Each of the Hawaii volcanoes has its own distinct features. While the entire chain of Hawaiian volcanoes extends roughly 4500 miles across the Pacific Ocean, most have been quiet for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years.
Of all the volcanoes of Hawaii, only Big Island volcano Kilauea is currently erupting, as it has been doing continuously since January 1983. While Kilauea is the active volcano Hawaii is most famous for, there are actually three “active” volcanoes on the Big Island. All this really means is that there has been an eruption one or more times in the last 10,000 years, and there is sufficient seismic activity below the surface to suggest that another eruption could occur in the next, say, 1000 years or so.
The other two active Hawaii volcanoes are Mauna Loa (most recent eruption in 1984) and Hualalai (most recent eruption in 1801). Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain in the world. It makes up approximately half of Hawaii Island, rises 13,677 feet (4169 meters) above sea level and descends more than eight miles below the ocean's surface. It is so massive that it is actually sinking deeper beneath the ocean under its own weight!
Hualalai is the third most active volcano on the Big Island. Many homes and resorts have been built on the flanks of this volcano above Kailua-Kona. In 1929, intense earthquake activity beneath the surface, lasting for several weeks, was likely caused by rising magma. Because of this and the fact that it has been over 200 years since its last eruption, Hualalai is considered a potentially dangerous Hawaiian volcano that is overdue for an eruption.
When measured from its base, Mauna Kea volcano is the tallest mountain in the world. The Mauna Kea Observatory, the world's largest astronomical research facility, is located at the summit. Mauna Kea is considered dormant (a sleeping giant), while diminutive (relatively) Kohala to the north is considered extinct. Many of the premier Big Island Resorts are built along what is often referred to as the Kohala Coast, although the true coast of the Kohala volcano is farther to the north.
While on the Big Island, be sure to make time for a day-trip (or multi-day) to must-see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park , about 50 minutes from Hilo, and a 2-hour drive from Kailua-Kona. Fun for the entire family, this is a great place to explore and learn more about all the volcanoes of Hawaii. You can see steam vents and the stunning Kilauea caldera (summit crater), visit the Jaggar Museum on volcanology, and walk through the amazing Thurston Lava Tube. Tons of great hiking too, from easy to strenuous. Even if you don’t have a car, there are plenty of Big Island volcano tours available.
Can you walk out to see lava flow? Can you watch lava flow into the ocean? Great questions. Your opportunity to view Kilauea's lava flow is inconsistent at best. For years you could almost always count on being able to watch molten lava ooze straight into the ocean. Then it all stopped abruptly in March 2011 when the floor of the Pu‘u ‘O‘o crater collapsed and redirected the flow. Since that time lava flow has been unpredictable. This Big Island volcano can be very tempermental!
The most accurate and up-to-date information on current lava flow from Kilauea can be found on either the National Park Service website for Volcanoes National Park or the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory website. If you are hoping to see actual lava flow during your Hawaii vacation, be sure to check one of these websites.
Of course, things can change at a moment's notice with an active volcano in Hawaii, depending on the whims of the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele!