Secrets of the National Parks
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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
The inside scoop: "Most people come to the park expecting to drive up to a river of molten lava," says Christina Hoffman, a biology professor at the University of Hawaii who has also led hiking trips for Hawaii Forest and Trail since 1997. "Sadly for them, this is not the case. Currently, Kilauea's lava flows are inaccessible from the ground." Instead, Hoffman recommends the Kilauea Iki trail, a four-mile loop that drops from the rain forest onto the floor of a former lava lake, where tough pioneer plants like the scarlet-colored Ohi'a lehua flower sprout next to tufts of steam still rising from cracks in the earth.
Plan B: Though you may need to contend with some crowds, Hoffman says you shouldn't miss either the Thurston Lava Tube—a tunnel formed by lava flow—or the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, where you can learn about the work being done by volcanologists in the park and have a sheltered view of Kilauea.
Money-saving tip: If you don't feel like pitching your own tent at the Namakanipaio campground, stay at the Kilauea Lodge, located only a mile from the park with rates starting at $170 per night.
When to go: The crowds decrease between Labor Day and Christmas, and you'll have the park more or less to yourself if you start your hike before 10:00 am.