Big Island Flowing Lava

Nearly everyone who visits the Big Island, above all, wants to see flowing lava. Sure, the lookout in the park is open in the evening so people can see the glow from the Kilauea crater. Not the same though as seeing flowing lava up close and personal. The places where lava is oozing out of the south Hawaiian crust is ever changing. This past January, lava could be seen after a bike and hike (and bike) to get to the location and back. My adult daughter and I did the bike and hike from Kalapana.
The bike part to the beginning of the hike was fine—a healthy ride, as advertised, and we had a good bike supplier. Set us up with what we needed, reasonable price, and good quality mountain bikes. The hike turned out to be one of the most difficult and dangerous hikes I have ever been on. My daughter is an inexperienced hiker but she’s got youth going for her. I have years of hiking experience but I ain’t as young as I used to be.
We parked our bikes at the trail head along with fifty or so other bikes. It was dusk. Still pretty light out but we were timing it so that we’d hopefully get to the lava just after dark. Main problem: there is no marked trail and the County has no beacon or anything at the road to get your bearings going up to the lava or coming back down. If you had working GPS, then that would be writing a different story. We didn’t have GPS. I didn’t take a compass. Didn’t even think about it. Anyway, it would have been painstaking slow to really make use of it in the dark on the way back down from the lava. When we heard about this hike and bike, we were not told how hairy hard and dangerous this little outing actually is. We were only focusing on seeing a live lava flow, and we knew we would have to do a bit of work to reward ourselves. Bring plenty of water. Two hiking sticks wouldn’t hurt. I had one. My daughter, none.
You have to find your own trail all the way up and all the way back. There were tours with tour guides and all different size private groups like us doing the hike, scattered on their way up. Everyone seemed to be trailblazing their own route. The lava was pretty much all pahoehoe, but it wasn’t at all easy hiking on that stuff, especially the darker it became. There were tons of crevasses, most of which could be stepped over or jumped over, but some could swallow you or rack you. That pahoehoe was fairly new lava, even down at the access road, and fragments and lava “sand” were everywhere. If you didn’t pay attention on the way up to the lava, you’d easily find yourselves running into difficult ups and downs to traverse, turn an ankle, or slip on the loose stuff. Pretty quickly, I could see that there was sort of an art to finding the safest most direct route through the pahoehoe field and expending the least amount of energy doing it. There wasn’t a clear goal to keep a bead on. People were more or less heading the same way and everybody was making their own trails. After it got dark, then you could see the glow of the lava and keep a line towards that glow. It seemed like, as much as we huffed and puffed, the glow was never getting any closer. Deceptive and very disheartening.
People were beginning to come back down by the time it was getting dark. Who knows how many folks were up there that day in the late afternoon /early evening/night—maybe a couple hundred? It became warmer and warmer the further up we hiked. The pahoehoe seemed newer and newer because it was noticeably softer and more flaky and sandy. It became like walking on little glass shards. The hike was further than advertised (it is ever changing) and we wondered if we’d ever really get to flowing lava We could see more significant lava flowing out of the side of a hill who knows how much farther up. We were double dog tired at that point and didn’t want to hike an unknown distance farther up even if it meant a better lava show.
Lots of groups were heading back down. Groups of two, three and on up to ten or more people. Hard to tell who was in a tour group or not. We did our pictures and lava looking and tried to stay with a big group heading back down. We had headlamps and flashlights, but I have a bit of a gimpy right leg, and we couldn’t stay up with any particular group going down. Besides, who was to say that they knew the most direct way back without constantly having to skirt around challenging valleys and rises? Some groups seemed to be way off to the left and others to the right, and so we more or less drew a path somewhere in the middle. Totally dark now, and stepping over crevasses and finding footing and the best route became a major struggle. Extremely tired, but having to keep maximum alertness for every step taken because of the danger. Takes much energy to hike that way.
Seemed like we would hike the rests of our lives down that pahoehoe slope to the road, and it was difficult without some sort of beacon to know exactly where to hit the road. Too far to the right or the left and we’d be doing a great deal more milelage than necessary. We finally came out on the road about a half mile to the left of our bike parking and walked against many people on their bikes pedaling back. Pitch dark except for flashlights, headlamps and a few car headlights.
Turned out we were one of the last to get back. Only a few bikes remained in the parking area when we climbed on our bikes. The road back had no lights. We operated on our headlamps and the reflector posts that were positioned equidistant on each side of the road. Eerie. Especially since my daughter, in her haste to get this hike and bike over with, literally left me in the volcanic dust. I’m the only one out there on my bike with my headlamp. My legs are about to fall off. At least the slope was mostly slightly downhill back to the car parking/bike entrepreneur location.
I prayed quite a bit on that hike. We could have easily twisted an ankle, fallen in a crevasse, or landed on our face. When you’re near the flowing lava it is no joke that it is possible to fall thru the crust into a 2000 degree lava river if you get too close. Found out a few weeks later that a tour guide died up there when he was overcome by a noxious cloud of a combination of sulphur dioxide and a hard rain mixed in. That was no hike to be taken lightly. Gone about four-five hours. The hike turned out to be a rugged seven miles round trip. Glad we did it. Satisfaction of completing. Now we can say we saw flowing lava. Wouldn’t do it again.

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