If you like to hike, bike, camp with turtles or see lava, Volcano National Park is a must. VNP sits between Kailua-Kona and Hilo and if you do the drive from Kona, you will have a nice drive through the mountains and travel through little villages, mostly supported by the farming industry, specifically macadamia nuts and coffee. There are many local places you can visit during your journey. You can sample different kinds of coffee and I believe that we passed a few wineries, but it wasn’t what I was keeping my eye out for. While driving to VNP, if you think you need any supplies, stop in one of these villages. There are a few that have a larger grocery store, but once you get to Volcano (the town VNP is located) there is one small gas station store and a true value hardware (which has a little bit of everything).
There is an entry fee into VNP, but it is good for 7 days. The first thing you come to in the park is the Visitor’s Center. There are restrooms and water fountains located within the visitor’s center. There is also a walk through information area and a gift shop. The Rangers there are knowledgeable and if you want to find out where your best chance to view lava flowing is, listen to the rangers talk given by the 3-D park map. They have a ranger who speaks about the park and the lava flow every half hour or so. There are several hiking trails in the park, some more touristy then others. If you want to do the touristy hikes (which are generally short and easy, but offer great things to see), do them early in the morning, (get started by 8:00am) and you will beat the tour busses. We did the Thurston Lava Tubes first thing in the morning, before 8:00am. It was helpful that we were still on Pittsburgh time as we were up early that morning. There were only 2 people on the trail, which is really just a walk through the lava tube. It is less than a half mile and a very easy walk. This is one of the first hikes on the Chain of Craters Drive and by 11:00 the surrounding parking lots will be full…with lots of busses. Driving the Chain of Craters Drive you will pass many trail heads and areas of interest. Most of it is old lava flows, which are identified by the year of the flow and the dead crater. The landscape is vast and very cool. You can look at the hillside of the volcano and see the distinct path of each lava flow.
We also hiked the Sulphur Banks Trail. This trail is a paved/boardwalk trail that is about a mile. The hike is easy and you will get to see many steam vents. The trail also had lots of wild life as in birds and little critters and the Sulphur banks were very colorful. There were a few people on this trail. It is on the Chain of Craters Drive but it is at the end of the loop road if you start at the visitor’s center. It is one of the first trails you get too if you start on the Chain of Craters Drive and drive towards the Jagger Museum. Make sure to stop the Jagger Museum it is the best place to see the current active lava crater on Kilauea. As of today, 9/13/2016 you should be able to see the glow of the lava lake inside the crater. The lava was not flowing when we visited the park but you could still see the steam coming out of the crater. It was a beautiful site to see at night…pictures would do it no justice. We attempted to hike the Kilauea Iki trail which is a 4-mile loop trail that crosses a lava crust at the bottom of an inactive crater. As we started the decent into the crater the trail was overtaken by a group of high school students, had to be 300 students. We waited for them to pass us on the steps down, but they just kept coming and, kids are not our thing, so we headed back up off of the trail. We drove to the end of the Chain of Craters Drive. There is a small visitors center and restrooms at the end. From here you can do some lava hikes. That day (December 15, 2015) we were told if there was any lava flowing it would be about a 5-mile hike from the end of the road. We started to do this hike (we were also told that there were doubts that it was flowing) but after about a mile in we turned back. It was about 90 the day and the hike takes you across hardened lava fields. We decided not to do the 5 miles just to be disappointed. From the end of the road you get an incredible view of the ocean and you can see the Holei Sea Arch. You can also pick up the Puna Coast Trail that takes you along the coast which affords ocean front back country camping. In some cases, with sea turtles. It is a pack in, pack out camping experience and although there are designated camping areas along the trail, there are only rustic facilities. There are many other trails in the park, enough to write a book. We did not do any of the higher elevation trails as when we were there it was very cold near the top of the hike and we were not equipped with the proper gear for a hike in those conditions.
You can camp in most areas of the park as long as you have a back country permit. The permits are free and you apply at the ranger’s station near the visitor’s center. They will ask you for emergency contact info and your trip plans. They also provide you with a phone number to call to let them know when you have completed your hike. If you do not leave a message on this line, they will contact your emergency contact. There are two organized campgrounds in the park. Namakanipaio, which is at a higher elevation. I cannot comment on this site as the area was closed due to falling trees that needed maintenance. From what I have read this campsite offers a few more facilities than the other campground, Kulanaokuaiki. Kulanaokuaiki is kind of located in the middle of the park. The access road is off of the Chain of Craters Drive and it seems to go on forever through the lava fields. The road is not great, but we were in a little car and did not have any issues. The road is a dead end that provides a scenic vista looking towards the ocean.
Kulanaokuaiki, has several campsites that are on raised gravel/sand beds and provide picnic tables. There are also some marked walk-in sites over the hill from the designated ones. I can only imagine the view of the crater and the night sky from these sites was more spectacular than from the site we had chosen. At night you could see the glow and the steam from the crater. Right before dawn the skies cleared up and there were millions of stars. They looked so close that you could reach out and grab one. There was an immense amount of fog surrounding the area and it was very cold. Once the sun started to rise it started to rain which created a beautiful rainbow across the sky and over the crater. There are restroom facilities and an emergency call phone at the campsite, but that is about it. You will still need to pack-in and pack-out everything that you need. We visited the park for 2 days and it was not enough time to really take in the beauty of the park and all it has to offer. If you can afford a third day to explore the park, you will not be disappointed.
Over Labor Day Weekend, September 2-5, 2016, Scott and I traveled to Ricketts Glen State Park which is part of the Pennsylvania State Park System.
Ricketts Glen is off of Interstate 80 between Williamsport and Bloomsburg, PA. Off of Interstate 80, if you take the Bloomsburg exit, it is only two turns to the park. On our way there (traveling from Pittsburgh, PA) we followed Google Maps directions and it took us off an earlier exit (exit 212B) and through the back country. It was a nice drive through the middle of nowhere, but there were several turns and the turns were not clearly marked. On our return, we stayed on 487 and picked up 80 in Bloomsburg (exit 232). Whichever route you travel I suggest having it planned in advanced, or carry a hard old school map as cell phone reception is very spotty once you get off of 80 and once you are in the park area there is very little reception. At least for AT&T. The entranced to the park is off of 487.
Ricketts Glen State Park includes the Glens Natural Area which is designated as a National Natural Landmark. Although this is a wonderful designation and the area deserves it, this designation makes the area a tourist attraction with international interest. Being we were there over a 4-day weekend it was VERY crowded. The Highlight of the Park is the Glens Natural area that is home to over 21 named waterfalls ranging in height 11 feet to 94 feet and they are quite spectacular. There are several hiking trails located within the Glens Natural area (26 miles) ranging from the easiest 1 mile hike The Bear Walk Trail to the most difficult, The Falls Trail System which is a 7.2 mile loop trail. Hike this trail and you will get to view all 21 waterfalls. This is the trail we hiked on Saturday. We are early risers and knew it was going to be hot and crowded so we were on the trail by 8:00am. Good thing because by 11:00am it was a packed house. If you stay at the campground, drive over to the Lake Rose Trail Head. If you are early enough you will have no problem parking there. The campground is about a mile from the trail head and believe me, if you do the entire 7.2 mile loop you will not want to hike back the 1 mile to the campground. We witnessed several grounds doing this and they looked completely miserable.
The trail starts off as a nice wide graveled trail….do not let this fool you. If you read the park brochure, believe what it says and be prepared for the hike. When the trail to the falls actually starts it is very steep and very rocky, and remember if you go down, you must come back up. You basically hike down the falls and hike back up them. IF you have trekking poles, take them, your knees and back will thank you.
That being said, as I mentioned earlier, it was very crowded for Labor Day. Lots of international travelers and many, many people that did not know the first thing about hiking. It had to be in the uppers 80s the day we hiked and most people were not even carrying water. Very few had the proper footwear on (hiking boots are a must), some were in flip flops. This is not a trail to hike in flip flops. As well, many people were carrying babies and had children under 5 on the trail. Again, really not a good idea. The rocks are wet and slippery. A park ranger we spoke to said they had done 12 rescues this year. I can see why.
If you are properly outfitted you will have an amazing time on this trail. The waterfalls are beautiful and you can get right up close to them and in them. The sign at the trail says no swimming, but you can wade in the water and stand under the falls.
The other highlight to this park is Lake Jean. This is a beautiful lake that sits next to the campground. The campground has a few sites where you can put your boat right in from. There is a beach and a picnic area located at Lake Jean as well as a boat rental place and concession stand. There are 2 boat launches on the lake and Motorboats and non-powered boats are permitted. We had our kayaks with us and fished from those. Lake Jean is very clean for a lake. This is due to the fact that the lake was drained in 2015 and refilled and restocked. Although this has cleaned the lake, the fishing has been affected. The lake is stocked very well. We got a ton of fish in all parts of the lake, but they were all very small. I would think in five years this lake will produce some great fishing opportunities.
Our accommodations for the weekend were at the parks campground. We had spot 35 and it was a great spot. As far as PA State Park Campgrounds go, this site was very spacious. We had a nice flat area for our tent and our pop up tent. We also had a grassy area were another tent could have been placed as well as a shaded area where we hung our hammocks. The best part was that we could put our kayaks in the lake right from our camping spot. If you are looking for this type of site, look at sites 32-37. These sites are also located on a dead end so car traffic is light.
The Campground was clean and the bath house was clean as well. Scott did mention that the men’s room was not so pleasant, but we chalked that up to teenage boys (there were a lot of them there). The showers were clean and did produce hot water if you let it run for a little while.
Prior to staying at the campground, we had heard that the Park Rangers were very strict. I didn’t see any issues with them and I felt that their presence was similar to all the other state parks we have visits. I would say the standard rule is that if you act like an idiot, you will be treated as such.
You can check out Ricketts Glen State Park through the PA State Park website www.dcnr.state.pa.us or check out their app, PA Pocket Ranger. I have found the app to be very helpful, however, I do not get reception at most of the parks.
The campground is located at the entrance to the vista area. It is a small campground, 20 or so sites. The facilities are almost brand new and very clean.
We were there during the week and there were only 3 other campers in the campground.
There is a lot of wildlife around. Deer come right through the campsites. Many raccoons too so you must stow your food in the evening.
There is a hiking trail that will take you down into the canyon. It is a mile or so and pretty steep, but well maintained. Portions are steps. There are a few waterfalls to view on the way down.
At the bottom you will pass the rails to trail and run into pine creek. If you walk to the left to where it gets deep. You will find some of the best fishing ever.