Why Hawaii's Hot Lava Is So Awe-Inspiring

A view of lava flowing from Kīlauea's Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō volcanic cone on the Island of Hawai‘i. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

Editor's note: This article pre-dates the change in eruptive activity at Kilauea that began in May 2018. Volcanic hazards have forced the national park to close and tour companies to suspend lava hikes (although boat and helicopter tours may still be available).

Hawai‘i has a tendency to grow on you. In fact, with a little luck — and possibly a lot of hiking — you can watch this amazing place grow right in front of your eyes.

The Hawai‘ian Islands are already much larger than they look, since they're actually huge mountains mostly hidden by seawater. Hawai‘i has the three tallest mountains on Earth, measured from base to summit, all built by oozing lava.

The chain has eight major islands (plus many islets, atolls and seamounts), yet only three of its volcanoes have been active in the last 200 years. One, Lōʻihi, is still underwater, and may not poke above the Pacific for another 200,000 years.

The other two, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea, are both on the Island of Hawai‘i (also known as the Big Island, to avoid confusion since the archipelago shares its name). Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984, but Kīlauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. If you want to see Hawai‘i's ongoing creation, Kīlauea is the place to be.

I recently went on a Kīlauea lava hike with my wife, my dad and my little sister. We clambered over several miles of dry lava fields, finally finding one of the most awe-inspiring sights of our lives: hot lava flowing across the surface.

Visiting an active volcano is inherently dangerous, and it should be noted that people have lost their lives doing this. (A tour guide was killed in February 2018, for instance.) Molten rock and volcanic gases pose a variety of hazards, and even just walking across dried lava can test your endurance and twist your ankles.

It's also worth noting that, while Kīlauea has been erupting for more than 30 years, its lava flows can be fickle. Advance research and backup plans are a good idea (more on that below). If you're OK with the risks and rigors, though, a lava hike can reveal Hawai‘i — and our planet — in a way relatively few people ever see it.

Lava isn't everything

rainforest at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is home to lush rainforests as well as barren moonscapes. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

The Island of Hawai‘i has more than enough natural wonders to fill most vacations, and walking nearly 10 miles to look at molten rock isn't for everyone. It's larger than all other Hawai‘ian islands combined, and hosts all but a few of Earth's climate zones, from tropical rainforests to hot deserts to permafrost. It has a wide range of beaches, coral reefs and wildlife, none of which require laying eyes on hot lava.

Volcanoes are the island's engineers, though, and if you're at all interested in that, it's definitely worth visiting Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP), which protects more than 500 square miles (about 1,300 square kilometers) of volcanic marvels around Kīlauea. Many of these are easily accessible, and even if you are planning a more rigorous lava hike, consider setting aside time to explore the park, too.

One of the park's most iconic sights is Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, a large, roughly circular pit inside Kīlauea's summit caldera. This is the home of the Hawai‘ian fire goddess Pele, and it has a long eruptive history. Thanks to a vent that opened in 2008, the crater currently hosts an active lava lake, emits a persistent gas plume and produces "occasional small explosive events," according to the National Park Service (NPS).

Halemaumau Crater from Jaggar Overlook
Halemaʻumaʻu Crater glows at twilight, as seen from Jaggar Overlook in HVNP. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

Jaggar Overlook is the best place to see the crater, and it's easily accessible from an adjacent parking lot. The view becomes especially beautiful after dark, when an ethereal orange glow radiates up from the lava lake. (Crowds often form around sunset, but the overlook is open to the public 24 hours a day.)

If you're at the park during the day, it's also worth seeing the Thurston Lava Tube — a roughly 0.3-mile hike through a tree-fern forest and a prehistoric lava tube with electric lights — and Kīlauea Iki Trail, pictured below — a 4-mile hike that ranges from dense rainforest to the misty moonscape left by a 1959 eruption.

ōhiʻa tree in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Ōhiʻa trees rise from a 1959 lava flow along the Kīlauea Iki Trail in HVNP. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

For a closer view of Kīlauea's lava, we headed toward the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption in the volcano's East Rift Zone, which has been going continuously since 1983. This eruption has a history of abrupt changes, however, and there are no guarantees.

"Active volcanoes are some of Earth's most dynamic and ever-changing natural phenomena, and visitors should keep that in mind," says Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist for HVNP. "What you see on the park's Facebook page or your friend's Instagram feed one day might be gone the next."

There are lots of good resources available to help you check the volcano's status, and to make backup plans in case something changes. And if hiking won't work, lava might still be visible from a boat, a helicopter or a bicycle, depending on conditions at the time. Below is a description of my experience, which began with a drive to Kalapana, a town that was partly overrun by lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō in 1990.

A labor of lava

Kalapana is now a hub for lava viewing, centered around the County of Hawai‘i Kalapana Lava Viewing Area off Highway 130. It's just outside the eastern border of HVNP, but the hike from Kalapana is much shorter than from the national park.

I don't normally gravitate to guided tours, and it's not mandatory for hiking to the lava flow. If it's your first time, though, I very much suggest expert guidance. We used Kalapana Cultural Tours (KCT), and were glad we did. "For an optimal experience, we recommend guests participate in guided tours or National Park Service ranger-led programs," says Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau, "and receive current information from the park rangers upon arrival."

KCT offers several tour options; we did the afternoon lava hike, which is $105 per person. We were scheduled to meet at the KCT office at 3 p.m., and got there early enough to mill around Uncle Robert's Awa Bar and Farmers Market, located in the same complex. Once the tour group was assembled — the four of us, three others and our guide — we piled into a van for a short drive to the lava-viewing area.

dried lava in Kalapana, Hawaii
Dried lava at the start of the hike. On the ridge in the distance, you can see a faint line of smoke from the flowing lava. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

Our guide grew up in the area, and during the drive described seeing his childhood home overrun by the same volcano that had created it in the first place. As we walked in, he also pointed out the off-grid homes a few people have defiantly built atop dried lava, some with mailboxes despite receiving no postal service.

lava squatters in Hawaii
Off-grid houses are scattered across parts of the dried lava field. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

We soon stepped off the asphalt road onto the rippled, jagged blacktop of dried lava. As instructed, we were all wearing dorky hats, ample sunscreen, closed-toed shoes and backpacks, each of which held 2 liters of water and snacks. We also had headlamps, which we absolutely needed during our return hike.

The hike to the lava was only a few miles, but felt longer due to the uneven terrain and unshielded sunlight. That's not a complaint; the hike was fun. The stakes were pretty high, though, since many cracks posed significant ankle hazards, and the razor-sharp edges of some lava formations threatened to slice shins.

dried lava in Kalapana, Hawaii
Cracks in the dried lava can easily snag a foot if you aren't careful. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

And that's no idle threat, Ferracane says. "We respond to and treat many serious lacerations and sprained or broken ankles down at the coastal lava flows because people don't wear the proper footwear and slip, trip and fall." Some of this may be bad luck, she adds, but many lava-hiking mishaps stem from lack of preparation. "Some folks aren't physically fit enough to do an 8-mile round trip hike to see lava flows. Many people don't bring enough water and suffer from dehydration."

Even well-prepared hikers need to stay vigilant. "During daylight, it's hard to determine hardened black lava from molten lava flows, and you can find yourself surrounded by lava if you're not observant," Ferracane says. "Fresh lava has a silvery hue to it, while hardened lava is black. Prevent being trapped by being mindful of where the lava is going and keep yourself on the outer flanks of the flow field."

Lava at first sight

I was so absorbed in this hike, in fact, that I was caught off-guard when we walked over a mound of dried lava to see a tiny patch of liquid lava. I paused to get out my camera, and after taking a few photos, looked up to see the rest of the group abandoning me. And with good reason, it turned out. I hadn't seen anything yet.

lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, Kilauea, Hawaii
A few glimmers of glowing lava peek through. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

When I caught up, I realized our group had merged with a couple others, plus a park ranger, and that everyone was gawking in the same direction. I turned and saw this:

I had already seen distant lava splashing up from Halemaʻumaʻu, but this felt totally different. Streams of molten rock pushed across the surface just a few feet away, close enough to hear the crackling sounds and feel the heat. And the lava wasn't just flowing — it was oozing, seething and folding, sometimes forming cool shapes that were gone within seconds. At one point, a toothy lid of dried lava yawned open, revealing a fiery orange "mouth" that drew gasps from the small crowd.

lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, Kilauea, Hawaii
A lid of dried lava opens like a mouth at Kīlauea's Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

I'm not sure how long we marveled at the lava. I was partly hypnotized by the beauty of this liquid land, and partly just fascinated to see my planet in such an unfamiliar format. This might have been what psychologists call a "peak experience," but even if not, it felt like the kind of awe that boosts human health. It was a visceral reminder that, despite Earth's superficial hospitality, a very different world lurks under our feet. (I know how cheesy that sounds. Apparently the lava melted all my cynicism.)

I took a lot of photos, but I also made sure to take breaks and just absorb the scene with my eyes — both for enjoyment and safety. The lava is about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 Celsius), and even though we stayed several feet away, the heat was often overwhelming. I wanted to stare, but had to periodically look away because my face felt like it was on fire. It was like standing in an oven at times, making us all red-faced and ridiculously thirsty. It even melted my sister's shoes a little.

pahoehoe lava flow in Hawaii
Smooth pahoehoe lava is distinct from the rough, angular flows known as aʻa. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

The heat was enough to keep us at bay, but our guide and a couple others were also walking around to monitor everyone's behavior. A park ranger from HVNP was there, too, at one point warning another group of hikers not to get too close.

lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, Kilauea, Hawaii
The surface lava is fed by a lava tube that connects the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō cone to the coast. (Photo: Alina McLendon)

In the past, some tour companies let their customers poke hot lava with sticks, an act that has been criticized as disrespectful to Pele. It's also just dangerous, our guide added, since it draws tourists even closer to the lava and could scald those who accidentally poke a gas bubble. The lava is impressive enough on its own, and much like wildlife, it should be appreciated by humans from a sensible distance.

The spectacle only grew more impressive as twilight set in:

lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, Kilauea, Hawaii
The glow of hot lava becomes incredibly bright after sunset. (Photo: Katie McLendon)

Fading sunlight flipped the dynamics of hiking, too. The glow of hot lava was more visible, and thus easier to avoid, but gaps and cracks in the dried lava were suddenly harder to see. Nightfall can also raise the risk of getting lost, Ferracane points out:

"In the evening, it's much easier to see fresh lava because it glows. But it can be really difficult to find your way out of the lava fields and back to where you started. So disorientation is one of the hazards, but that's easily mitigated by finding landmarks, and carrying a headlamp or other adequate light source and extra batteries."

lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, Kilauea, Hawaii
The Kalapana Lava Viewing Area is open daily from 3 to 9 p.m. (Photo: Katie McLendon)

As I mentioned earlier, headlamps were extremely useful for deciding where to step in the darkness. Disorientation wasn't really an issue for us, but only because we were able to follow our guide's carefully chosen path. We also steered clear of areas that were closed to the public, but while Ferracane notes that most people wisely obey such warnings, "there are those who sneak into the very hazardous closed areas, putting themselves and first responders at great risk," she adds.

We headed south toward the coast, where hot lava was pouring into the ocean. This had just looked like a column of steam in daylight, but now we could see the bright glow of lava, too. A nearby tour boat likely had a much better view of this than we did from land, but I still think I'd prefer what we had just done. Exhausted by hours of awe and walking, we sat for a while and then dragged ourselves back to the van.

Planning ahead

lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, Kilauea, Hawaii
Patches of forest still persist in some parts of the lava field. (Photo: Alina McLendon)

There are some important caveats to consider before trying to see lava in Hawai‘i. While Kīlauea has been erupting for 35 years, the flow can change at any time, so tourists should try to be flexible and brace for disappointment. It's also wise to do research in advance and regularly check the volcano's status. Ferracane suggests these daily updates from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the NPS has similar info. You can also sign up for the USGS Volcano Notification Service, check webcams, look at lava-flow maps and read more details about lava viewing.

"The one consistent thing about the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption in Kīlauea Volcano's East Rift Zone is that it has been erupting nonstop since 1983, so chances are pretty good that something will be happening when you get here," Ferracane says. "However, since 1983, the lava has taken many directions in its exit from the vent. Sometimes the lava travels beneath the surface in lava tubes and out of sight, or on the surface, or both."

Lava was flowing into the ocean while we were there, for example, but has since stopped. It could restart at any time, though, and there are still surface flows as of this writing, so that shouldn't necessarily be discouraging. It just shows how quickly things can change, and how helpful it can be to stalk the volcano online.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Kīlauea lets off a little steam in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

If you do manage to see flowing lava in Hawai‘i, don't let it lull you into being careless. The volcano is already dangerous enough for diligent hikers, who can still be surprised not just by lava itself, but also less obvious threats like plumes of sulfur dioxide gas, ground collapses and methane blasts. On top of that, some hikers take dumb risks, or just underestimate the need for sun protection, footwear or water.

Hiring a guide may not guarantee safety, but it certainly can help, especially for inexperienced lava hikers. Look around online first, checking social media and travel-review sites to get a sense for your options. It couldn't hurt to contact the company, too, although some don't book very far in advance given the whims of lava.

Regardless of whether you see it in liquid form, the Island of Hawai‘i is a unique volcanic wonderland whose natural beauty is legendary for a reason. It may only seem like a speck in the middle of Earth's biggest ocean, but there's a lot more to that speck than meets the eye — and it's getting bigger all the time.