Visiting Hawaii's National Parks with kids
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Two Islands, Two National Parks, One Day.

Planning a trip to a National Park can be overwhelming. What should you see? What can you skip? And, how long will a visit take?

Visiting two parks on two different islands in one day? Even more so. But boy, was it worth it!

Due to our limited schedule, we opted to see both of Hawai’i’s National Parks on the same day.  As a result of this hectic schedule, we made it a priority to see each park’s quintessential experience. For Haleakalā National Park, that is watching the sunrise at the summit. For Volcanoes National Park, it’s the glow of the lava lake as the sun ducks behind the cinder cones. Both are unforgettable.

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2016-nps-centennialThis trip was part of our 2016/17 campaign to use our Every Kid In A Park pass and visit as many parks as we can. We’re also to celebrating the National Park Service Centennial. You can read more about the pass in our post here.

Planning Your Visit to Haleakalā National Park

No Sleeping In!

Our day began on Maui at 2:30 AM. We had visited the 24-hour Safeway the previous day to get ourselves some breakfast snacks so that we wouldn’t need to worry about anyone’s stomachs. There is no place to get food in the park.

We left our hotel at just before 3:00 AM and reached the summit parking lot at 4:45 AM. We were there an hour and a half before sunrise, which may seem crazy, but we got one of the last parking spots. So, if this is on your list of things to do, we recommend that you get there early and wear your thermals.

We chose to wait it out in our car for a bit because cold AND tired does not make for pleasant children. Consequently, we didn’t get a front row view of nature’s spectacular show, but it was a trade off that our family was willing to make.

Dawn at Haleakala National Park
Dawn at Haleakala National Park

Dress Warm and Enjoy the Majesty

We made our way on foot up to the summit about 20 minutes before sunrise, and what a majestic view it was.

Sunrise at Haleakala National Park, Hawai'i
Sunrise at Haleakala National Park, Hawai’i

Seeing the sun come up over the clouds that surround the summit was just indescribable. As the sky begins to lighten, you can see the Big Island on one side, including perfect views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and on the other side, we were able to see the beaches on Maui.

Sunrise at Haleakala National Park, Hawai'i
Sunrise at Haleakala National Park, Hawai’i

We learned that when you get up this early, you have a little bit of a bonding experience with the other people crazy enough to venture out at that time of day. Everyone was very nice and accommodating about sharing the spaces for the best views. If you simply ask, you can trade places with others to take your pictures and to let the shorter members of your group see the stunning views.

Haleakala National Park, Hawai'i
Haleakala National Park, Hawai’i

Don’t Miss the Haleakalā Visitor Center – Both of Them!

Love National Parks? Read about all of Hawaii's National Parks here.

After taking all the pictures we wanted and appreciating the views, we drove down to the summit visitors’ center for the kids’ passport books and first National Park stamps.

Stamps at Haleakala Visitor Center, Hawai'i
Stamps at Haleakala Visitor Center, Hawai’i

Now, if we had all day to explore this park, we would have taken our time and hiked the many trails and paths this park has to offer. It is full of plant life that you won’t see anywhere else, and our friends who visited recently loved their time here.

Haleakala Crater at Haleakala National Park, Maui
Haleakala Crater at Haleakala National Park, Maui

Should we make it back to Maui someday (and we all hope we do!), exploring more of Haleakalā will definitely be on our agenda. But, we had a plane to catch and another park to visit, so off we went. On our way out of the park, we stopped the other visitors’ center because we were told they had different stamps for the passport books.

Haleakala National Park Centennial 2016
Haleakala National Park Centennial 2016

We loved being able to celebrate Every Kid in a Park, the National Park Service Centennial, and also the Centennial for Haleakala National Park. What a great day!

After a quick brunch and a change of clothes (we went from about 45 degrees at the summit to the normal 80 degrees at sea level), we made our way back to the airport. We were off to the Big Island and Volcanoes National Park.

Boarding the plane to Big Island Hawai'i
Boarding the plane to Big Island Hawai’i
Check out our favorite book on the National Parks from Lonely Planet for more inspiration.

LP National Parks

Volcanoes National Park – What to See and Do

We landed in Hilo, quickly rented our car (I loved this small airport!), and were off to our next adventure. The park entrance was about 45 minutes from the airport, and we headed straight for the visitors’ center where we got the passport books stamped and talked with a park ranger about what to see in the time we had.

Park Rangers - Volcanoes National Park
Park Rangers – Volcanoes National Park

Don’t Miss the Ranger Talks

You should definitely take advantage of the knowledgeable park rangers no matter which park you visit. They love to talk about their parks, and no one knows better than they do about what you can see in the amount of time you have. We also took time to listen to one of the talks about how the volcanoes and the Big Island developed and changed over time. We were very interested to learn about the activity of Kīlauea Volcano.

Ranger talks at Volcanoes National Park
Ranger talks at Volcanoes National Park

Virtually Unlimited Exploring on Foot and Crater Rim Drive

There are plenty of scenic drives and hikes in this park to keep explorers entertained for a full day or longer. It would be really cool to take the 8 mile hike to the ocean and watch the lava flow right into the water, but our family didn’t have the time or the stamina for that.

Instead, we took our park ranger’s advice and visited the Thurston lava tube (Nāhuku) which is just a quick drive from the visitors’ center. This is a short hike, but an incredible journey back in time. We saw the thick, lush rain forest and the ancient underground tunnel that we were able to walk through. We could just imagine lava rushing through it when this island was younger and still forming.


Taking photos at Volcanoes NP
Documenting our visit for #EveryKidInAPark!

Jaggar Museum & Overlook

After the lava tube, we made our way up Kīlauea to check out the actual lava. On our way we saw steam rising from the ground that showed us just how geologically amazing this place is. Yep, we were definitely on an active volcano! We pulled over to take a look at the steam vents, and the kids were intrigued with the smell that was coming from them. (sulfur)

Steam vents at Volcanoes NP
Steam vents at Volcanoes NP. Hooray for science!

Science in action, folks!

When we finally reached the lookout point for the real volcanic action, we were all mesmerized by the beauty and power of this place.

Kīlauea Caldera - Volcanoes NP
Kīlauea Caldera – Volcanoes NP

Sunset at Volcanoes National Park

As the sun started to set, the lava became even more beautiful.

Lava lake at Volcanoes National Park
Lava lake at Volcanoes National Park

The kids also enjoyed looking through the museum where they saw hands-on displays of different types of lava rocks, a seismic reader, and the actual clothes and equipment that were melted when one scientist got too close to the lava. They also learned about the goddess Pele, whom the Polynesians associated with this volcano.

Kīlauea Caldera
A very active Kīlauea at Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park Centennial 2016
Volcanoes National Park Centennial 2016

The National Parks in Hawai’i were a great way to start our year with Every Kid in a Park. I think we all learned quite a bit on this adventure, and we can’t wait to explore more parks in the coming months.

Haleakala and Volcanoes National Parks were both celebrating their Centennials in 2016, and we felt so privileged to be there!

Tips For Putting Together a Visit to Hawai’i’s National Parks

  • Get a Passport Book. These are available at the gift shops or can be ordered before your trip here. These are a cool way for the kids to document their adventures and also include a map and descriptions of all the parks in the system.
  • Consider signing up for a Pacific Parks Membership. Not only does your membership help raise funds for the parks, you get discounts at many partner gift shops and bookstores throughout the park system.
  • If you have the time, spread out your visits a bit. We were (regrettably) in a hurry and couldn’t see everything we wanted to.
  • Listen to the chats and make time for the programming with the rangers. We found them to be engaging and excited about what they do, which makes for a great presentation.
  • If staying on the Big Island, Kona and Hilo are both options, but Hilo is considerably closer to the park entrance and the Jaggar Museum. Be sure to take the drive times into account.
  • There are no places to buy food, drinks, or fuel at Haleakalā, so be prepared. It’s a long drive even with little traffic.
  • If you are going to island-hop like we did, consider purchasing TSA Pre-Check for everyone. We zipped through airport security and were good to go with plenty of time to catch our next flight out. Many credit cards offer a discount on this, so check your benefits. We were glad to have it.

That’s a wrap for our Every Kid In A Park kickoff tour! Stay tuned for more stories, pictures, and adventures from our U.S. National Parks!

See our other posts in our series on visiting U.S. National Parks with our Every Kid in a Park pass:

Find Your Park with the National Park Foundation
Find Your Park with the National Park Foundation

Who else is visiting a National Park this year? Tell us about it in the comments!

Visiting Hawaii\'s National Parks in One Epic Day

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