Welcome to our adventure with red, hot lava. We’ve got photos, we’ve got videos, we’ve got a story. Stick with us through this post and we promise you won’t be disappointed!!
Stephanie: Ever since our first visit to the Big Island of Hawaii, it has been my goal to get us out to see flowing red lava up close. Just before we had left the Mainland, Elliott asked if the lava was accessible this time. Kilauea volcano has been erupting steadily since 1983, but often the flow is underground or inaccessible.
Elliott: “Do we really need our hiking boots? Can’t we just do our hikes in Tevas? If we’ll only need our boots if we are hiking to red hot lava, can’t we just check and see the status of the eruption before we leave Philly?”
Stephanie: I informed him that even if the lava wasn’t accessible today, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be accessible in three weeks when we arrived on the Big Island. Things change very quickly there.
Just a few days after we arrived on Maui, we heard another tourist mention hiking to the lava. I checked with him to make sure he meant active, flowing lava. We had arrived in Hawaii on July 23rd, and the flow had become accessible to hiking on July 26th. I was beside myself!
Elliott: “Good thing we brought those hiking boots!”
We were determined to go see it. Now that we were back on the Big Island, it looked like we were finally going to get our chance. But first, a little background information is in order.
The National Park Service does not try to stop people from hiking to the lava. Instead, they advise that you be in shape, bring tons of water and a flashlight, etc…. Much better than the standard American Way of saying “Oh, you might stub your toe, so a 15 square mile area is closed to the public.” We did have a run-in with a Fear-Of-God salesman on our first day, though. This guy works for our vacation club, and does a talk on the activities available on the island. Usually, we don’t bother with this sort of thing, preferring to figure it out on our own, but they offered free breakfast, so what the heck.
Stephanie: This guy was a completely sleazy sales guy, the type who scares you so bad you have no other choice than to pay him to guide you safely to everything you want to see. I was ready to leave within about two minutes of listening to him.
Elliott: He started by telling us how terrifyingly dangerous it is to hike out to lava. You could get lost and wander the lava wastelands forever. You could crack through the surface and boil in a fiery lake of hot lava for eternity. (Can I get a Hallelujah, brothers and sisters?) Even driving on the island was a life-in-your-hands activity; you could get in a horrific car accident and spend the only vacation you may ever take in your life in a hospital. Fortunately, he had a solution to all this doom and gloom. He informed us that the BEST way to see the lava was to take a $500 helicopter tour, and get a real nice view from several hundred feet in the air. Oh, and none of that troublesome walking was necessary. His tours were designed to pick us lazy Americans up at our door, so we wouldn’t ruin our vacation by actually having to do something for ourselves. Why am I telling you all this? To show you how easy it ended up being to do this on our own.
Stephanie: Easy? Maybe. But it took a lot of planning and a lot of driving to do this as a day-trip from the west side of the island.
Elliott: Right. Ann, Stephanie and I opted to leave at 4:00 am. This would give us plenty of time to make the 2-hour drive from Kona to the end of Chain of Craters road–
Stephanie: Which you slept through, while Ann and I navigated in the dark fog and rain–
Elliott: to hike the four miles to the actual lava flow, and still beat the heat of the day. We also brought snacks, six liters of water and two liters of Gatorade to keep us hydrated. It turns out we were WAY over-prepared.
Stephanie: Over-prepared? Maybe. But it’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Besides, we didn’t know what type of terrain we’d be hiking these eight miles on – gravel road, or newish hardened lava? It makes a huge difference (1.5 vs 2.5 hours, each way) and it wasn’t clear from the information online.
Elliott: We did luck out in that respect. At the end of Chain of Craters Road in the national park, there is a 4-mile, emergency-access road. The lava happened to be flowing above-ground, right across this road and then into the ocean. This means that the bulk of our hike was on the gravel road with no chance whatsoever of getting lost. It also meant we could go faster since we wouldn’t be clambering over an unmarked lava field.
Four miles later, at the end of the gravel road, a rope had been strung across it to let us know that we weren’t supposed to go any further. We took it as a sign that we were headed the right way and ignored it.
Stephanie: I think it was there to discourage us from going further forward in that direction. The road had been consumed by lava at that point from some former eruption anyway. But it didn’t stop us from going right or left. First, we followed the rope about 100 yards to the right, over the lava, to the coast where we had a much more intimate view of the lava waterfalls that we had seen from the ship two weeks before. This was our first view of red lava (sans zoom lens), and it was amazing, but this was not what I was going for.
Elliott: Beautiful, but not good enough. The lava was underground, and only broke the surface when it got to the edge of the cliff. We wanted to get right up to it, but the clouds of steam mixed with sulfuric acid made us keep our distance. So we returned to the end of the rope and decided to head inland to find the flow. Ann left us to our own devices, as we started off following the heat shimmer.
Stephanie: This time, we really were clambering over fairly fresh, silvery-black lava. As we followed the heat, we would feel the ground to see if it was getting hot. As we got closer, I found the glow of fresh lava deep in a crevice, and showed it to Elliott. I could feel how close we were getting!
There were two other hikers nearby, and we started working as group to find the red stuff. We were all looking in different directions, stepping quickly now. We were investigating any place that had steam coming out of it, felt extra hot, or appeared to be lighter in silver than the other areas. It was tough because we’d be sure we were there, and we’d stare hard at the silver, waiting for red to poke through. When nothing happened, we’d carefully test the strength of the lava we were about to step on, realize it was hard lava, move on and start all over again. We had to find it, so we’d look for the next spot, and the next. And then we finally saw it. Red!
Elliott: The actual lava was less than a half mile from the end of the road, and is probably the most amazing natural phenomenon I have seen in my life. It would ooze from the ground like bright orange toothpaste, and immediately start to cool once it hit the air. As the lava cooled it turned a sparkly silver color which would eventually settle into the familiar black of the Hawaiian lava fields. We could stand about five feet from it and watch it flow while feeling the heat from the liquid rock. LIQUID ROCK! You really don’t think about what that means until you’re seeing it with your own eyes. This is rock at a temperature of 2200°!! When we would stand right next to it for a photo, it was like stepping into a blast furnace. If I wanted to keep my eyelashes and leg hair, I could only stand there for a few seconds. Take a look…
Stephanie: What he said. This is seriously the best experience we’ve ever had!!!!
It got better with time, too. It’s nerve-wracking because you know how dangerous it is, yet the lava keeps changing and making new shapes, forms, waves, and even lava “falls.” I didn’t want to leave. Elliott and the two other guys were ready to go before I was. But I insisted on staying, and I’m so glad we did. The lava flows kept getting bigger and better!
The other cool thing was that we stayed so long, that this entire triangular area got filled with the lava. Originally we were standing in it, having these other guys take photos and videos of us. 20 minutes later, we were taking photos and video of brand new lava that was now covering the areas we had been standing on! Amazing!
Elliott: Wow! That was seriously amazing. If you have a chance to get up close to flowing lava, take it. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Stephanie: Take it even if you have to hike five hours each way (which we didn’t). I don’t care – I would do it. It’s incredible. Just be prepared – it is exciting, exhilarating and yes, definitely dangerous. Use common sense though and you should be fine.
On our hike back, we helped coach lots of people on what they were about to encounter, how to prepare for it, and how to find it. We had fun betting on which people would make it all the way to the red stuff.
Elliott: On the drive back up Chain of Craters Road, we stopped with Ann at the Thurston Lava Tube. Lava tubes are like long caves formed when new lava flows beneath the surface, and hardens on the outside edges of the tube, allowing the red lava to flow out and create a lasting space. The Thurston Lava tube is a bit more tourist-y than some we’ve seen before (like the one on the Galapagos Islands), but worth a stop.
We rounded out our volcano-oriented day with a stop at the Jaggar Museum in Volcano National Park for a view of the Halem’uma’u crater of Kilauea. (I looked for information on Mick Jagger in the museum, but there was none. They need to rename that place.) There’s isn’t much to see at the crater. There is a lake of lava inside, but it is well below the surface, and cannot be seen except from the air.
Stephanie: The crater is much better when viewed at night. While Elliott was still sleeping and we were approaching the area of Volcanoes National Park, I woke him up to show him the glow of the lava coming up from that crater, and reflecting on the clouds. It was really cool, and you see that same glow all night.
The Jagger Museum has a lot of great exhibits as well – definitely worth checking out to learn about the volcano and lava you’re viewing.
Elliott: After all the volcano-ing, I’d say the day was pretty full. We spent the rest of it driving back to the west side of the island, relaxing, soaking in the hot tub, and wondering how the rest of our time on the Big Island would ever measure up to being close enough to flowing red lava to dip our toes in. (Editor’s note: Dipping your toes into flowing lava is a very bad idea, and we are not liable if you actually do it.)