probably want to take several days rather than trying to cram everything into one exhausting day. And you’ll need to book your lodging well in advance too. Lodging in the park and nearby Volcano is limited, pricey, and sells out quickly. Also, be advised that there aren’t many options between Volcano and Hilo (50+ miles away).

While we all love a good road trip, here are four ways that a guided tour can enhance your visit:

1. All the stops are curated 

At over 300,000 acres, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is massive. With so many potential stops – the Kilauea Visitor Center, lava tunnels, steam vents – it can be hard to see everything. If you don’t already know what you want to see you might miss out on some of the coolest attractions.

There is also the issue of time. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the southern tip of the Big Island – where Kilauea is located – is massive. There’s so much to see and do that it can be a bit overwhelming. If you have a full day to spend at the park, then it may be more doable.

But not everyone has that much time on their vacations. Most visitors want to see Kilauea without spending a whole day traveling and hiking to finally reach the volcano summit.

If you book a tour in advance, you won’t have to spend half of the day traveling to the volcano. Tours can last anywhere from 50 minutes to several hours. Regardless of which tour you choose, you can still be sure that you see everything that you want to see.

Tourists at entrance of lava tube surrounded by lush greenery on a Kilauea tour from Kona called Elite Volcano Hike
A tour guide leads a group through Nahuku Lava Tube.

2. You’ll learn so much from a knowledgeable tour guide

One of the biggest drawbacks of touring a volcano for yourself is the lack of knowledge. Sure, you might have read a little bit about Kilauea before your trip. But there’s a lot about the history of the mountain, volcanology, and the history of the Hawaiian Islands themselves that you probably don’t know.

That’s where your tour guide comes in. Tour guides know Kilauea better than they know their grandmothers. Like you, they’re fascinated by these great mountains, and they love sharing their knowledge and experiences with others.

Though they may not be volcanologists themselves, tour guides are often natives of the Hawaiian islands and grew up learning about Kilauea. They’ve researched Kilauea and other volcanoes so you can relax and learn from them.

Because these tour guides have been running these tours for so many people, they know where to go to see all the action at the volcano. If you want to see lava rivers, they’ll know where to take you. And when the lava hits the ocean, they’ll know how to get there.

If you have any questions while on the tour, there’s a good chance your tour guide will be able to answer them for you. These guides truly care about Kilauea, and they want to teach others more about this amazing creation of nature. If you book a tour, you’ll get plenty of history that the museums and visitor centers might skim over.

A little girl in a helicopter volcano tour points to Halemaʻumaʻu Crater as the pilot looks on.
Helicopter tours are the ultimate way to see Kilauea.

3. The best views & access

Seeing pictures or movie footage of a volcano is great – if you’re not in Hawaii. If you’re vacationing in Hawaii, though, there’s only one acceptable way to view a volcano, and it’s not from a distance.

If you decide to try and tour a volcano on your own, you might never get to see it as closely as you like. You’ll first need to organize transportation to Kilauea, and if you’re staying in Hilo or Waikoloa, that’s not always easy. Your trip may become too expensive, or you may have limited time between your drop-off and pick-up times.

Of course, these are active volcanoes, and they’re extremely dangerous. You don’t want to wander off track and find yourself far too close to a lava river.

To see and understand the true impact of a volcano, you need to get the best views of it. By reserving a tour, you’re guaranteed to get a 360-degree view of the volcano from all angles. With a tour, your

A helicopter tour of Kilauea, for example, lifts you high into the air as you see the top of the volcano yourself. You’ll see the lava moving up and out as steam spew from the top.

Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo, Hawaii.
Some volcano tours include stops in Hilo, such as Liliuokalani Gardens, pictured above.

4. Kilauea tours are just so easy and stress-free

Most visitors to Hawaii are looking for one thing on these beautiful islands: time to relax. They want to lay by the beach, take in the culture of these great islands, and see its wonders before they head back home. The more complicated it is to visit a place, the less enjoyable that place will be.

When you book a tour of Kilauea, you’re done. You won’t need to worry about anything else until it’s time to be picked up.

With a tour, you won’t have to plan out any part of your trip to Kilauea, which means you won’t have to guess which sites will be best to see. Your tour will already have that part figured out. For example, if you choose a land tour, your guide will take you to the highlights of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and show you how these sites came to be.

On a helicopter tour, you’ll see all the beauty of the park from above and get even closer to the volcano itself. Although it isn’t even guaranteed that you’ll see lava, you’ll have the best chance of seeing it from the air.

No matter which type of tour you choose, you’ll get to sit back and relax as your tour guide takes you from place to place. All you need to worry about is wearing comfy shoes and bringing plenty of sunblock.

Though it may seem exciting to tour the volcano on your own, the best way to see all that Kilauea has to offer is to book a tour. Share with us: what type of tour sounds the most intriguing to you?

 Click here to read more about our most popular Kilauea tours!

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