Kalapana Lava Hike (a visit to Pele)

I was going to hold off until my photos are better edited, but I CAN’T WAIT to tell y’all about tour lava hike on the Big Island.  (Editor’s note: I’ve since updated this post with better photos)

We were lucky to have a couple of options on how to see lava since it was flowing during the time of our visit to the Big Island. We could hike ourselves from the end of Chain of Craters Road inside the park, pay for a guided hike from outside of the park, or take a helicopter or lava boat tour. The helicopter and boat were out since my mom and I get motion sickness and my parents had heard of too many helicopter crashes on the Big Island. We considered a self-guided hike, however it was approximately 10 miles roundtrip from the end of Chain of Craters Road, and we had no experience with lava or what to look for. We ended up booking with Kalapana Lava Boat Tours for a sunrise (4 AM) guided lava hike. It’s a 4-5 hour hike from outside of the National Park, maybe 5 miles roundtrip.

I had mentioned in my last post that we had a 1:45 AM wake up call, and boy did it come early! We packed the car, grabbed a quick bite and were on the road by 2:15 AM. We had to be at the meeting point that was over an hour away by 3:30 AM.

The driving instructions were to go to the end of the road to a sign that said “Restricted Area”. When you’re driving in the middle of nowhere at 3 AM and you’re told to go to the end of the road, you really hope that you’re not about to be mugged! Luckily though, we made it to our destination and were greeted by our two tour guides.

We got a quick “safety first” reminder then were on our way. It was pitch black, so having headlamps was really helpful. Walking on the lava rock felt like walking on crunchy glass; it was pretty weird. Our first stop was to see this old road sign covered in lava that was a little humorous.


After over an hour more of hiking in the dark, we approached the surface lava flow. We all got to poke it with sticks which was so cool!



Ok, so actually I should say it’s really hot just to stand there! Lava is 1200 – 2200 F, so you can’t stand near it for too long. The amazing thing is that it hardens extremely quickly. You could poke the “orange” bits, but the black parts were completely hard already. In fact, our tour guide even walked over the black parts on the flow while we winced and told him “no, really, you don’t have to do that!”

Check out this lava river, just flowing along:


You can really see the hardened black lava versus still hot orange lava in this one:

The patterns it made were mesmerizing.

In Hawaiian legend the goddess of fire, lightening, wind and volcanoes Pele, who often seems upset. Every volcanic eruption or incident on the Big Island is said to be associated with her… My takeaway is don’t upset Pele!

Anyway, you can see we got really close! Next up was a short hike to the coastline to see lava entry into the ocean. We were really lucky that it was happening that day, because it’s not always flowing. We had to hike over the surface lava flow to get to the coast; ok so we didn’t have to, but it would get us to the viewing point the fastest. “Safety First!”

All safety issues aside, it was SO cool to hike over hardened “live” lava where you could see hot lava flowing in cracks beneath the surface you were walking over. You knew you were walking over live lava each time the surface felt very hot. After crossing the flow and living to tell about it, we got to a breathtaking view.

You can see the steam from the water the lava is causing.


There was lava entry in front of us, and some in the distance behind us, so we were in what’s called a delta. Later we read it’s not that safe to be in a delta or stand on the ledge, but there were some pretty spectacular views.


In fact a number of websites such as usgs.gov warn of delta collapse and show where you should not stand. Oops!

Or this from nps.gov:

HAZARD ALERT: Lava entering the ocean builds lava deltas. The lava delta and adjacent areas both inland and out to sea are some of the most hazardous areas on the flow field. Frequent delta/bench collapses give little warning, can produce hot rock falls inland and in the adjacent ocean, and can produce large local waves. The steam plume produced by lava entering the ocean contains fine lava fragments and an assortment of acid droplets that can be harmful to your health. The rapidly changing conditions near the ocean entry have been responsible for many injuries and a few deaths.

Well, at least we are still around! After a little while, it was time to cross back over the delta to get to the surface flows and view them at sunrise.

We are really happy we did a guided hike, since we would not have gotten nearly as close by ourselves.

Check out the gloppy surface that looks like soldering material.


We sat on warm lava rock and enjoyed the sunrise.


Shaka bra!



As it got light out, it was time to follow our trusty tour guide back.


Here’s one very happy hubby that had just checked ‘see lava’ off his bucket list.


You can get an idea of e odd surface from these photos. It was very uneven to walk over.



There was little evidence of plant life on the hike, but I liked this one.

Our last stop was this gem. An old VW that got swallowed by the lava. Yikes!


We ended the tour around 8 AM and took a short drive to Kalapana Cafe, recommended by our guides. Unfortunately on the way my mom’s backpack was left behind the car wheel and got backed over. It was a sad day for her iPhone, whose back is shattered, but miraculously it still works :( Hopefully she can get an iPhone 5 to replace it.

I liked the flower arrangements, fresh papaya, and outdoor seating at the cafe. Also unfortunately, however, the cafe may have been the culprit of my mom getting sick the following day, but we’ll never know. Maybe it was just the wrath of Pele…

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