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.
Lava Viewing at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Can you believe this? It’s absolutely outstanding and amazing! You can actually walk right 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 experiences on earth…you must not miss this!
Mauna Loa is active but not currently erupting. The summit area is slowly inflating, filling with magma and the flanks are subject to frequent minor earthquakes, but no obvious activity is apparent to the visitor. Kilauea, the most active volcano on Earth, started its current eruptive phase in 1983, the longest eruption in history. Since then it has ejected almost 3 billion cubic meters of lava. Flowing from various vents in the rift, most notably Pu’u O’o and Kupaianaha, in streams and tubes at over 1000 degrees Celsius, much of the lava makes its way into the sea in fiery, steamy explosions or the incredible incongruity of glowing hot lava pouring directly into the sea with little more apparent than a mere bubbling of the water.
Since the flow of lava over the moonscape plains and into the roiling sea can be seen nowhere else on earth, it is certainly the most exciting, unique and moving highlight of any trip to Hawai’i. People stand at the edge of the flow and weep at the majesty and mystery of the earth remaking itself; it is wondrous, remarkable and unforgettable. Although surface flows and breakouts are frequent and common, there is no guarantee that over any given trip to the Big Island they will be visible or easily accessible to the casual visitor. Before planning a hike to see the lava, check with the Rangers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for information on the hike length and location of surface flows and a review of safety information. Eruption information is available from the Park Service at 808.985.6000.
Over the months and years, the lava river issuing from Pu’u O’o winds its way back and forth across the lava plain of about 9 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. When you check with the rangers about flow conditions, they can tell you the best way to approach these flows.
If the flows are toward the more western margin and within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the best approach is to drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road in the Park and then hike in. This hike can be of a few minutes, or a few hours, duration, depending upon how far away the lava ocean entry is. Talk to the rangers beforehand so you can come prepared. The hike is over an uneven, rough surface, hot during the day, even when it rains, cold at night and navigation can sometimes be counterintuitive. When lava is flowing in the park, parking can be monstrous at the end of Chain of Craters Road; please go here for more details about visiting the end of the road.
The trail at first is marked with cairns and reflectors, but after a few hundred meters you are on your own to navigate the basalt wilderness. The good news is, even if the hike is a couple hours duration, when the lava flow is in the National Park, you are allowed to walk right up to it; this is not true if the lava is flowing in the more eastern margin, onto County of Hawaii land. In this case, viewing is from a County of Hawaii-maintained viewing platform at Waikupanaha. Information on viewing the lava flows from County of Hawaii land is available here and from the County of Hawaii at 808.961.8093.
Whether you approach the lava flows from the west or the east, bring at least 2 quarts of water, a flashlight for hiking out in the dark, camera, food, first aid kit and a light rain jacket; wear a sun hat, sturdy hiking shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt–those rocks are sharp! Sun glasses and sunscreen are a must here; in fact, they are so important in tropical Hawaii, we ask you please go here and here for information on skin and eye protection. Over the years, we have found a stout hiking stick and an umbrella to be of good use as well. Since photos and video are most spectacular at night, it is wise to bring a camera tripod.
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 then hike back in the dark. Check your flashlights before you leave the car and replace weak batteries. Remember that you are hiking on a highly active volcano, if flowing streams of lava strand you, no rescue is practical or possible; plan, take care and pay strict attention accordingly.
Obviously, the lava is lethally hot and sometimes flowing mere inches below seeming solid ground; a stick or ski pole used as a probe helps you determine what is dangerous ground and what is merely “hot and squishy” but otherwise safe to walk on. This is also why you should wear boots, not running shoes or sandals—it only takes having your sneakers catch fire once to drive this point home. When in hot terrain, never stop moving your feet. Even when you are standing still to photograph, walk in place or you may find your shoes afire.
There are other 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.
The ocean near the lava entries is superheated and waves lapping on inviting black sand beaches can be scalding hot. One brave (foolhardy?) surfer wanted to be filmed surfing in front of the lava flows and was badly scalded for his efforts. 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. 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. Thin lava crusts can hide lava tubes, caves, hollows and holes into which hikers occasionally fall and are caught.
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 Park Service has roughly marked the trail to the lava; follow it closely, turning around frequently to acquaint yourself with landmarks for the hike back.
Be sure to take extra film or memory cards 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; bring extra for cameras and flashlights.
Despite the inherent dangers of hiking over liquid rock, steaming and unstable ground along the ever-restless sea, very few hikers are injured here, even fewer are killed. This is only because people enter the goddess’s home with a sense of awe and great caution, and the Rangers 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 may be no open gas stations or restaurants when you depart the Park until you reach either Kona or Hilo…plan accordingly, think ahead. Stay safe…stay awesome.
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All media copyright 2010 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.