Quick update: Lava flows have changed as of early 2018 with the water entry cooling down while surface flows have picked up. You can still reach the same viewpoints explained here but check for current conditions before venturing out!
It was a scorching summer day back in 2006 that I first set foot on Hawaii’s Kilauea lava fields. Back then reaching an active flow meant hiking more than 10 miles across porous, jagged and massive chunks of lava that covered the old chain of craters road in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. After just an hour out in the sun we ran into an issue and had to turn back starting my decade long quest to see the lava flows!
These days reaching a lava view or even a surface flow is far more straight forward adventure and I’ve seen been able to make up for lost time with several visits to see it all. That’s not to say it’s easy or for the faint of heart however! As of this post, over 4.5 miles of arid land lie between the Kalapana parking lot and the viewpoint with even further to go for a surface flow.
While a gravel road now serves as the “trail” making the path easy to follow and fairly level to walk or bike, there is no escape from the sun, heat, or sharp lava rocks everywhere. It would seem that it’s rather usual to see a rescue on the hike from the unprepared and the unfortunate alike but for the adventurous, the view at the end is well worth the effort.
Warning: While hiking to the lava view is a straight forward trail these days thanks to the road, it’s still quite obviously dangerous out there! The terrain & elements pose a serious risk and the ever-changing lava flows are nothing to take lightly. Be sure to come well equipped with plenty of water, know the conditions and pay attention to any and all warning signs!
Getting to the Lava Viewing Area
The journey to the lava flow starts on the outskirts of the Kalapana at the end of the Big Island’s highway 130. With the popularity of the flow and accessibility of the trail, visiting has turned into an major event and a lot of structure has been added to support it. During the posted viewing hours of 3-9PM (more on that below), parking attendants usher you to spots and vendors offer up a host of services from guided tours to bike rentals to snacks before you depart (and even along the first few miles of the road.)
There are fee to park or access the trail at this point but for all that’s being put into it I would hardly be surprised — or complain — if that changed.
Arriving at the parking lot, it’s just a short walk to the trailhead. Along the way you’ll pass through a small collection of tour operators, food carts, and other service providers all vying to get business from the hundreds if not thousands of daily visitors. While it’s common for the various tents to pitch their offerings as you walk by, the tone is generally more helpful than pushy (unless you’re totally undergeared.)
Vendors are happy to provide tips on the hike and share the latest conditions to all who ask. While you will find just about essential you may need from a backpack to a flashlight to food, facilities are limited and so are the types of offerings so come prepared and pick up any extras rather than the other way around.
Speed Up the Hike by Getting a Bike!
While many people hike it out to the lava on foot (I did my first visit), the popular way to get most of the way to the view is by bike.. Even in the gravel road, this takes hours off the trek and thus gives you more time at the viewing area. But be warned: going fast on a well used bike across deep gravel roads is one of the easiest ways to end up in an ambulance – there was bike caused accident and rescue on my first day out and I heard of many more on my return.
After you’ve stocked up on all the necessities (think food, water, more water, layers, sunblock, a light source and a med kit at minimum), heading out simply means continuing your walk down the road ahead. There’s never been a more straight forward trail but the hours of walking to come are nothing to underestimate.
There are alternative ways to cut down the trek such as hiring a ride out to the National Park boundary (about $40 per person each way and offered early afternoon) or participating in a guided hike which includes a ride up the road (about $110 per person). None of these negate all walking however and some tours may even increase the effort as you hunt for surface flows so read the details carefully!
The Trail Out to the Lavs Flows
For hikers, the trek out is basically a long walk under the harsh sun for 4, 5 or more miles. Expect 2+ hours on your feet there and at least as long coming back tired and in the dark. It’s not a particularly long distance by hiking standards but if you’re not use to walking distances or in the heat, it can easily get the best of you. Stopping for water breaks before you feel thirsty is important as you may not realize just how baked you are until you’re well into dehydration (especially true at night when you don’t notice the heat as much). Regularly adventurers can of course mock me in the comments section 😀
For those who want to speed things up and don’t mind working a little harder for it, a bike offers an incredible advantage. The estimated time one vendor put out there on my last visit was 35-45 minutes each by bike way though it took me just 25 out, 30 back and I’m hardly a world class cyclist. 55 minutes round-trip sure beat the 3 hours I spent walking it a few days earlier! That said, biking is a far more intense approach as the small hills become a real pain in the deep gravel of the road, especially with the overly worn bikes rented out by the vendors. Fast is fun but cruising is the smart bet — the rocky terrain makes it easy to lose control and a fall onto sharp lava rocks and that’s just not not fun.
As for the trail its self, the journey (again, that’s 4+ miles each way) immediate takes you out of civilization as you head into the middle of the old lava fields. Right from the start your destination is obvious as a cloud of steam rises hundreds of feet high over the ocean entry. A scattered collection of small homes and makeshift shacks from the remaining locals line the road for about a mile and in peak times you may find a few last vendors our hawking cold drinks and a few security staff looking for illegal cars but that’s about it
For each mile further you go the trail gets that much more remote and to some degree rugged under your feet. About half way in, the vendors completely fade away as you reach the National Park Boundary. From this point on the rules of the road changes from graded to thick gravel and a gate enters the picture making help that much harder to get.
As you navigate the last few small hills, the steam of the ocean entry really starts to grow closer and it’s not long before new warnings, even ropes start to cover the land depending on the flow conditions. Park rangers put an amazing amount of effort into monitoring the magma (that’s underground) and lava (that’s above ground) to look for unstable conditions and may rope off sections or the entire road to form safer viewing areas.
Exploring the Lava View
Reaching the end of the line may mean walking right up to a roped area and finding a view point or simply seeing the lava down ahead of you, it all depends on the conditions when you go but usually entails some crossing of old lava flows to find a viewing point. Good shoes become mighty important as you cross the lava as the sharp terrain will rip up just about anything quickly and a fall is not pretty.
If you’re the more adventurous type, wandering further towards the mountain (to you right) may reveal anything from steam vents to skylight views into the magma below or even open surface flows depending on conditions when you arrive. Rangers regularly place markers and warning signs to point out known dangers but in such a dynamic environment there’s no guarantee they’ll cover everything so pay careful attention – hazards can develop quickly in such a dynamic environment. Warnings aside, exploring the lava can add a few feet to miles to your day but if you’re lucky enough to time things when there are surface flows, the results can be incredible, sadly I have yet to time that right myself (for more chance of seeing a surface flow, talk to the vendors about conditions and / or consider a guided hike which may jumpstart some of the walking.)
Most viewers leave the parking lot a couple hours before sunset to hike out (those biking out can cut that down considerably) and reach the viewing area for a great dusk time view. You can of course go earlier or later all night if you like; the sight is incredible in bright sky and darkness alike. As the light fades, surface flows higher on the mountain (or nearby) quickly become visible making it that much more exciting to stick around later in the day and see what else may be worth adventuring over to!
While every piece of information lists viewing hours as 3 – 9 PM, everyone I talked to said it was perfectly fine to go out earlier or later, there simply would not be any security or monitors to help provide support. This is important to consider as it means bringing all your own supplies upfront (a few booths stay open later) and really knowing your skills and limits as the going gets rough in the pitch black and help is a long, long ways away and very serious hazards like walking into an unstable piece of land step up when you can’t see what’s below you well.
After your fill of exploring it’s back the way you came. The biking option felt harder on the return for me, perhaps due to sore legs from the trek out, perhaps because there’s no incentive at the end, but one way or another, you’ll have to make your way back down the entire road. As you reach the vendor city, it’s a good time to hydrate up a little more, grab a cool drink as a reward for the day and book any other tours you may want for your visit. As you head out back towards Hilo, Kona or wherever you plan to go next, I promise you’ll have a memory (and hopefully some photos) that you’ll never forget.
- https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava2.htm [mandatory read, look for the 61g / lava flow section]
- http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/lava-viewing/ [mandatory read]