It’s 2:45 PM on a humid, overcast, rainy day that very much resembles Seattle, only 25 degrees warmer. We join our small group and excitedly exchange pleasantries, a bit unsure of what we are about to get ourselves into. We get picked up by a van at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and transported 45 minutes into an area called Kalapana, which feels like the road to the end of the Earth where the sea meets the heavens. We look around us, watching the scenery quickly turn from lush green forested jungle to dry, black, barren flats stretching as far as the eye can see. The van falls silent. Anticipation grows as our guide tells us stories of the land, the people, and the tragic events of Pele, Goddess of Fire, taking the homes of local Hawaiians living here many years ago. She is painting the picture for us and setting a mood of somber gratitude to have the honor of being here today. The air starts to become thick and foggy, a phenomenon called vog (volcanic smog), which results when sulfur dioxide emitted by an erupting volcano, react with oxygen and moisture. We watch bicyclists and hikers tiredly returning or excitedly departing on a journey that they have no idea will take them over five hours. We, on the other hand, have been properly warned of the arduous journey ahead and the privilege of being able to partake in such a spiritual journey. We are about to hike to active lava.
Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is the youngest of five found on the Big Island of Hawaii. The last eruption was in January of 1983, though it is currently actively flowing inside the caldera. Kilauea is a shield volcano, which is the reason people are able to safely be near it. Unlike Mt. Etna in Italy, which is a stratovolcano, Kilauea has low-viscosity lava flows, which means that eruptions are typically non-violent and form gently-sloping mounds, called shield volcanoes. Conversely, high-viscosity lava does not flow easily; pressure builds up within the magma chamber and eruptions are explosive and violent. It felt pretty unreal to be driving into the volcano when normally basic human instinct would be to get as far away as possible from flowing lava.
Okay, enough with the scientific nerd talk. After all, you’re here to find out how you can hike to active lava, right? So let’s get right to that…
Pele is a very real part of the lives of residents in Hilo. Her power is unstoppable, and her timing unforgiving. The most destructive flow tore through the town of Kalapana in 1990 and continued for ten unforgiving months straight. 150 homes were lost during the flow. Now, nearly 30 years later, makeshift houses are beginning to pop up in this barren sci-fi-looking landscape. These people are called lava dwellers and subsist completely off the grid in homes that they have built with their own hands using raw materials. Some are relatively nice and sturdy such as the one pictured below, and others are completely in shambles. During the rage of Pele, many people lost the family homes that they and their ancestors grew up in. Seeing these homes built atop relatively fresh lava flow was impressive but also quite sad. Can you imagine being out here during a thunder and lighting storm, completely away from any shelter or resources?
What is the Best Company to Book a Volcano Tour Through?
We booked an excursion through Hawaii Forest and Trail called Kilauea Lava Hike. Having gone through several different companies in the past, this one was by far the most professional and respectful to nature, focusing on a low environmental impact. The direction and flow of the lava is constantly changing every day; some months it flows into the ocean, when boat tour operators make all their money for the year. However, the ocean flow has not been occurring since November of 2017. The direction has changed and it is now flowing inland. The guides are “professional lava hunters”, and because of the erratic changes in flow, they’re never exactly sure how long the journey will take, and if they will even be able to see lava that day. Some days the hike can take only one hour in until they find it, and other days it can take several hours. On the day we took our tour in March of 2018, our total round trip hike was 10.5 miles (nearly 17 kilometers), which took a total of five hours (4.5 hours of non-stop hiking, and half an hour photographing the lava once we reached it.)
This trek is not for the unfit, pregnant women, or folks with heart or asthma problems. You must sign a waiver before you agree to opt into the journey, and if the guide feels that you are unfit, they will not allow you to go and will provide a full refund on the tour. This is because once you get out to the lava fields, if you fall ill or don’t feel you can make it, there’s no turning back. You’re either in or out. Luckily, the 11 people in our group were all fit regular hikers, so we kept a good pace throughout our journey. There are no facilities, water, food or restrooms out in no mans land, so pack accordingly. Hawaii Forest and Trail provided water, headlamps, gloves, Patagonia rain jackets, granola bars and hiking packs, and the guide was equipped with several first aid kits. You are advised to wear long pants, because if you fall, you’ll be met with several scrapes, AKA lava battle wounds!
We walked across active lava fields that had formed not even several days prior. The closer we got to the lava, the warmer it became, and there were sections of the fields where we walked over 185-degree Fahrenheit new Earth. We had to walk quickly so as to not melt the rubber on the bottom of our walking sticks.
When the lava dries, it becomes extremely sharp and fragile, so when you walk over it, it cracks and crunches; a sound similar to walking on snow. Someone from the group said it was like walking over the crust of a creme brûlée (food analogies I can definitely relate to!) The Ohia Lehua tree is the first sign of life that grows from the lava flow, which is a beautiful analogy for life: even in the darkest and most devastating events can come new life and rebirth. Isn’t the flower gorgeous? The vibrant red is such a stark contrast against the charcoal lava rocks.
The rope-like shapes and patterns that form from the dried lava are stunning. Nature always blows my mind. This stuff was pretty difficult to walk on for five hours!
I loved the fluorescent colors of some of the newer lava pieces. The reason they require you to wear gloves is because if you fall, human instinct is to break the fall with your hands, which would be the equivalent of falling onto shards of broken glass. Ouch, no thanks. Instead, I’ll stare at this pretty piece of porous lava that appears to have been dipped in oil.
Several people attempted to do this hike on their own without a guide, which is not advisable due to the dangers of becoming lost or disoriented, especially after dark. There are times when you’re in the middle of this expansive lava field and you can’t see the ocean, which means that you don’t have a point of reference, making it extremely easy to become disoriented. There was a shuttle charging $15 per person to take them from the parking lot (5 miles from the start of the trail) to the dirt trail where the 5-hour round trip walk begins, but the last return is at 9:00 PM, so if you get lost and miss the last shuttle, you’re walking an additional five miles to your rental car in the pitch black, making your trek a total of 15 miles round trip on very sore feet. You’d better hope you didn’t lose your car keys out there in the field!
Another risk is if you’re in the middle of the lava fields near the active flow and it begins to rain heavily. Just last month a tour guide leading a photography group, died because heavy rains commenced and he was too near to the active lava. As soon as the rain hit the lava, it became immense steam. He took one breath and collapsed from the steam burning his lungs. His group had to find their own way back and get help. You also don’t want to be in the middle of the fields during a lightning storm, as there is absolutely no shelter.
My sense of direction is awful, so I was very thankful to have our guide after five hours of hiking on uneven surface in the rain, I was ready to find that beacon of light where our van was parked. Ken’s House of Pancakes was calling our names. This tour includes a free dinner at Ken’s House of Pancakes, which has 100 items on the menu and has been in operation since 1971, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To read more on where we ate in Hilo, click here: Your Foodie Guide to Hilo.
Unfortunately the lava wasn’t super active in the current area of flow, but we did get to see an impressive sight of the lava flowing down the side of the mountain. In the above photo of Sasha and me, you can see a bit of the lava in the background. Below is a closer up photo at dusk when the orange lava was more visible.
During a trip to Hilo back in May of 2014, I did a similar hike to the lava fields through a different company, when the lava flow was much further away and required an even more arduous journey across waist-deep mud for 7 hours. Though the trek was much easier this time around, the activity from the 2014 trip was much better. Here are some photos from the 2014 flow: