Hiking to the Lava in Hawaii

By: Brien M. Posey


If you read my blog post about our visit to the big island then you know that the main thing that we wanted to do on the island was to go see the volcano. Unfortunately, the volcano was venting an excessive amount of gas on the day that we decided to visit. These emissions caused Taz to have trouble breathing. We only got to spend about ten minutes at the park (mostly at the visitor’s center) before we had to leave.

Since I really wanted to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I got up at 4:00 AM the next morning and made the drive to the park. The park is open 24 hours a day and I really wanted to see the volcano at night.

I arrived at the park at around 5:30. Much to my surprise, I got there just in time to see the volcano before the sun started coming up. Within 15 minutes of my arrival the first hint of daylight became visible. It was a cloudy morning and the glow from the lava reflected off of the clouds. In fact, I was able to see the glow in the sky from a few miles outside of the park during the drive.

The volcano at night

Seeing the volcano at night was worth the drive.

When we had briefly been at the park the day before, one of the rangers had given us a good tip. He had told us that it might rain that evening, which would produce a dense fog and make viewing the volcano all but impossible. However, he said that when it rains in the evening, the viewing conditions are usually pristine just before dawn. That was clearly the case when I arrived at the park’s Jaggar Museum look out. The weather was perfect and a huge column of volcanic gas was illuminated by the lava below.

Another nightime view of the volcano.

Another nighttime view of the volcano

What was really nice was that I didn’t have to fight the crowds. Less than ten people were at the Jaggar Museum lookout. It was kind of strange, but the people who were at the lookout that morning all stood in complete silence as they observed the volcano. The only sound was the occasional click of a camera shutter.

Because of my plans for later in the day, I needed to be back in Hilo by 9:00 AM. Therefore, I only spent a few minutes at the Jaggar Museum before making the long drive to the sea arch at the far end of the park. I wasn’t necessarily interested in seeing the sea arch, but I did want to see where lava had taken out the road just past the sea arch.

The sea arch at the end of the road

This was the sea arch at the end of the road.

My arrival at the sea arch area was a bit surreal. I hadn’t passed another car in at least 20 miles and there were no cars in the parking area at the sea arch. I was clearly all alone.

Just past the parking area were signs that were intended to scare curious tourists away. They warned of hazards from things like huge waves and volcanic emissions. Signs also indicated that rangers did not patrol the area that I was about to enter.

Various warning signs attempt to discourage tourists from venturing further.

Various warning signs attempt to discourage tourists from venturing further.

I decided to toss caution to the wind and venture into that area of the park. It was a little bit eerie doing so because it was still early in the morning and I was the only person in the area. I found myself walking all alone down a road that led down the middle of a peninsula with ocean on both sides of me. The only sounds to be heard were the crashing waves, the wind, and the birds.

I had the entire road to myself that morning.

I had the entire road to myself that morning.

After hiking for about half a mile, I saw what I came for. At some point, lava had taken out the road. There was even a Road Closed sign that had somehow survived and was sticking out of the hardened lava.

Lava had taken out the road.

Lava had taken out the road.

This road is definately closed!

This road is definitely closed!

After hiking back to the car I decided to go check out the Thurston Lava Tube. I had driven past the parking lot for the lava tube on the previous day and there weren’t even any parking spaces available. People were parking illegally on the street just to get the chance to walk through the lava tube. Today though, I had the parking lot and the lava tube to myself. It was still early morning and the first tour bus had not yet arrived.

This is the enterance to the Thurston Lava Tube.

This is the entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube.

Walking through the Thurston Lava Tube

Walking through the Thurston Lava Tube.

I spent about 20 minutes exploring the lava tube and decided that I had just enough time to view the volcano during the day before I had to leave the park. I made the short drive back to the Jaggar Museum.

This time there was no one at the museum. Of course the view of the volcano wasn’t as nearly as impressive during the day as it had been in the dark. It simply looked like a large crater with steam coming out. There were numerous smaller steam vents that were also visible from the museum’s lookout.

This is what the volcano looks like during the daytime.

This is what the volcano looks like during the daytime.

Countless steam vents sorround the main crater.

Countless steam vents surround the main crater.

Out of time I drove back to Hilo, had a light breakfast with Taz, and spent a few hours walking around town with her. However, the most exciting part of the day was yet to come.

About a year earlier I had experienced a colossal disappointment. I had climbed Mount Pacaya in Guatemala because I had heard that it was possible to see the lava up close. I had spent about a year and a half getting myself physically fit so that I could make the climb, but by the time that I actually got to Guatemala the eruption was over.

When I first started planning a trip to Hawaii, I had decided that I wanted to go see the lava. Normally Lava flows to the ocean and there is a place that tourists go to watch it. However, the ocean flows had stopped, so I needed to find another option.

At first I thought that I was out of luck. I assumed that my trip to the volcano was going to be like visiting Mt. Pacaya all over again. After doing a little research however, I learned that the lava was still flowing. It was just that the lava was not in the usual tourist areas and was not easily accessible.

It was Taz who discovered a tour company that could take me to see the lava. The company was the only one on the island who would take tourists to where the lava was now located.

When I had checked into the hotel in Hilo, the guy who was working the front desk actually tried to talk me out of going to see the lava. I thought that he was nuts. After all, seeing the volcano was my main reason for even visiting the island. However, after making the hike to the lava I can definitely understand why he tried to talk me out of it.

The tour company had us to board a van in downtown Hilo. We took the van to a location about 40 minutes from the downtown area and began our hike. The first part of the hike was just short of 4 miles. Although four miles might not sound like much, the degree of difficulty involved made the hike very strenuous. Most of the hike involved slogging through ankle deep (and in some cases nearly knee deep) mud. The mud made the hike tough because mud has something of a suction effect. It takes mussel to lift your foot out of mud.

The first four miles of hiking were really muddy.

The first four miles of hiking were really muddy.

I was glad that I had my boots laced up tightly. At least three people in our group lost shoes in the mud. They had to fish the lost shoe out of the mud by hand and then put on the shoe, which was now filled with mud.

Every once in a while we got a short reprieve from the mud when the trail required the group to climb over rocks or jump over a crevasse. There were also some places where the guides had placed logs in the mud as a way of giving us something solid to step onto.

As difficult as the hike had been, we had only completed the first part. We eventually arrived at a spot where lava had consumed an area of the forest two months earlier. From that point, we had to walk a couple more miles to access the hot lava. This portion of the hike was less physically demanding because there was no mud, but it was still tough because the rock was very uneven and it would have been very easy to accidentally twist an ankle.

We arrived at an area where the forest had recently been burned by lava.

We arrived at an area where the forest had recently been burned by lava.

Our first clue that we were approaching hot lava was when we saw a shimmering above the ground ahead of us. The effect was similar to what you might see over a barbeque grill or an asphalt road on a hot day.

The last part of the walk to the lava was treacherous to say the least. Although the lava rock that we were walking on looked exactly like the rock that we had been hiking on for the last couple of miles, the ground was anything but solid. My scary moment came when I took a step and my foot punctured the surface of the rock. When that happened, I hit solid rock two or three inches beneath the broken rock’s surface. What made the experience a bit unnerving was that it was unexpected and that it revealed just how unstable the ground beneath us actually was.  If I hadn’t been hiking on a live volcano I probably would not have even thought twice about the incident. As it was however, the ground was very hot. I could only imagine taking a bad step, breaking through the top layer of rock, and putting my foot into the hot lava beneath.

After a few more minutes, I saw the first hint of lava. One of the thousands of cracks in the rocks was giving off a red glow. It was also uncomfortably warm to walk past that area. I made sure to point out the glow to the people behind me, both for their enjoyment and for their safety.

A moment later, we arrived at an area where a small amount of lava was flowing across the ground. Everyone immediately reached for their cameras, but the guide chastised us by telling us that this wasn’t the lava that we were there to see and that we needed to hustle if we wanted to make it to the main attraction before dark.

This was our first view of the lava.

This was our first view of the lava.

Just before sunset we reached a rather large lava flow. At first, nobody in the group was sure what they were supposed to be doing. Our guide told us that this was not the time to be shy. With that he walked over to the lava and jammed a stick into the flow, which caused a large flame to be produced. That seemed to be all the encouragement that anyone in the group needed. Everyone spread out and began interacting with the lava.

The first thing that most people seemed to want to do was to have their picture taken with the lava before it got dark. I stepped aside and allowed a couple to photograph each other. I definitely noticed that the spot where I was standing was hot, but I assumed that it was because I was in such close proximity to the lava. A few seconds later however, the ground began to slowly sink. Apparently I had been standing on a thin layer of cooled lava on top of lava that was still hot.

After quickly moving, I walked over to another part of the flow and began poking it with a stick. Whenever I would poke the lava, a big flame would erupt. I was also getting pelted by a large number of burning embers. Thankfully, none of the embers were at face level, although I did end up with a few small burns in my jeans.

Poking the lava with a stick proved to be entertaining.

Poking the lava with a stick proved to be entertaining.

One thing that I became acutely aware of was that even though poking at hot lava with a stick definitely demands your full attention, I couldn’t focus all of my attention on what I was doing. The lava was actually moving. I couldn’t turn my back on it for more than about twenty or thirty seconds at a time because I didn’t want the lava to catch up to me. The lava flow was essentially silent. There was a crackling sound like that of glass cracking, but that sound could be heard all around us, not just in the area where the lava was in liquid form. There were several times throughout the night when I had to stop what I was doing and move because the lava was inching uncomfortably close to me.

The odd thing about the experience was the sudden realization of what I was actually doing. Those who have read some of my other blog posts on this site know that most of my biggest adventures have taken place in foreign countries. The reason for this is that often times you can get away with things in foreign countries that you just can’t get away with in America. It drives me crazy, but it always seems that activities in America are heavily sanitized. Everything has to be completely safe (to keep the lawyers happy), child friendly, and all around politically correct. Even though I was in the United States, this experience was the total opposite of that. After jamming a stick into the lava, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was on an active volcano standing in the path of a lava flow.

At that point, I stepped aside to give someone else a turn interacting with the lava. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that there was a much larger lava flow about fifty yards away. I decided to walk over to that flow and check it out.

For some reason, it seems to get dark really quickly in Hawaii. Later in the trip Taz and I had watched a sunset in Maui. Neither of us could get over how quickly the sun dropped below the horizon. It was this very phenomenon that presented a very dangerous situation at the volcano.

Prior to the hike, everyone in our group had been given a head lamp. I hadn’t bothered to put mine on. For one thing, it was early afternoon when we began the hike. It seemed silly to walk around wearing a headlamp in broad daylight. More importantly, I suffer from TMJ. Wearing things on my head usually causes severe headaches, so I didn’t want to put the headlamp on until I had to.

The problem was that as I interacted with the lava, the glow from the flames that I was creating lit up the surrounding area pretty well. It was only when I stepped back to take a break from the heat that I realized how dark it had become. Furthermore, I had been staring at flames so my eyes hadn’t had a chance to adjust to the darkness.

I got caught in the dark without my head lamp.

I got caught in the dark without my head lamp.

I had the headlamp in my backpack. Normally it would have been a simple matter to reach into my backpack and get the headlamp. The problems was that I had so much stuff in my backpack that I was going to have to take the backpack off and sit it on the ground in order to find my headlamp. Sitting the backpack on the ground wasn’t an option. I was hiking a live volcano. The ground was extremely hot and the nylon that made up my backpack would have melted.

I did my best to try to walk to a cooler area so that I could get out my headlamp. The short walk proved to be very difficult. In some places the lava had formed big ruts and it would have been easy to sprain an ankle. The smoother areas were very slippery because they were coated in a thin layer of volcanic glass. Of course there were also the hot spots to watch out for. Thankfully, a couple of my fellow hikers saw my situation and came over to assist me with retrieving my headlamp.

We spent about an hour and a half at the lava. During that time, I just couldn’t help but get the feeling that perhaps there were certain places on Earth where humans were not meant to be. After all, the lava fields were as inhospitable of a place as I had ever been. There simply was no life here (except for us hikers). There was no plant life, and there weren’t any animals. I didn’t even see any birds fly through the area. There was simply nothing but scorched Earth as far as the eye could see. I am pretty sure that this was the only place that I have ever been that was completely lifeless. Even when I visited Antarctica or the desserts of the Middle East there was life present. Here there was literally nothing.

I was also intrigued by the sheer size of the volcano. Early that morning I had visited the overlook at the Jaggar Museum to see the caldera. As I made the drive to the museum, I could see the red glow in the sky several miles before I arrived at the park. I had no doubt that the lookout at the museum was a safe distance from the crater, but the crater was so large that it felt as if I was in very close proximity to it.

Now that I was standing in the midst of a hot lava flow, my visit to the museum that morning was all but forgotten. Even so, the main vent where I had been that morning was clearly visible many miles off in the distance. I was surprised by how far from the crater lava was flowing.

While we were at the lava, a storm blew in. Standing in the rain proved to be a rather strange experience. Even though I could tell that it was raining hard all around us, I was barely getting wet. The heat from the lava was causing most of the rain to evaporate before it hit the ground. Where I was standing the rain felt like a hot mist, even though it was obvious that it was raining hard all around us.

While at the lava flow, we all interacted with the lava in different ways. I saw one person roasting marshmallows (which is something that I had done on Mount Pacaya in Guatemala). Some other hikers were making lava sculptures by scooping up hot lava and then trying to arrange it into some sort of design before it cooled.

Everyone interacted with the lava in different ways.

Everyone interacted with the lava in different ways.

All too soon it was time to begin the long and dangerous hike back to civilization. By that time the rain had stopped. As we began to congregate for the walk back, I became aware of the fact that I had completely lost my sense of direction. There was nothing but lava (hot and cooled) as far as the eye could see.

There was nothing but scorched earth as far as the eye could see.

There was nothing but scorched earth as far as the eye could see.

There was nothing to use as a landmark or a directional indicator. Sure, I could see the main eruption far off in the distance, but it was impossible to use it as a directional marker because it had not been visible during the daylight when we arrived at the lava. Thankfully one of our guides had a GPS compass. The guide had also placed a flashlight in a tree at the trail head. We were a couple of miles from the trail head at that point, so the flashlight didn’t become visible until later, but once we could see it the light served as a comforting reminder that we were hiking in the right direction.

Walking back to the trailhead at the edge of the forest was a scary experience. We had to walk a couple of miles over very uneven and often slippery cooled lava. What made this portion of the hike more unnerving than before however, was that now that it was dark, it became possible to see the red glow of the lava coming from many of the cracks. It became very obvious that we were walking on a thin layer of hardened lava directly over top of liquid lava.

The most tense moment of the hike back came when one of the other hikers stepped onto a smooth, flat rock. Without warning, the rock gave way and fell about a foot or so. When that happened, the red glow of the lava below became visible all around the hiker. He now stood completely still, fearing that any further movement would send the rock tumbling into the lava.

I and one of the guides were standing nearby when we heard the crack of the rock. I walked to the edge of the rock that the panicked hiker was standing on and looked down into the crack. When I did, I realized that the area beneath the rock was hollow. If the rock were to fall then it would be about an eight foot drop to the lava.

The stranded hiker had no choice be to make his way toward the edge of the rock. He slowly shuffled toward the edge of the rock, fearful that walking would cause excessive vibration, thus causing the rock to fall. When he got close enough to the edge of the rock, the guide took the man’s hand and helped him to safely cross onto ground that was more solid. The incident was over as quickly as it happened, but it was something that I will never forget because it made me realize in no uncertain terms just how dangerous hiking on lava really is.

Eventually we arrived back at the trail head. This was the same area where we had been in earlier where the lava met the forest. The guide told us that we would be stopping here for a fifteen minute dinner break. I found a fallen tree to sit down on and retrieved some water and a light snack from my backpack.

As I had my snack, I thought about how good it felt to sit. I had been on my feet since beginning the hike earlier in the afternoon. I was exhausted, and the day was definitely starting to catch up with me. I thought about how nice it would feel to just camp there for the night. Of course camping wasn’t an option. Even if camping had been an option, I doubt that I would have slept very well. I’m sure I would have been paranoid about the lava flow silently creeping up on us during the night.

The break was over all too soon and it was time to hike the last bit of distance back to the road. We still had just under four miles to go. The hike had been tough earlier in the day, but now it was agonizing. I was physically exhausted and walking through miles of mud was proving to be too much for me. I completed the hike, but I finished about five minutes behind the rest of the group. Not only was I slowing down due to fatigue, but hiking in the dark proved to be a bit of a challenge once the batteries in my headlamp started to run out of power.

It was nearly midnight before we got back to downtown Hilo. We were all covered in mud and sweat. Needless to say, it had been kind of a stinky ride back to Hilo. Upon our arrival at the tour shop everyone else in the group abandoned their shoes. My boots were brand new, so I really wanted to try to salvage them. I stepped outside and tried to scrape off as much mud as I could on the curb while I waited for Taz to come pick me up.

When Taz arrived, I wasn’t quite sure how to keep from getting mud all over the car. My only real option at that point was to get into the back seat and hope for the best.

When we got in the car, Taz asked me how it was. Looking back, it was an awesome experience. At the time however, I distinctly remember telling Taz that I didn’t know how I felt about the experience. At that moment in time, I was not in a good place. The mussels in my arms, legs, and back were hurting badly. I was also completely exhausted physically. In spite of my best efforts, I had not been able to get a solid meal that day. I think it was probably the fact that had only had one small meal (and a couple of very light snacks) that caused me to wear out so badly during the last part of the hike. All I knew now was that my mussels were sore and that I was so exhausted that I could not even think clearly. It probably also didn’t help that I had been awake for nearly 24 hours.

When we got back to the Dolphin Bay Hotel where we were staying, I immediately headed for the shower. It was then that I realized my jeans were ruined. They were caked in mud and had several small holes burned in them. If we had been at home I probably would have tried to wash the mud out and then make cut offs out of the jeans. However, I didn’t have a way of putting the jeans in my suitcase without getting everything else dirty. We had an early morning flight to Maui, so I would just have to trash the jeans.

I was able to save my boots. A few days earlier, Taz and I had stopped at Wal-Mart in Kona for some snacks. I still had a couple of Wal-Mart bags. I wrapped each boot in a bag and then put the boots into the shoe box that they had originally come in. Whenever I plan to do any hiking on a trip, I always bring along the box that my boots came in so that I can pack the boots for the trip home without getting my clothes dirty. This time however, my boots were completely encrusted in mud and a box alone wasn’t going to cut it. I was really glad that I had those bags from Wal-Mart.

Taz and I stayed at a beach resort in Maui. Like any good beach resort, the place that we stayed had a shower that hotel guests could use to rinse the sand off of their feet. Later that night after everyone had left the beach, I used the beach shower to clean all of the mud off of my boots. It was a dirty job but it worked. However, I still had to toss my boots in the washer when I eventually returned home just to take care of anything that I couldn’t clean on the beach.

The other casualty of my hike was my walking stick. Just prior to leaving for Hawaii, I had purchased a fiberglass hiking stick at a sporting goods store. I was really glad that I had done so, because there are a couple of times when I’m sure that I would have lost my balance and face planted in the mud if I had not had a hiking stick.

Unfortunately, bringing the hiking stick home wasn’t an option. The joints in the stick had somehow become jammed, making it impossible to collapse the stick. This meant that I couldn’t fit it in my suitcase. I also noticed that much of the rubber tip at the base of the stick had been melted. Even though the hiking stick was still very usable, I had no choice but to abandon it.

Thankfully, all was not lost. The Dolphin Bay Hotel where I was staying loans hiking gear to guests who want to explore the nearby waterfalls or lava tubes. That being the case, I donated my hiking stick to the hotel in the hopes that maybe someone else would be able to get some use from it.

While I was showering, Taz warmed me up some dinner. She had picked up carry out from a restaurant in Hilo while I was hiking so that I could have a good meal upon my return. Of course this was not exactly out of character for Taz. She has always been extremely thoughtful and caring and constantly looks out for my wellbeing. She really is the greatest wife that I ever could have hoped for.

When I got out of the shower I sat down to eat. The odd thing was that I actually had trouble eating. Even though I had barely eaten that day and was definitely hungry, I had abused my body to the point that it did not want to be fed. I literally had to force feed myself. Even at that I was only able to get down a few bites.

As I got ready for bed the only thing on my mind was how much I was dreading the next morning. I had an early flight to Maui, and I was sure that I was going to be so sore that I wouldn’t hardly be able to move. I also wondered if I was going to wake up sick. I had never been in a situation before where I was so exhausted that I was feeling nausea (as I was now) and also having trouble thinking. I was also concerned by the fact that I had been physically incapable of eating dinner. To put it simply, I was expecting the worst possible morning.

When the alarm went off a few hours later I woke and was extremely surprised to discover that I felt great. My mussels weren’t sore (nor did they ever get sore), the nausea was gone, and I now felt hungry. I took a quick shower and wolfed down the leftovers from the night before. After a good meal I packed up the car and we headed off to catch our flight to Maui.

Ultimately, I am really glad that I did the lava hike. Yes, there were some tense moments during the hike and the hike had also pushed me to the absolute limit physically. Even so, I realized a few days later that the hike was one of the most incredible adventures that I had ever experienced. I would highly recommend the hike to anyone so long as they are physically fit and can accept the inherent risks involved in hiking a live volcano.

You can see a video of my visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National park and my hike to the lava at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWI6imk3coE

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