When planning our trip to Hawaii the one thing Ben insisted we do was hike the active lava field on the Big Island. That was fine with me, but I didn’t necessarily care like he did. The designated day of our visit was overcast and rainy, and I went from nonchalant to hesitant. So much of our trip had already been hampered by bad weather and I just didn’t want to spend yet another 3-4 hours in the rain. It didn’t take long for the rain and my concern to clear.
Once we arrived I could tell this would be one of the coolest experiences of my life.
The Big Island is Hawaii’s newest. Two volcanoes in Volcano, Hawaii form the Volcanoes National Park, where visitors can experience the active volcanoes up close. One particular area just outside of the park is known as the Lava Viewing Area, where you can hike to see some active lava strips. It’s on the southern coast of the Big Island, far enough away from anything else that it’s only worth venturing out to if you’re committed to hiking the active lava field. That’s where we were headed.
Lava Viewing Area
I’d heard it was active lava flow, but I assumed the term “active” was used loosely- an annual spurt, perhaps.
When they say “active” they mean “constant.” They mean furious. They mean passionate. They mean HOT.
We dropped our car at a parking lot down the street from the designated hiking path to get a free shuttle to the base of the lava flow area. A few minutes later we were dropped at a tourist hub of bike rental stands. We got fitted for a tandem bike and were then shuttled to the top of an unpaved hill. The one road leading to the Lava Viewing Area is free to all, and we passed single bikers, hikers, and runners on the way. At first I felt guilty for riding the shuttle, but once I saw the distance we’d have to cover on foot I was glad we were given an initial shortcut.
We biked just a few minutes from the shuttle drop off to an area with road signs blocking the rest of the road. We’d reached the end of the easy path. There we locked our bike to a sign post and headed into the desolation.
Hiking the Active Lava Field of Hawaii
Getting from the main access road to the active flow takes more work than just getting up the unpaved hill: the edge of the lava park looks out onto 1.5 miles of hardened lava flow you must hike across to get to the active lava springs. Seeing nothing but black, cracked swirling mounds in every direction was an incredible sight!
Unlike anything we’d ever seen, we started to pretend scenes from our favorite apocalyptic movies and books as we walked. We were walking on a distant planet, we were hunting chasm fiends, we were running from dinosaurs.
The incredible, empty view always took us by surprise since we had to keep our eyes turned downward almost constantly. The lava flow created a very uneven field with large and small cracks, varying mound heights, and bits of skree we had to avoid slipping on.
It was desolate and gorgeous.
It was so much fun to experience the active lava field through all of our senses! We could hear cracking and breaking as delicate sections of rock turned to dust under our feet, and feel the precarious rocks slip and crack under our weight. The rocks were formed in different shapes and patterns, some with sections that flaked off line scales which we could pulverize with a single hand. the deep black would sometimes turn to a holographic silver, a treat for the eyes, ears, and hands.
After jumping from mound to mound pretending to be kings of the rock for over an hour we were rewarded with three orange slivers in the near distance. Active lava flow!
Active Lava Flow
We set our sights on the middle of the three flows: it was more active than the first, easier to get to than the third, and was completely devoid of other eager tourists.
Walking the extra distance to the second lava flow did not disappoint. In fact, this feels like one of the the most amazing things I’ve seen in years and so worth the minimal effort to be able to geek out over it alone!
And geek out we did. No shame. The lava gave off incredible depths of heat, so unfortunately we weren’t able to get as close as we wanted. That natural warning was probably for the best- it was so mesmerizing to watch the smooth bright orange liquid pop out of the black rocks that I would have been sorely tempted to stick a finger in and scoop some up.
We couldn’t get over being surrounded by new Earth. We were literally watching the landscape change around us. No one has ever stood where we were standing! We simultaneously felt like Gods and insignificant peons.
I’ve zip lined through the rainforest, walked the Great Wall of China, been on an African safari, and swam with sharks but watching the black, hardened rock of the Earth yield to powerful orange slime underneath it is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I was completely shocked by the forces of strength we saw fighting each other.
Were it not for the uncomfortable heat radiating from the lava and the impending storm I would have wanted to stay all day. All week.
We played the realistic version of The Floor Is Lava, bouncing lightfootedly to get as close as we safely could to the lava, for around an hour. In that amount of time no other people came close enough to see us taking pictures and videos like idiots. I’m grateful for that.
And on our hike back we never got sick of repeating, “Wow. I can’t believe we just saw that.” and “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”
I can literally say I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my life! I am so incredibly grateful for an adventurous husband who pushes me to do things I sometimes hate but almost always end up loving!
Keep In Mind When Hiking the Active Lava Field of Hawaii:
- Sneakers and socks. I originally wore Keens (open hiking shoes) and was advised to change before getting on the shuttle to the bike rental spot. I’m glad I listened! The ground can be difficult to walk on, and sharp bits of broken lava rock easily get caught in your shoes.
- Gloves. This one sounds crazy, but it’s really true. I actually fell twice on the loose skree when trying to climb across the lava mounds, and ended up with many scrapes and tiny rock shard splinters in my hands that didn’t release for weeks!
- Water. It’s a long hike. With no shade.
- Camera. Because obviously.
- Hat and sunscreen. We were lucky to hike while the sky was overcast, but that was unusual. Plan on being faced with full sun for 3-4 hours!
- Rent a bike. It doesn’t seem like much work when you’re starting out, but hiking across the uneven lava takes more energy than you’ll expect. If you can avoid walking up the unpaved road and back down again and focus just on hiking back and forth to the lava flow you’ll be glad!