Big Island, I Lava You!

If you follow me on Facebook, I think you probably noticed that possibly one of the best days of my life was on this island. We. Saw. LAVA!!!! We saw lava from the air, the museum had Pele’s hair. We found lava on a hike, while others took a bike. We saw lava ooze and stream, we were living my big dream! Ok, enough Dr. Seuss. I’m just so excited about this opportunity! 

The day started out with crystal clear weather (especially for Hilo) and an early morning helicopter ride over the lava lake!

This was my first time in a helicopter. I have been saving it for exactly this opportunity. It wasn’t cheap, $200 was the best price I could find, but it was TOTALLY worth it. Once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was nervous, but oh so excited! It felt like we were floating in a bubble and I legitimately could not get the song “Pure Imagination” out of my head the entire time. Any Willy Wonka fans out there?

I really believe God knew how excited I was. Not only did He give me rare/perfect Hilo weather, He also gave me the best possible seat on the helicopter right in front! Surrounded by windows, including a peek-a-boo window on the floor under my feet, I had the best possible view.

We could clearly see the immense and beautiful coastline, lush forests and farms and a sea of hardened volcanic flow. Every so often there would be tufts of greenery amid the dark tary landscape; vegetation spared by the recent flowing lava. It was incredible.

Untouched Forest in the Lava Field

Then, we spotted the rising steam and headed towards the craters of bubbling and exploding lava lakes.

Craters and Lava Lakes

It was a truly incredible experience. We finished the helicopter ride early and had some time to kill before the lava hike, so we checked out one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve seen yet – Akaka Falls. It’s 442 feet tall!

Akaka Falls

After the falls, a hefty lunch and a quick stop at Two Ladies Mochi Shop (yum!) it was time to head over to our Big Island grand finale – a 6 mile roundtrip hike to lava fields!

I have wanted to see lava for as long as I can remember. It sure isn’t easy to do anymore. You used to be able to see it flow right into the ocean, but about 2 months ago is stopped. We were disappointed about that but luckily some of the surface flows got even better. Unfortunately, the only way to get there was a long strenuous hike.

It was strenuous partly because it is HOT. The beating sun, near 100% humidity, all black terrain and one of the most difficult surfaces you can hike on resulted in many moments where I thought to myself – why am I doing this? This is dangerous and stupid for me, a cancer patient on serious medication with weakened bones and tumors threatening to crack open my spine with any type of fall. BUT, God was with me!

Crowds on Lava Field Horizon

Lava Rock Close Up

Just when I thought I would pass out from the heat, cloud cover came in. Every time I took a step, He found solid surface for me to land on instead of the deceptively hollow mounds of black rock. My fear of rain joining this dangerous mix, causing a toxic fog cloud (or VOG as our guide called it – v for volcanic) that may or may not stop my heart… dodged it! It only started to rain in the last 10 minutes of the hike. Seriously, that can and does happen. An actual professional guide died this way just 8 days before our trip.

Needless to say, this is a semi-dangerous hike. But at the same time, there were lots of people and we probably could have managed without the tour but would not have known we could until after we did it.

The tour was $100 but they seem to range from $100-$160. Without a tour, you have to tack on 2 more miles (each way) to the 6 mile RT hike or you have to rent a bike and bike the initial 2 miles on gravel road. Our tour group parked somewhat far away from the direct line to the lava and we ended up walking at an angle to the lava flow. I’m certain it was because they were trying to stay away from the other hikers that did not pay for a tour so that a) those hikers did not follow along for free and b) made us feel like we truly were out in the middle of nowhere and thus, made us feel like we were lucky to have them. Regardless, I’m still glad we took the guided tour because the risk was just not worth it for me at this time.

We all made it safely to the lava flow and had a feast for our eyes! There was one good flow coming down the hill but then almost out of no where, more flows would suddenly break through and start flowing down around you. We really had to be careful the closer we got to the flow because the ground becomes really unstable and hollow. People have fallen through the crust before and have had lost legs and their lives!

The temp also increases the closer you get to the lava. You’ll notice right away when you’re getting close. It gets hot hot hot! Standing next to the lava flow, I thought my phone was going to melt.

Guy Poses with Lava

Lava Between Feet

We started the hike at around 3:30pm and were back by 8:30pm. It gets dark at 6:30pm so that was interesting and SCARY. Hiking on this type of terrain with only a flashlight? Eek! A few solo hikers did attempt to follow us out, to which our tour guide promptly put an end to and politely scolded them for trying to bum a ride. Again, I’m not too convinced that we needed this tour but there is no way I would have done it without one, not knowing what it was going to be like. In the end, I guess I’m glad we did it. Safety in numbers. Plus our guide had some unique stories.

It was a GREAT day and the following day we visited Hawaii Volcanos National Park to round out the experience. You can read more about Hawaii Volcanos NP and the rest of our Hawaii trip here!

I thought I’d write down a few tips for seeing lava on The Big Island:

  • Do take a helicopter ride, but don’t book too early or find a company that allows you to cancel within 24-48 hours so you can try to work around the weather.
  • Don’t take the “doors off” style helicopter for lava viewing. I don’t think it is worth the extra $100 for this particular helicopter tour, but I can see how it would be worth it for more waterfall and cliff viewing like the one they have in Kauai.
  • Don’t attempt to see the lava flow from within Volcano National Park. It is a much longer hike that way, I blieve 12 miles RT. It’s better to see it from Kalapana area. You can rent a bike that takes you from the parking lot to the part of the lava field where you’ll need to start hiking. It’s around $20. Or you can walk the approximate 1-2 miles on the gravel road before reaching the 3-5 mile lava field portion.
  • Do make sure you check to see where the lava is flowing before you attempt any hike. Things change daily!
  • Must bring: flashlight, sturdy gloves (if you fall on the lava field it is like landing on glass shards), 2 Liters of water, sunsreen, poncho.
  • If it is rainy or foggy – consider the risks. Poisonous volcanic fog is no joke.
  • Not sure – taking a guided hike. If there is no danger of hiking in the dark, and it is busy season, I can see not needing a guide. Chances are, you’ll end up finding groups of people heading the right way anyway.

And definitely DO – soak it all in and have a great time! The effort is worth the reward. How often do you get a chance to see earth forming before your very eyes?

— The Time Traveler

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