I got a lotta lava love
September 12, 2005 11:25 AM   Subscribe

My 40th birthday is coming up, and I want to see lava.

I’ll be 40 next July, and I want a big, special trip. I’ve always wanted to see flowing lava up close, preferably close enough to put a stick in it or something, even if that means suiting up, wearing special boots, paying lots of money, signing a waiver, sneaking in on my own, whatever. Viewing from a safe distance is easy—lots of places in the world to do that. But I want to get dangerously close.

I’m thinking Hawaii. Any recommendations/warnings? Places to stay, stuff to do, things to see? Great food is second on the list, liquor is right up there, seeing wild stuff, too. Cycling and snorkeling would be good, though I’m not so interested in scuba, or parasailing or jet skis or anything high-energy or dangerous like that. Except the lava. Gotta have the lava.
posted by MrMoonPie to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's definitely possible to get up close and personal with lava flows in Volcanoes National Park. Here are the guidelines for lava viewing. My wife and I did the hike back in June, and we saw some very impressive lava flows. We were close enough to toss rocks into flowing lava. Hell, we could have jumped in ourselves. As I understand it, though, it can be hit or miss, and you may or may not encounter an impressive display on the day you go out. You could, of course, keep heading out there until you're satisfied. The hike is kind of annoying, though: monotonous and just technical enough to be stressful. And you'll probably wind up heading back in the dark, which is even duller.

The big island offers plenty of opportunities for cycling and snorkeling. Great food, maybe not so much....
posted by mr_roboto at 11:34 AM on September 12, 2005

Best answer: Volcano National Park is definitely wonderful. Its located on the southern half of the Big Island and I would recommend that you try to find accomodations around the park for at least one maybe two nights. This is because the park is a 2 to 2.5 hour drive from the hotels/condos/resorts on the western side of the island. My wife and I made the roundtrip on our honeymoon in one day, but we sure wish we didn't.

As for actually seeing lava, you don't have to suit up, you don't have to sign a waiver. All you have to do is pay park admission. Now, you might not actually be able to be that close to the flowing lava/ It varies from day to day. The lava might be flowing completely underground or it could be on the surface. The surface lava might be a short hike from your car or it could be more than an hour's hike over extremely sharp volcanic rock.

If you do make it up close, you will be amazed at how hot it is. It can be 1700-1800 F and you are no more than a few feet away from it. Its utterly breathtaking to watch it ooze and spread across the land...hell, you are watching new land being made. If you can be there around dusk or later...even better as the glowing lava will be that much more intense to witness.

Now some words of advice. You will definitely want to watch the safety video at the main lodge near the park's enterance. It will give you some good ideas on what you need to watch out for and how you should behave at the lava site. In particular you need to stay away from the lava shelves near the ocean...the closer you get to the ocean, the greater chance that land can collapse and you will get swept into the water...that's a sure way to die.

Secondly, you don't need full blown boots per se, but good quality hiking shoes are a definite must. You might be able to get away with sneakers. I actually saw a family in flip flops hiking around on the lava rock. Insane idiots!

Thirdly, if you plan on being there anytime during dusk or beyond, you need flashlights. Everyone in your party needs one and it would be great if you had extras. It gets dark fast there and there isn't any other source of light except for the moon and stars.

Fourthly, consider wearing some sort of pants. If you fall your shins and knees are going to get cut up pretty badly. I didn't and wore shorts and ended up with a nice chunk of my shin cut up.

Which brings me to my next point, it is dangerous to be out there on the volcanic rocks and even more so by the flowing lava. I had the ground collapse under my foot as I was taking a photo which resulted in the cuts to my shin and a twisted ankle pretty badly. Fortunately, the ground under me didn't have any flowing lava under it otherwise I would have been burned as well. Remember, I had to hike out of there for an hour and then drive home for another two hours (not a super plesant way to end an otherwise wonderful day).

Next, bring lots of water with you. I really like a CamelBak for a thing like this. Its easy to care a large amount of liquids. The hiking near the lava flows are hard and its hot and you will need to replace your fluids at a faster rate than you are use to.

Lastly, be sure to gas up before you enter the park, if you stay late, you might find that the gas stations around the park are already closed.

As for other things to do in the park and on the island:
There are lots of other things to do in the park. There is a ton of Hiking available. In particular, I really liked the four mile loop of Kilauea Iki. It takes you around a lush rain forest, then down across what was a lava lake and then back up the other side. Its amazing to see the stark contrast of the rain forest and the dried lava lake. Its like a moon scape was juxtaposed with the Amazon. Seeing steam vents when you are walking across the barren land lets you know that eventhough the lava stopped flowing here around 50 years ago, the ground is still hot enough to boil the rain water.

Outside the park, the western coast is known for its snorkling. In particular Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook was killed and buried, is known for having dolphins around. The north eastern side of the island has a lot of very cool waterfalls and what not.

As for books, I would reco the excellent, Big Island Revealed which will have this info in it and a whole list other types of activities that you can do on the island. Also, for some up close pictures of what you might be able to see at the volcano and the dangers of what can happen when the ground collapses, you can see my volcano pics (self link). My e-mail is my profile if you have any questions and enjoy your trip.
posted by mmascolino at 12:03 PM on September 12, 2005 [2 favorites]

If you go to Iceland, you can see lots more extreme nature (e.g. geysers, glaciers) than merely lava.
posted by Aknaton at 12:44 PM on September 12, 2005

Best answer: I went to HVNP in May. If you are able-bodied and don't have an overdeveloped sense of personal security, then I highly recommend going at dusk. Ideally, you want to time it so that you arrive around sunset, so that you have enough daylight to hike in and get a feel for what the terrain is like. Yes, you will need flashlights, but damn. Watching the lava flow into the ocean at night has been one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

You can get daily updates of where the lava is flowing here, and a map of the area here. Currently, lava is entering the ocean at East Lae'apuki, which is about 4 km from the end of the Chain of Craters Road. You should leave about 90 minutes to cover that distance.

My sister has also been to Pu'u O'o, which is where the lava is currently erupting out of the earth. She said it was very cool. I can't wholeheartedly recommend going there at night, though, because IIRC she & her friends got lost when they tried that and had to sleep outdoors overnight without a tent. If you want, I can e-mail her & get more details; let me know.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:46 PM on September 12, 2005

just to second mmascolino -- my friend went hiking at Volcanoes National Park on his honeymoon and broke through an empty (thank goodness!) lava tube, messed up his leg, arm and shoulder really bad. He couldn't scuba dive for the rest of the trip (he's a scuba instructor and that was more than half of the reason they went there!).
Maybe you could get a guided tour from one of the park rangers? They scout out the area regularly.
posted by j at 7:02 PM on September 12, 2005

Best answer: Native of the Big Island here.

All the information above is exceptionally accurate and descriptive (even with correct spelling of all our tricky Hawaiian names).

Assuming you do come to Hawaii, here are a few pointers for the Big Island:

* Check in with the park rangers, these guys are exceptionally knowledgable and can give you great advice for fulfilling your expectations. Advice they will give you (to follow) include not leaving marked trails, bringing a flashlight, and never hiking alone.

* Rent an SUV/Truck from Harper Car and Truck Rental on the Big Island, which will allow you to get all around the island, and allow you to pick up kayaks for cheap in south Kona to go to Kealakekua Bay with the dolphins. You'll also be able to go up to the summit of Mauna Kea, stopping at the 9,000 foot level for the best amateur stargazing spot in the world.

* Read the activity reports and perhaps even call the center for a lava forecast. The local Tribune Herald (reg. required) also publishes a weekly volcano watch which is a good source for general news.
posted by onalark at 7:34 AM on September 13, 2005

Hep, Hawaii's the place to go (at least it was in '93). I actually did stick a stick in some lava. Then a really, really, really tall man with a hat shouted at me, so I ran back to Mummy and Daddy. Make sure you visit the black sand beach as well.
posted by alby at 9:42 AM on September 13, 2005

Response by poster: I just booked two nights at the Volcano House! Now to plan the rest of the trip...
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:49 PM on January 3, 2006

A few other ideas/resources for ya:
- Here's your USGS Lavaline
- Kalani Retreat is a yogacentric, New Age-y place near Volcanoes Park in a pretty setting, with nice (nonfancy) accommodations and terrific healthy meals
- Here's a listing of nearby black-sand beaches. Be very careful: powerful undertow and sharp rocks will challenge even strong swimmers
posted by rob511 at 6:41 PM on January 6, 2006

I'm very late with this, but since MrMoonPie just pointed here: Yes, go to the visitors center, watch the safety video, and find out what the volcano is doing at that moment. When we were there they sold flashlights and batteries right there, but you're better off planning ahead and bringing your own. Definitely bring plenty of water, good shoes, and long pants. You won't want to wear long pants but you should. Some of that lava is sharp. For the same reason some people recommend that you wear gloves as well. If you stumble and use your hands to catch yourself it could be ugly. We didn't actually go quite that far to protect ourselves but we also stayed in relatively well-trodden areas.

Actually, when we were there last the lava was flowing very near to the cut-off end of Chain of Craters Road so we didn't have to hike far at all. There were maybe fifty people at the flow and one park ranger, and you could stand within a couple of feet of slowly moving lava. I got within ten feet myself, which was quite enough. The heat is something. Sometimes the hard lava you walk across is still warm enough to soften the bottoms of your shoes, FYI, and there can be much hotter stuff underneath the cold surface.

If you go somewhere other than where the park rangers want you to go be very, very careful. See if you can find someone experienced to go with you. The Pu'u O'o hike is supposed to be a good one, but it is long and potentially dangerous, and I gather that getting caught out in the surprisingly cold night is not at all an uncommon mishap.
posted by Songdog at 7:13 AM on March 10, 2006

Walking out across the lava isn't too bad. Just be slow and careful. And take a flashlight, that way you can stay after dark. I can't emphasize that enough. You can leave before sunset to get your bearings, but then be out there at night to really see the red.

There seems to be a group that leaves from arnotts lodge that sees skylights when they go. They update photos on their page once or twice a week of what they see. It seems to be you could just follow them out across the lava field instead of paying for their guided tour. Hearing the ground cracking underneath your feet and feeling it super hot is a bit disconcerting, but if you look at the arnotts page, makes you feel a little better about being out there.

You cannot see the actual vent (volcano) where the lava is coming from. The one trail I would without a doubt, 100% recommend to get close to the volcano is the kahaualea trail (page 71). Its 4 miles each way, but at the end of the trail, you are a mile or less from the actual volcano where you can watch it smoking and glowing. Truly an awesome site. Was totally the highlight of our trip. You are probably going to need a 4 wheel drive to get to the trailhead, but it is totally worth it. A long hike with just the ultimate payoff.
posted by HoopsMcCann at 6:54 AM on March 16, 2006

Response by poster: Hey, I am still checking in, so keep the info coming!
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2006

Getting to the lava looks like it may be getting increasingly tricky. Looks like the park service might be limiting access to the lava field. Kahaualea Trail is still a pretty good option for getting real close and no rangers around, so your call about how much risk you want to take to get closer since you are off park service lands.
posted by HoopsMcCann at 10:58 AM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: We're back! We had a great trip. I'm updating my blog with a full account and pictures. I guess it's lame to link to the blog post here, but you can get to it via my profile. I didn't get to poke lava with a stick, but I did have a great 40th birthday--thanks, all!
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:45 AM on August 3, 2006

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