In light of the recent eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano, I wanted to tell the story of our hike down to the lava flows on the East Rift at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. It was a strenuous long hike – 2.5 hours out and 3 hours back – with the reward of seeing the lava glowing brightly as night descended upon the island. During the hour we spent near the constantly shifting lava flows, I remember being nervous and feeling in the pit of my stomach that the earth was alive beneath my feet. Could the volcano blow at any moment? As it turns out, it did not that night in late March but just 5 weeks later, it did.
This year, it was my youngest son’s turn to go on a big trip so he accompanied me to the Big Island of Hawaii. My plan was to take him on some great adventures while also competing in the Lavaman Triathlon a second time. When a high school friend posted some cool photos of a lava hike they’d taken on the Big Island, I wanted to check it out. How cool would it be to hike across dried lava fields to witness real live lava flows?
Amy highly recommended the guide they’d used so I checked out the website – Active Hawaiian Lava Tours, liked what I saw and booked my son and I on the expedition. Active Lava Hawaiian Tours, https://www.activelavahawaiiantours.com It was a somewhat pricey tour at $135 per person but well worth the opportunity to see this awesome natural wonder. Later, my two daughters decided to meet us for the trip and joined us on the lava hike.
The map above shows the two main area where the Kilauea Volcano can be viewed. The caldera at the visitor’s center to the north and about an hour’s drive south, the east rift. Our tour at the east rift started just south of the small town of Pahoa, near the south entrance to Hawaii’i Volcanoes National Park. We were headed to Kalapana on the southern coast – a drive that is surprisingly rural with beautiful dense palm forests lining the narrow roads. As we approached the rendezvous site, barren black lava fields stretched out several miles toward the ocean beyond. Getting to the tour site was a bit confusing with directions like “turn just past the bike rentals” and “look for the yellow house down a block or two” and we thus, made a few wrong turns. Turns out that the modest yellow house/cabin we were looking for was located down a bumpy dirt road in a black lava field surrounded by a few dozen squatter shacks, piles of seemingly abandoned vehicles, water tanks, construction materials and just an occasional tree or plant rising from the uneven black rock. Talk about at the end of the road.
At the Kilauea Visitor’s Center in front of the caldera. Photo 1: Tristan and me. Photo 2: Tristan and Madelaine. March 23, 2018
Surprisingly, we arrived early and waited on the lanai with several other people while our guide Matthew introduced the plan and let us use the bathroom. He was very bubbly, informative and friendly. Unlike other tours groups, he informed us that we would not be biking to the entrance of the park tonight but rather, driving and then walking about a mile to the gate. That’s cool, I thought. I was happy to walk a little more since my triathlon was just days away.
After making sure that our water bottles were full, snacks were packed and our day packs secured, we were ready. By 4 pm, eight of us boarded a van for the short drive drive out of the black lava neighborhood and down the stark uninhabited road toward the entrance to the national park. Along the way, there were several tents set up to rent bikes but little else. I surmised that one could do this expedition without a guide but since parking was several miles away, renting a bike to ride into the entrance was more expedient. At the park gate, several dozen bikes were locked to metal posts nearby. We stopped to take photos and continued our walk down the road; perhaps a mile or so.
About a half mile into the park, we entered the lava fields. The surface of the dried lava was black, gravely, uneven, hilly and full of cracks. There was no established path or direct route. Each step was a challenge to avoid tripping or twisting an ankle. I was especially careful and unfortunately slow, since I didn’t want to injure myself before my triathlon that weekend. I worried that my young son Tristan might have difficulty but at 13, he’d recently grown 6 inches, slimmed up and magically transformed into an energetic and strong young man. He was a billy goat on this trek — no problem! My daughters Megan (21) and Madelaine (30) were similarly light on their feet.
The hike was long and rocky. The kids taking a break for me, the slow one.
Our guide used GPS to set the trail but as dusk fell, we could see lava glowing in the distance — a worthy destination to aspire too. We were joined by other small groups of people – couples, tour groups, families with small children and grandparents, college kids – hiking in the same direction. In truth, the going was tough and the hike took hours. By 6:30, we finally reached the fresh lava flows. Arriving at sunset was the prime time so we could really relish the glow of the lava in the dark.
The lava flows weren’t like the rivers you might see in films, however. They were little flows of maybe 2-6 feet extruding from crevices in the black rock. At places, you could look over at the ridges of rock rising next to you and see the lava glowing deep inside the cracks. There were many such extrusions and you could walk around and take photos. Nothing was moving too fast that you couldn’t get out of the way.
At one point, my kids headed over to a larger flow about 30 feet away which required that I climb over a few mounds of loose rocks. I hesitated since I was nervous about all the lava around me. I took a few deep breaths and finally heeded their calls to join them. As we posed for photos, the heat of the lava was so intense we tried to hurry. When I turned around a few minutes later, I saw that a new small river of lava had emerged right over the path I had just crossed. My heart palpitations had been justified!
In the distance, lava was visible on the slopes of the volcano as it rose up miles toward the caldera. Other, more adventurous hikers made their way up there but we were content to wander around closer flows take our photos. Our guide advised us on the most dramatic poses to maximize the affect of the lava. As night fell, it dawned on me that the hike back might be even more difficult in the dark and rallied for an earlier departure. Unfortunately, being the laggard in the group, my entreaties fell on deaf ears. I had to wait for everyone eager to see the glow of the lava in the dark. After an hour, we set off with headlamps on and flashlights. Although the hike back took more than three hours, everyone arrived back uninjured and full of tales of a once in a lifetime expedition.
My three travel companions, Madelaine, Tristan and Megan.
After nearly seven hours on the trail, we were starving and hoping to treat ourselves to a hearty dinner. Unfortunately, the nearest town of Pahoa literally closes down by 10 pm so we resourcefully found dinner at the local gas station — yogurt, milk, sandwich wraps, cheese sticks did the trick. It is sobering to see the news of the continuing eruptions of Kilauea and the destruction occurring in the area that we visited. The roads we drove to reach the tour no longer exist and quite likely, the little yellow house and its neighbors are also gone. Perhaps, even the gas station where we found our dinner is also gone. Our thoughts are with the residents of Pahoa, Kalapana and the area near the volcano.
A little video of the lava flow: