Trek to the Lava

The lava has been entering the sea for over a month now. I have wanted to hike out, but life and other commitments have consistently intervened. With off-island guests, I made the offer to lead a hike out to the flowing lava. My sister-in-law Darcy was the only one that took me up on the offer, the prospect of a 2am wake-up and a two hour trek across rough ground too much for some. We left the others in bed.

Kupapa'u Lava
A active pāhoehoe breakout at Kupapa’u
This is the same plan I have used before, a two hour run across the island to Kalapana gets us to the edge of the flow field about 4am. This leaves another two hours to hike to the lava flows. We would need the time! It would take all of that two hours to make just 2.7miles. Two hours over the rough ground of older lava flows, avoiding pits, loose plates, large cracks and small hummocks that rose 10-20feet overhead. This was in pitch black conditions with no moonlight to help. It was alternating bright stars and clouds overhead, two brief showers left us dampened but comfortable in the warm tropical dawn.

The extraordinarily bright LED lights Darcy and I carried were extremely helpful in crossing the older flows. The dark basalt just soaks up any light you throw about. I carried a dive light that put out up to 1000 lumens. With this light I could look 100 yards or more ahead to choose a course through the lava fields. A light this bright did chew through the battery quickly, even the high capacity 18650 lithium cells I was using. Both lights required fresh cells to complete the two hour hike.

We knew exactly where we were going. Friends had been out to the lava just a few days before and Josh had posted waypoints to the current ocean entry. Using Josh’s waypoints we navigated to the ocean entry with no trouble, just to find that the ocean entry had ceased to be. Some time in the previous day the flow had become interrupted. There was no glow along the sea cliffs, no plume of steam to be seen. Later, after dawn we checked again, nothing. We could see where the lava had been flowing over the cliffs, right where it had been reported.

Darcy filming the lava at Kupapa`u with her iPhone
While there was no active ocean entry, there was a nice selection of breakouts just inland from the ocean entry site. We headed to the brightest of these, to be rewarded by a cascade of lava flowing down a steep slope. This is the advantage of a night approach, the breakouts are easy to find from the bright orange glow. After daylight it would be easy to walk right past flowing lava without being aware it was there.

Shortly after we arrived at the breakout we spotted the lights of a lava tour boat just offshore. With no active ocean entry to view, the passengers aboard had to have been disappointed. They must have been able to see the breakouts we were exploring, and would have seen our lights as well. But we were hundreds of yards from the shoreline, too far for a good view. I can only imagine how envious the passengers of that boat were as they circled offshore in the heavy swell.

Kupapa'u Lava
A active pāhoehoe breakout at Kupapa’u
This breakout followed a pattern I had seen before. The flowing lava would eventually cool and crust over to where there was no open lava to be seen, just a red glow coming from any crack or crevice. But the lava is still coming, pressure within the flow building to the point a new breakout would occur. It was just a matter of waiting and guessing where that would happen. Sure enough, a crack would appear and bright gold lava would burst forth to flow down the slope. We would rush to set up the cameras ahead of the breakout and enjoy the spectacle until it too slowed and crusted over.

With the arrival sunlight the first helicopters also arrived. It was rather hard to miss the thud-thud-thud of helicopter rotors appearing just overhead. The Blue Hawaiian chopper made a pass at the sea cliff, no doubt discovering what we had found, no active ocean entry. A moment later they headed right for us, circling just overhead of our position and the breakouts. Again Darcy and I realized that we were most likely the subject of a fair amount of envy, as the helicopter passengers watched us just a few feet from active lava. We just waved.

We spent a couple hours in front of the lava flow, photographing and taking video. This was the first flow I had had the Canon 60D available. Thus I took a fair amount of high resolution 1080p video for my archive. I suspect the footage will make its way into a video project sometime soon.

Eventually we knew it was time to head back across the lava fields. As we headed out from the breakout the airshow overhead continued, with three helicopters and a fixed wing plane circling the breakouts we had just departed.

Darcy was absolutely thrilled she had taken the hike to get to the lava. We were both tired and sore from the effort, and in sore need of showers. With camera cards full of photos this trip will be well remembered.

A Few hints…

This is my fifth trip out to the flowing lava, requiring my longest hike over the flows to date at just under three miles each way. These trips have taught me a lesson or two. Going onto the lava is an inherently risky proposition and one must accept that risk. With a little knowledge and preparation the risks can be mitigated.

Hike to the Active Lava Flow
Carry plenty of water. It gets hot on the black rock under a tropical Sun. At least a couple liters per person, more if the distance to be covered is greater. This is tricky ground with no prepared path, plan on a hour per mile in the dark, a bit faster with daylight. Our average speed was 1.3mph in the dark on the way in.

Proper footwear is a must! Sturdy boots or shoes required to traverse the fresh lava surface. The freshest lava is covered by a layer of volcanic glass shards that crunch underfoot at every step. Occasionally bits of rock that looked solid enough will give way and collapse underfoot. I have seen folks start out onto the lava in sandals or rubbah slippahs, they quickly turn back for good reason. You may not want to use the new boots either. Your footwear will look a bit chewed-on after this hike as the rough lava takes its toll.

Lava safety video from the National Park Service
I recommend a pair of leather gloves to wear as you cross the fresh flows. In the likely case of a slip or stumble, you can put down a hand without that hand being shredded on the glassy surface. A hat and sunscreen is also on the necessity list. The weather can vary from blazing sun to heavy rain in short order. Some sort of raingear is useful. I keep an old military rain poncho in my pack, it keeps me dry without being stifling in the warm tropical air.

A GPS or GPS app for your phone is very useful. Lately I have been playing with an app called EveryTrail that has some nice features. Getting lost is difficult with the ocean on one side and the pali on the other. But a GPS can indicate how far you have come as well as the route and distance back to the vehicle. You can also use GPS to stay on the old highway right-of-way to avoid trespassing on private land.

This is Puna, the “interesting” side of the island. Leave nothing of value in the car, even when parking at the county viewing area.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

One thought on “Trek to the Lava”

  1. Thank You Andrew! I so enjoyed our trek to the Lava Flow! Following you in the pitch dark under a few bright stars to guide us and your powerful lights to light our way – it was spectacular. The weather was perfect, the timing was spot on and the experience was not to be missed! Thank You!

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