Hike to Flowing Lava
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Round Trip Mileage: Up to 15 miles
Elevation Gain: Up to a few hundred feet
Gear: Although this hike is along the coast, you should wear long pants and carry a long sleeve shirt. You’ll be completely off-trail the entire way, so bring a map and compass and above all the knowledge to use them. Bring lots of water – beyond the heat of flowing lava, the heat of the sun on the new black lava will raise the ambient temperature a few degrees. Also bring enough food to sustain yourself for up to 15 miles of hiking on open lava. Wear high-top, sturdy boots because your footing will be uncertain the entire way. You may want a painter's mask to avoid dangerous gas from the eruptions.
Map: Topographical Map of the Puna Coast
Overview: Getting to see flowing lava is the premier experience on the Big Island and might be the most amazing thing you'll ever see in your life. Seeing the new creation of the earth is an experience that’s difficult to put into words, but will certainly change you forever. If there is flowing lava when you’re visiting the Park, then this should become your new mission regardless of whatever you had planned. Get an early start at the end of the Chain of the Craters road and give yourself enough time to make it to the flowing lava. Planning far in advance to see flowing lava is nearly impossible, but start checking the USGS and Park websites about a month before your visit to see what’s going on. Check in every morning with the Park staff in the visitor’s center to hear about others’ experiences the previous day. It could be a short hike from the end of the paved road or it could be a 15 mile round trip. If it’s a 15 mile round trip, then the lava is at the edge of the Park boundary. If the lava happens to flow on the state-owned side of the boundary, your possibilities of viewing lava are limited to the county access at Kalapana.
Getting to the Trailhead: From the Park entrance, drive about fifty feet and turn south on Crater Rim Drive. Follow Crater Rim Drive until it intersects Chain of the Craters Road. Follow the Chain of the Craters road until it ends. Find a roundabout and park facing west along the shoulder of the road, single file. There are primitive restrooms and a few kiosks with some information, but there is usually no Ranger present.
The Hike: This hike describes the longest hike you can do and see flowing lava, the length set by the National Park boundary. If lava happens to be flowing beyond the Park boundary, you cannot technically cross the boundary to visit it. However, this boundary is unmarked and extremely difficult to determine. From the parking area at the end of the Chain of the Craters road, walk the remainder of the road and be sure to visit the kiosks for current info. The lava devours the road after about a quarter of a mile, and there’s a funny “Road Closed” sign engulfed in lava. There’s one more bit of road and then it’s just a sea of endless lava between the ocean and the pali (cliff) above. There is a short trail marked by little white markers for about another quarter of a mile which ends with an “End of Trail” sign in the lava. From here, there are usually up to 7 navigational aids called “beacons” because they emit a yellow-red light to help those who choose to hike at night (or are forced to). The beacons are roughly a half-mile apart, but this is not uniform. They are numbered from 0 to 6. If you find flowing lava, be extremely sure that you aren’t standing on a flowing lava tube that could explode or collapse. Retain a safe distance and watch for flying debris. If the lava is entering the ocean, give it a very wide berth (of at least 300m) to avoid explosive debris. Heat and shifting winds can burn or scald exposed skin even up to ten or twenty feet away. Enjoy lava safely, and be sure to account for the water loss your body is experiencing being this close to a 1000-1500 degree heat source.
Tips for Finding Lava:
- Stay on course until the beacons set up by the National Park end, and be sure you find the last one. It's likely in a good starting point for searching. Also, be sure to record the location of this final beacon to aid in your navigation back to the trailhead.
- From the last beacon, use your map and try to find any clues on the horizon. Is the pali (hillside) on fire? That means that lava is flowing or did recently flow through that area. Do you see a cloud of steam near the ocean? This might mean that lava is flowing from the surface into the sea, but it could also mean that lava is flowing in a tube beneath the surface.
- When you decide on a direction to hike, keep trying to find lava "high points" that offer a bit more visibility of the surrounding terrain.
- Try to watch for "heat lines" on the horizon. This optical illusion is the same effect that you get looking over a candle into the distance. The warmer air above the lava appears to swirl and undulate. However, if it is a sunny day, the sun warming the lava also creates this effect, so it might be hard to differentiate between the two. The heated air above flowing lava is much warmer, so you might look for an area of more intense heat lines.
- Continually feel the ground beneath you. If the lava is especially warm, you might be on top of subterranean lava, and you should probably reconsider your route.
- Of course, keep your eyes trained for red color in the sea of black lava. With the heat lines on the horizon, lava hunting begins to be a bit like finding a mirage in the desert.
Watch a video of Flowing Lava Recorded in May of 2012:
More: A short diversion from the parking area south along an established trail leads to a reinforced wall along the vertical sea cliffs of the Puna Coast. From this vantage, you have a great view to the east along the coast, as well as a nice overlook of the Hōlei Sea Arch, an amazing feature that won’t last much longer as the violent waves crash against it. Stay away from the edge.