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By Donnie MacGowan

Lava from Kilauea Volcano flows into the ocean at one of three ocean entries along the Puna Coastline near the former village of Kalapana: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lava from Kilauea Volcano flows into the ocean at one of three ocean entries along the Puna Coastline near the former village of Kalapana: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lava continues to to gush unabated from Kilauea Volcano on the big Island of Hawaii through the former village of Kalapana into the Pacific Ocean, yielding one of the volcano’s best spectacles of the last ten years.  That’s the good news.

This is about all you can see from the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area, August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

This is about all you can see from the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area, August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

The bad news is you cannot see any of it from the County of Hawaii Lava Viewing Area.  This is not the County’s fault; the entire area is not only private property, but also highly unstable and ferociously dangerous.

For obvious reasons, trespassing on private property is not an option, here.  Further, Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi has promised the residents whose homes are in danger of being engulfed that he will not turn their personal tragedy into a public spectacle by opening up the area to casual tourism.

My PhD is in geology and I have spent years wandering the lava flows here and on other volcanoes around the world; I find that I really cannot recommend that folks casually stroll about this area without a basic understanding of some of the hazards. The extreme danger results from several factors. The active lava flow, especially in the vicinity of the County of Hawaii Lava Viewing Area where it is most accessible, is currently surrounded by an enormous area (perhaps 20 or more square miles) of what is called “dim lava”.  This is lava that, mostly still liquid and incredibly hot, has more or less “ponded”, or virtually stopped moving, and has developed about a foot or so crust on top of the still liquid lava.  As such it appears deceptively safe to walk on but actually it is exceptionally dangerous to cross.  Nobody would be foolish enough to walk on lava that is obviously still liquid, but many are tempted to cross the solid-appearing dim lava.  This is extremely, shall we say, stupid; dim lava is highly unstable, subject to rapid changes bringing great masses of liquid rock to the surface and is very, very dangerous.  During daylight hours it is difficult to tell the dim lava from flows that have been solid and cold for years, but one misstep can take you through a thin spot in the crust and into 2000 degree liquid.  The glow from the liquid rock can frequently be seen through cracks in the surface at night, giving you warning that you are on extremely dangerous ground.  Although at times people seem to navigate dim lava safely, it would not be wise for me to advise anyone to venture out onto it.

Dim lava in the light of camera flash: note that you can see no glow at all, erroneously leading you to suspect that, although it's warm, these rocks are safe to walk on: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Dim lava in the light of camera flash: note that you can see no glow at all, erroneously leading you to suspect that, although it's warm, these rocks are safe to walk on: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The same dim lava in the dark: note the glow indicating the presence of dangerous, liquid lava mere inches below the ground surface: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

The same dim lava in the dark: note the glow indicating the presence of dangerous, liquid lava mere inches below the ground surface: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Additionally, lava is much more viscous than water and flows a bit differently…sometimes, not all the liquid lava is below you.  When scouring a route past the dim lava last week, we were wandering between two lava “hillocks” on long-cooled rock, when we noticed that, ten feet above our heads, was the tell-tale glow of dim lava that had infiltrated the hillocks and could, at any moment, break out and spread over the ground we were walking on.  A very, very dangerous situation and one we immediately remedied by beating a hasty, safe retreat.  No one wins an argument with flowing lava.

A forest fire burns hungrily where the lava stream is burning through the thick jungle kipuka: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

A forest fire burns hungrily where the lava stream is burning through the thick jungle kipuka: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

The second prevalent hazard are the forest fires burning where the lava flows through jungle, especially surrounding the lava ocean entries, the most spectacular part of the flow and the place most people are trying to get to.  The danger from the fires is obvious, but what is not obvious is the fact that methane gas, extremely explosive, accumulates ahead of the flow under the ground surface in forested areas.  Every so often (and without warning), there will be a large methane explosion (in and of itself highly dangerous) that can blow enormous chunks of fiery-red hot liquid lava and solid rock thousands of feet.

Littoral Explosion at Waikupanaha, County of Hawaii Lava Viewing Area, October, 2009: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Another hazard is the littoral explosions.  Littoral explosions occur when hot, liquid lava meets the cold ocean water, mostly where lava tubes empty under the ocean.  Littoral explosions can hurl hot solid and molten liquid material hundreds of meters and are best given about half kilometer leeway. These hazardous explosions were once common at the Waikupanaha Lava Viewing Area, but there are currently no explosions occurring in the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area.  Just because littoral explosions are not occurring today, however, does not mean they could not start again instantly.

Plume and Waterspout at Waikupanaha Ocean Entry, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Plume and Waterspout at Waikupanaha Ocean Entry, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Finally, although not common, it is worth bearing in mind that the extremes of temperature of the mixing air, rock and water, the amount of particulate matter and vapor injected into the atmosphere and other weirdly perturbed variables around the ocean entries can cause bizarre weather phenomena, such as waterspouts and highly localized lightning.

Your best bet is to heed the advice of the County of Hawaii Public Safety professionals: do not cross private property, stay off of the dim lava and stay away from where the lava streams cut through burning jungle.  You put your life, and those of any foolish enough to assist you when you get in trouble, at extreme risk.

A large lava stream flows over a falls, Kalapana Hawaii August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

A large lava stream flows over a falls, Kalapana Hawaii August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

So…is it possible to see the lava flow without paying a boat captain or pilot to take you safely to the shores’ edge?  In a word, yes.  One can hike along the shoreline from the end of the road at Kalapana (by the new Kaimu Beach), but is is extremely difficult and very, very dangerous. A complete discussion of hiking to see the lava can be found here and here. The route follows the coast on razor sharp basalt, rough, broken and unforgiving, and there is no trail.  The way is at least 5 miles long in each direction of hard, hard hiking and includes about a mile of rank bush-whacking through very, very dense jungle that is not only easy to get lost in, but is on fire in some places.

Lava flows in the rain, Kalapana Hawaii August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Lava flows in the rain, Kalapana Hawaii August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

It is frequently quite rainy and, since the best viewing is at dawn or dusk, you are likely thinking about going at least one way in the dark.  Traveling this risky route in the dark and/or rain greatly magnifies the dangers.  Much of the way is jammed in a couple feet between a 60 foot cliff with unforgiving open ocean underneath and the dense jungle pressing you on the other side.  When it is dark or misty or raining, or when you are tired or not paying close enough attention, this is very hazardous.

A Lava Ribbon Flows Into the Ocean, Near Kalapana, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

A Lava Ribbon Flows Into the Ocean, Near Kalapana, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hard and dangerous.

Honestly, I do not recommend you go at all.  Night after night of hiking in to see the lava, of all the people who set off from Kalapana around when we did, and the many, many we met returning, most turned around after only 3 or so miles of hard hiking over the lava.  Some turned around when they got hemmed in by the dim lava, not knowing to cut through the jungle to the shore; more got lost and wandered for hours in the jungle before turning around.  Many had been told by local residents that the walk was “only 20 minutes or so” and so set off in sandals, or with children, without water or rain gear. Be aware, the hike is, at minimum, two difficult hours in duration each way (due to the difficulty of the terrain), there is no marked trail or path and the rock is like razors if you slip on it.

Lava stream about to enter the ocean, Kalapana Hawaii, August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Lava stream about to enter the ocean, Kalapana Hawaii, August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Do not even attempt to hike along the shore to the flows unless you are in extremely good physical shape, confident of both your route-finding and cross country hiking abilities, you are equipped for rain, cuts and bruises, have plenty of water to drink and food.

Strange things seen at the lava flow...Kalapana Hawaii August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Strange things seen at the lava flow...Kalapana Hawaii August 2010: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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.
The best of Tour Guide Hawaii’s free content about traveling to, and exploring, the Big island, can be found here.


For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and on touring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.


All media copyright 2010 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.

by Donald B. MacGowan

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Waikupanaha lava ocean entry, Puna Hawaii: Graphic from Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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

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Waikupanaha ocean entry, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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!

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Kupaianaha Vent on Kilauea Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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).

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Lae`apukii Ocean Entry Lava Flow Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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.

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As lava streams into the sea, the explosion cloud is visible for mile, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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.

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Helicopter and Explosion Plume, Lava Ocean Entry at Waikupanaha, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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.

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Waikupanaha explosion plume, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Plume at Waikupanaha Ocean Entry, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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).

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Lava enters the sea at Waikupanaha, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Streaming lava at Waikupanaha, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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.

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Hiking to see the lava in Puna Hawaii is serious business, take water, flashlights and appropriate footwear: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Flowing lava, open, steaming cracks and razor sharp rocks are why one should always follow the marked trail to Waikupanaha, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Hiking to the Waikupanaha lava ocean entry, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald MacGowan

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.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Road signs to Waikupanaha Lava Viewing, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

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.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Magical Sunset at Waikupanaha lava ocean entry, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Rain squalls are common at Waikupanaha; take raingear, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

To see the new iPhone/iPod Touch App, please visit http://www.tourguidehawaii.com/iphone.html. The best of Tour Guide Hawaii’s free content about traveling to, and exploring, the Big island, can be found here. For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and on touring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Littoral Explosions at Waikupanaha, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Lava flowing just below the surface at Waikupanaha burns vegetation above the surface, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

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All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or www.tourguidehawaii.com.

Lava explosions, Puna Hawaii: Graphic From Photo by Donnie MacGowan