Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Lava flows • Hawai'i
July 8, 2006


While on the Big Island we made definite plans for a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We were hoping that we'd get lucky and witness some lava flowing into the ocean (or any flowing lava for that matter). We were also aware that the lava flows are extremely fickle and can change direction and intensity from moment to moment. We set out from Kona and drove the 100 miles to the park, dropping below massive Mauna Loa the entire way and enjoying the pretty scenery which ranges from thick green forest and tropical to near desert on Loa's south flanks. We arrived at the town of Volcano in a light drizzle, then drove into the park and to the visitor's center. Our plan was to hike a few trails near the Kilauea caldera and go wherever it was interesting. However, when we arrived at the visitor's center, we learned that a new flow was gaining in intensity and that plumes of steam and perhaps the lava itself could be seen, so on the spot we abandoned our original plans and made plans to go out onto the lava flows for a hike to the plumes instead!

We did make a circuit drive around the Kilauea crater, and a short hike to an overlook into the caldera, but soon we were on the Chain of Craters Road for the 19-mile drive to the coast and the active flow. We were surprised how far up we were at Kilauea: almost 4,000 feet; the drive down to the coast drops that entire amount and is a fun, if steep, downhill jaunt. Along the way we passed numerous old flows, many posted with signs mentioning the year of the flow. About 5 miles from the end of the road and still high up on a cliff we saw our first views of the steam plume, way off to our east. Marvelous and amazing. We drove down onto the eerie other-worldly coastlands, mainly black rocky lava flows occasionally punctuated in straggly plants and grasses, but essentially a coastal desert. The final mile of the road is right along the coast and ends short of where the lava flow ran over the road around 2003. The park service maintains a portable (for obvious reasons) ranger station. They block the road a half-mile from the flows itself, and you have to park on the north side of the road. There is no parking lot, and it's first-come, first-serve. We were among the first and still found ourselves parked about the 30th car along the road. We got our boots and drinks and started in. The half-mile along the road was easy enough, then soon, we came upon the signs and the hardened lava itself.

Signs at the end of the road make ominous warnings about the land falling into the sea at a moment's notice, and to be extremely careful. Obviously, hot lava and massive landslides could be trouble for us! The hike to the active flow covered about 2.5 miles, all of it on the glassy, crunchy, ankle-twisting lava, contorted and cracked into complete chaos. Most of the flow was the smooth pahoehoe type, which looks smooth from a distance and even on television. Up close, we had to watch every step the entire way. The park service marks the route in plastic posts and beacons. You just go from one to the next, usually spaced about a half-mile apart. The lava itself was like a roiling sea: smooth and calm in some areas, contorted and pushed into big waves and walls in other areas. It drizzled on us for about 10 minutes, but otherwise was actually pretty hot, given how effective the lava reflects the sun. In a little over 90 minutes we had come to the final leg - basically from the last beacon to the roped-off area near the plumes. The rock here was lots crunchier and newer - probably in the last couple of years. We both started to get kind of spooked as we walked up to the ropes - as if they would protect us from a cataclysmic landslide into the ocean. Popping through the rock into a lava flow was not ignored, either. We stuck close since if one of us went, we were both going!

At the ropes we we could not see the red-hot lava directly but the steam plumes (there were two) were violently rising like a locomotive. The crashing of the waves below us, the wind and the instantaneous vaporization of the water at the lava flow made for quite a din. At one point we could see "lava-bombs" (tephra), when the action of the hot lava hitting the cold seawater created little explosions of blobs of lava. The terrain was such that we were 250 horizontal feet from the closest plume, and 80 feet above sea level, separated by a small cliff where a landslide from late 2005 dropped a lot of the land into the ocean. We saw those lava bombs fly into the air a good 50 feet above us (not directly overhead). Amazing isn't strong enough a word. Awe-inspiring. We never felt so much like molecules before in our lives. We stayed for about 40 minutes to take in this natural wonder.

We only hiked out because we had to, but we took our time and stopped for photos and breaks. Fittingly, a large rainbow developed over us as we got back to our car. By this time the row of cars had stretched over a mile, with more coming. We arrived back in Kona that eveing, exhilirated and feeling very fortunate to have been so lucky to see this amazing sight!

Photos (Click to enlarge)

A plume of steam is visible from the road dropping toward the ocean.

The ranger station (on wheels).

Singed sign warning of the dangers yonder.

Beth at another similar sign.

The lava flow over the old highway.

The steam plume up close (maybe too close?).

Much closer. Sounded like a freight train

The land is prone to falling away!

Glassy pahoehoe lava

Rainbow on the exit

More rainbow.

The walk back...

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(c) 2006 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.