There are many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track. Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.
Waikupanaha Lava Ocean Entry
Can you believe this? It’s absolutely outstanding and amazing! You can actually walk almost up to flowing lava here; see a volcano erupt before your eyes and the molten rock pour into the sea. This has to be one of the four or five most exciting, amazing, wonderful, mystical, spiritual experiences on earth…you must not miss this!
Over the months and years, the lava river issuing from Pu’u O’o and Kupaianaha vents winds its way back and forth across the lava plain of about 8 miles breadth, sometimes flowing into the sea within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, sometime outside the eastern margin of the Park on County of Hawaii land, sometimes ponding behind the low lava hills for weeks at a time without entering the ocean at all. You can check with the rangers about flow conditions by calling the eruption hotline at 808.985.6000; they have lots of useful, up to the minute information and can tell you the best way to approach these flows (for more information on touring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, please go here; for information about hiking to the lava flows from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, please go here).
If the lava is flowing in the more eastern margin, onto County of Hawaii land, viewing is from a County of Hawaii-maintained viewing platform. To reach this parking lot and observation point, drive south from Hilo 20 minutes, or southeast from Kona 2 hours, on the Hawaii Belt Road to the town of Kea’au. At Kea’au, turn south on Hawaii 130. There is a clearly marked intersection near the 20 mile marker on Highway 130 which leads to the county road and viewing area.
After approximately 2 miles of driving over a flat, but alternating asphalt, gravel, basalt and dirt, road one reaches the parking lot at the end of the road and the beginning of a 15 minute hike to the viewing platform. The road opens at 2 in the afternoon, the last car is allowed in at 8 p.m. and the area is cleared of people and cars at 10 p.m. The trail is well marked with reflectors and paint and there are safety officers stationed all along the trail until closing at 10 p.m. Information on the lava viewing area is available from the County of Hawaii at 808.961.8093.
Regardless of where the lava is entering the ocean, this is as far as hikers are allowed to go from this side. You should bring at least 2 quarts of water, a flashlight for hiking out in the dark, camera, food, first aid kit, and a rain jacket; wear a sun hat, sturdy hiking shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt–those rocks are sharp!
Of course, you will need sunscreen and sunglasses (see these two articles for complete discussions of sunscreen and sunglasses appropriate for Hawaii). Over the years, we have found a stout hiking stick and an umbrella to be of good use as well. Photos and video are most spectacular just before and during dusk and into night; it is wise to bring a camera tripod. You will need flashlights or headlamps to negotiate the trail, hiking back in the dark.
The lava seems to glow with only a dull petulance during the day and may be less than inspiring until nightfall brings it alive and the madly glowing, fiery goddess within is revealed. Thus knowledgeable hikers plan their hike to commence in the afternoon, reaching their destination at dusk, and to hike back in the dark. Check your flashlights before you leave the car. Remember that you are hiking on a highly active volcano, if flowing streams of lava strand you, no rescue is practical or possible; don’t wander away from the trail or the lava viewing area.
There are unusual, peculiar dangers to hiking on the lava plain that might not be obvious to the casual visitor. The steam clouds generated by the lava entering the sea contain fine, glassy particulate material as well as sulfuric and hydrochloric acids in concentration high enough to aggravate the very young and old, expectant mothers and people with respiratory and cardiac conditions. Over the past 20 years, a few adventurous people venturing too close to vents or the sea entries have asphyxiated from toxic gasses. Additionally, severe, but ephemeral, weather phenomenon occur in the explosion plume immediately offshore, such as lightening and water spouts (note water spout in photo at right).
Unstable benches that build up into the sea, and upon which the unwary hike and pause to photograph the scenery, are prone to collapse carrying all into the sea. Such collapses can cause local tidal waves which scour the landscape clean of everything as they pass. The ocean near the lava entries is superheated and waves lapping on inviting black sand beaches can be scalding hot
Where explosive, the meeting of molten rock and sea can explode large, searing hot rocks hundreds of feet in the air and throw boiling water, splashing everywhere. Methane explosions occur with no notice, dozens if not a hundred feet ahead of flows, flinging huge blocks hundreds of feet. Thin lava crusts can hide lava tubes, caves, hollows and holes into which hikers occasionally fall and are caught. You only have to have running shoes catch fire on your feet once to learn the wisdom of wearing boots here—learn from my bad judgment and experience. Don’t walk on thins crusts over glowing rock, on hot rocks or rock that feels “spongy”, is crackling or hissing.
A volcano is a naturally highly seismically active area and earthquakes are common (there are over 1200 measurable earthquakes a week on the Big Island). Less common, but certainly a constant threat, are local tsunamis generated by these earthquakes. The County has marked a very safe trail to the lava; follow it closely, turning around frequently to acquaint yourself with landmarks for the hike back in the dark.
Be sure to take extra memory cards or film for your camera and remember to wipe down all cameras, eyeglasses, binoculars, optics and electronics after your visit; the salt and volcano effluent-laden atmosphere is highly corrosive. Batteries may be drained faster than expected due to the high heat near the lava; take extra.
Despite the inherent dangers of hiking over liquid rock, steaming and unstable ground along the ever-restless sea, very few hikers are injured here. This is only because people enter the goddess’s home with a sense of awe and great caution, and the County safety officers are very good about instilling fear and trepidation into the hearts of those who think themselves otherwise immune to the mortal dangers presented here.
If you go, remain cautious and vigilant, plan for adversity, think ahead and pay attention. The rewards for this are a moving and amazing experience few ever have, a memory of mystery, awe and wonder to treasure always.
If you are planning on viewing the lava at night, be sure to remember that there will be no open gas stations or restaurants when you depart the Lava Viewing Area until you reach either Kona or Hilo…plan accordingly, think ahead.
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All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.