As lava pours into the sea, billowing smoke dominates the landscape. // © 2017 Hawaii Forest & Trail
Feature image (above): Hawaii Forest & Trail helps guests see lava in a safe and culturally appropriate manner. // © 2017 Hawaii Forest & Trail
Last month, when I went on the Kilauea Lava Hike with Hawaii Forest & Trail (HF&T), my timing couldn’t have been better.
Kilauea — the world’s most active volcano — was on a roll. Its Puu Oo vent was sending red-hot lava down a mountain and over a 90-foot-high cliff into the sea. My goal was to see fiery molten rock, and HF&T did not disappoint.
The tour originated at HF&T’s Kona headquarters on Hawaii Island’s west side, with another stop in Waikoloa. I joined the group in Hilo on the east side. By the time they picked me up, my fellow participants had already learned some background information about the island and its geology while getting to know one another. Our guide, Melanie, brought me up to speed and shared more fun facts during the remaining drive to the coastal region of Kalapana.
Melanie added depth to the adventure as she discussed the history, legends, culture and science surrounding Kilauea. She spoke of the dramatic formation of the Hawaiian Islands, the myths associated with the volcano and the reverence that locals hold for the land — all while keeping our group upbeat and engaged.
Thanks to the company’s great relationships with private landowners, our van had access to an exclusive parking area, 2 miles closer to the lava action than where the public is required to park. Melanie outfitted us with snacks, water, walking sticks, headlamps, day packs, protective gloves and rain ponchos, the last of which we never needed.
The tour was crafted so that we would reach our destination just before dark, providing the best views of the glowing lava. In the late afternoon, we started our 45-minute hike along a gravel road toward the flow front. Less than 2.5 miles ahead of us rose a massive plume of smoke where lava was pouring into the ocean.
At the end of the gravel road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park rangers stood guard, keeping people away from the lava’s point of entry. We chatted with them at their roadblock, then donned our gloves for an inland hike to explore the lava plain. But first, Melanie encouraged us to show our respect for the new land that was taking shape around us. Many native Hawaiians believe that lava is the physical embodiment of the volcano goddess, Pele. Poking lava with sticks and other objects is impolite, she told us.
Carefully, we made our way across the uneven, rugged landscape, avoiding any dangerous areas. Each step required attention. It was easy to see why the tour is limited to people in good shape and guests no younger than 12.
As the sun set, we started to see a molten glow through nearby cracks. We smelled sulfur and felt heat emanating from the new land. In the distance, we saw patches of brilliant lava from the top of the mountain to its base. For every person in our group, pulses raced and spirits soared.
We reversed our course and walked to the shoreline. From the safety zone near the ocean cliffs, we gazed at the lava tumbling into the water just 800 feet away from us, sending undulating steam skyward. Now that it was dark, the billowing smoke had assumed a rosy hue accented by dazzling orange flashes. Our surroundings seemed remarkably quiet considering the fierce natural phenomenon at hand.
A near-full moon lit our hike back along the gravel road. We climbed into the van, and Melanie passed out cold towels and more drinks and snacks. Our group was at once humbled, exhausted and exhilarated by the experience.
Volcanic activity is unpredictable, according to Melanie. Some Kilauea observers guess that the flow will take a break or change its course soon, but Pele has a mind of her own. For that reason, HF&T can’t guarantee viewing conditions. Our group agreed that we were very lucky during our tour.
As Melanie drove us back to our hotels, she shared a Hawaiian proverb that added perspective to this rare opportunity to see an island in formation: “The land is a chief; man is its servant.”