Peering over the edge of Kilauea Caldera, I instantly feel dwarfed by the mammoth landscape in front of me.
I’m at the Jaggar Museum Overlook and the sun has just set, turning the puffs of smoke and ash emanating out of the 3-mile-long Halemaumau Crater into pretty hues of pink and orange. Now huddled with a bunch of strangers in the quickly dropping temperatures waiting to see the crater’s fiery glow flicker against the night sky, we tell stories of where we’re from. The crater is our campfire at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, except we cannot feel the heat from the lava pit, and the frigid air—along with my poorly chosen cardigan—has me rushing back to the warmth of my cabin.
I booked two nights on top of Kilauea Volcano at Namakanipaio campground through Volcano House—the only hotel inside the park. There are 10 rustic cabins at the campground just 3 miles from the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and their triangular shapes could be likened to adorable little dollhouses. Best of all: They’re only $80 per night, in comparison to the hotel which charges $228 per night for a standard room.
I arrive back at my cabin after dark and look up past the tall eucalyptus trees surrounding the campground, thankful I didn’t have to drive far. The wind has picked up and my phone tells me it’s a chilly 55 degrees, but I don’t care anymore that I’m shivering with my arms across my chest because I can’t stop staring at the countless stars so brightly twinkling above, with satellites crisscrossing the sky on their orbit around the Earth at a speed I cannot even fathom.
Inside, the vaulted-ceiling interior is all white, fitted with one full bed and a twin bunk bed. The cabin isn’t heated, but the large comforters keep me warm, and the single electric outlet is all I need to charge my phone and camera battery. Namakanipaio means “conflicting winds”—fitting for a place with loud rustling trees that sound like waves crashing in the ocean. I let it lull me to sleep.
The next morning, I’m up with the roosters, eager to hike the 4-mile Kilauea Iki loop trail at the national park before the crowds. The parking lot is nearly empty at the trailhead, which makes me feel good about my choice of accommodation. I take my time on the route through the forest down the rim of Kilauea Iki to its crater floor—a descent of 400 feet. The views have me stopping frequently to take photos, and the birdsongs and lack of people on the trail give the tranquil feeling of discovering it all on my own. In 1959, lava spewed from this crater in tall splattering fountains and a molten lava lake flattened the surface of the crater floor I’m anxious to walk across.
After hiking and stopping for nearly 45 minutes, I arrive at the base, one step away from the floor, but the view of the immense crater from this angle is so arresting that my feet stay locked to the ground, letting my eyes take it all in. Nothing prepares you for that moment when you feel completely infinitesimal—similar to how you feel when you see Halemaumau Crater for the first time, or stand in front of a 500-foot waterfall, or ponder about the universe and how much exists “out there.” My mind is overwhelmed by what it’s seeing, but I also find joy in being here and reflecting on this amazing scene of mountainous crater walls, black lava mounds, cracked earth and a sprinkling of ohia lehua trees somehow finding life in the barren landscape. I could stay right here all day.
The rest of the trail is across the flat, hardened lava lake, where I take a 360-degree video of my surroundings right in the center of the crater, before the steep 40-story ascent to where I started. After spending nearly three hours on the trail, I return to my car at a parking lot that is now completely filled. I drive to Volcano House for lunch.
One of the perks of staying at the cabin is that I can visit Volcano House all I want. “You can sit by the fire, dine at the restaurants and use the Wi-Fi,” the Volcano House receptionist told me on the phone prior to booking the cabin. “You just can’t lie down here and fall asleep.” The other perk is the view of Halemaumau Crater; in its two restaurants and sitting area, floor-to-ceiling windows front the crater.
Reservations at the Volcano House’s fine-dining restaurant, The Rim, are best scheduled in advance, so I find an open seat at the Volcano House’s casual and much livelier Uncle George’s Lounge instead. The menu is typical of bar fare in Hawaii, with items such as Thai chicken wings, ahi poke stacks, edamame, kalua pork pizza and grilled cheese with tomato soup. I order the fish and chips, a hefty portion crusted with coconut and macadamia nuts. It’s so fulfilling to sit here after a morning filled with adventure and elation. I gaze through the windows at the hypnotic clouds of smoke rising from Halemaumau’s pit from my warm perch inside Volcano House, and enjoy the moment before heading back to my cabin in the beautiful countryside atop Kilauea.
Namakanipaio Camper Cabins
The campground is 3 miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. For reservations, call (866) 536-7972 or visit hawaiivolcanohouse.com.