Not many U.S. visitors to the state of Hawaii limit themselves to one or both of the national parks as their sole destination. So if they have further traveling plans in mind, they may want to use Honolulu on the island of Oahu as their gateway to Maui and the Big Island (a.k.a. Hawaii).
Both American and United Airlines maintain the busiest O'Hare-Hawaii schedules, offering several daily flights to Honolulu -- most of them with stops and a change of planes in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Fares, except during holiday periods, start at around $610, round trip. Direct flights to Kona on the Big Island and Kahului in Maui will stop and change planes in Honolulu and add about $100 round trip to the mainland-Honolulu fare. Advantage: Your luggage gets checked all the way through.
For about the same air fares, travelers may stop in Honolulu, visit Waikiki and other parts of Oahu and then arrange to fly on to Maui or the Big Island (or both) on such local carriers as Aloha or Hawaiian Airlines.
Keep an eye out for special deals. Some package arrangements that include air, hotel and car rental may lower the fare considerably.
Private cars provide the most flexible access to the parks, but commercial bus, van, bike, horseback and helicopter tours with hotel pickups are available.
Again, the best way to go is by car. Drive 96 miles southeast on Hawaii Highway 11 from the airport in Kailua-Kona, or 30 miles southwest on Hawaii Highway 11 from Hilo. The two main roads inside the park follow the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive around Kilauea Caldera and the 40-mile round-trip Chain of Craters Road down to the vicinity of the oceanfront lava flows. Both drives are winners.
Some 150 miles of hiking trails cover fascinating quick strolls, ambitious day hikes and overnight back country trips (obtain a permit for the latter). Lately, the lava-flow viewing area, about 300 yards from the seashore end of Chain of Craters Road, only permits sightings of a faint orange glow (more vivid after dark), ending in a huge plume of steam. Interpreters there share spotting scopes for a closer look.
Rangers allow -- but emphatically do not recommend -- the 7-mile, 4-hour round-trip trek over trackless and rough lava that draws much nearer to the big rock boil. However, no one patrols the route, and park authorities warn of strong, hot winds, driving rain, heavy fog, the absence of water and shade, and daytime temperatures often in the 90s. You can just imagine the rugged outdoor types licking their chops in anticipation. May they grow blisters on their blisters.
The standard tourist drill involves climbing to the summit of Haleakala Crater, a chore made relatively easy by the presence of a smooth highway. Hawaii Highway 378 corkscrews from sea level to the 10,023-foot high point. The journey takes about 1 1/2 hours from Kahului airport, via Hawaii Highways 36, 37 and 377, followed by the twisty home stretch.
Those who opt to stay behind the wheel have no other choice but to drive back down again, surfeited with views of mystical cinder-strewn terrain and endless ocean. Then they can go back to town and follow undulating Hawaii Highway 360 all the way around northern and eastern Maui to the lush Kipahulu area of the park. Allow at least another three hours each way, much more if you enjoy exploring on foot more than staring at the yellow line on a precarious cliffside shelf of a road. Better yet, save it for another day. Top off the tank at every opportunity. Gas stations are scarce and, in the park, nonexistent.
Hiking trails at the upper levels lead beyond the park proper into wilderness areas. Sliding Sands Trail descends 2,500 feet from the summit-overlook parking lot, through cinder desert, reaching the valley floor after four miles. Getting back, of course, is tougher and takes twice as long -- especially at this altitude. Shorter trails and loops peel off from the main trail to allow further valley exploration.
In the Kipahulu section, the most strenuous hike trudges up a rain forest trail called Papwai to the base of 400-foot Waikamoi Falls. Others lead to views of crashing surf and thick semitropical vegetation. First, drop in at the Kipahulu ranger station (open every day 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) to check on conditions. Flash floods sometimes render the streams, gorges and pools highly dangerous.
Bicycle rides from the summit have become a popular Maui entertainment. Concessionaires bus their customers to the top, and then everybody coasts down on the bikes provided. It's not getting around, exactly, but still great fun.
Ranger-led hikes occur with some frequency. Consult the community calendar section of the Maui News for the latest schedule.
WHEN TO VISIT
OUR NATIONAL PARKS