United States: Hawaii Volcanoes & Mammoth Cave National Parks

Beauty from the belly of the earth
  |  Gorp.com

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Skinny
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park hosts two of the world's liveliest volcanoes—Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Mauna Loa also tops the list of the world's most massive mountains, bigger than Everest when its subterranean height is added into the equation. Seeing these bubbling cauldrons of lava up close will give you an exhilarating glimpse of the powerful forces that shape the planet's features. The landscape of Volcanoes National Park is awash with unique geological formations and is home to a distinct ecosystem. Crater Rim Drive will take you alongside the area's breathtaking vistas, while the less-traveled Mauna Loa Road leads to such places as Kipuka Puaulu bird sanctuary.

While most visitors marvel at these mighty volcanoes in the space of a rushed, one-day tour, the slopes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are best experienced on foot. The pinnacle of all trails is the 18-miler to the summit of Mauna Loa, a three to four day slog depending on your stamina. It's not an easy climb, and will bring changing weather conditions and the possibility of mild altitude sickness if you rush it. The 11-mile Crater Rim Loop Trail can be done in a day and follows the more heavily trafficked path of the road. In all instances, check in at the Kilauea Visitor Center (tel: (808) 985-6000) in case of possible eruptions or earthquakes. According to local legend, Pele, the goddess of fire, will appear before an eruption either as a stunning beauty or old hag, often accompanied by a white dog. If you happen to stumble across this lady and her mutt, be polite—and get yourself to safety.

The Short
When to Go: Year-round (pack rain gear, a light sweater, and a jacket as it gets cool up top).
Other activities: Play a round of golf on the world's most bizarrely located course.
Farther afield: You're in Hawaii—go relax on the beach, for heaven's sake.
Best not to:

  • Disturb the flora or fauna—it's all protected.
  • Hit the backcountry without registering. We've said it already, but it's imperative to remember that these are live volcanoes.

Mammoth Cave National Park
The Skinny
Mammoth doesn't do this place justice. Kentucky's Mammoth Cave is the world's longest cave—its nearest competitor, a cave in Russia, comes in at only quarter of the length. That means there’s a whole lot of cave for you to explore. Formation of the caves began 350 million years ago, and you'll feel you're in the belly of the planet when standing underground in these ancient caverns. Family-friendly tours showcase the high ceilings and dripping stalactites, while more strenuous tours are available for the serious spelunker in search of narrower channels. Stop awhile to enjoy the silence—they say you can hear it.

Above ground lie over 50,000 acres of parkland crisscrossed by 70 miles of scenic trails. Pick your activity from hiking, fishing, and paddling. The Green River bisects Mammoth Cave National Park and supplies sedate yet serene canoeing and kayaking opportunities. It also affords the chance to poke around some smaller riverside caverns and admire the wildlife on display. Canoe camping is possible with a backcountry permit and will allow you to savor a slice of the absolute silence to be found below the soil.

The Short
When to Go: Year-round (avoid peak seasons, especially summer, if you're after some peace and quiet).
Other activities: Hike for sinkholes in the park above ground. Stop by the visitor's center for trail maps and more information.
Farther afield: Take a side trip to the birthplace of Abe Lincoln, 45 miles south of Louisville, Kentucky.
Best not to:

Suffer claustrophobia.


Published: 22 Aug 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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