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Lava viewing guide for the Big Island

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Lava viewing is a must-do activity for your vacation if you are lucky enough to be on the Big Island while one of the volcanoes is actively erupting. Hawaii wouldn’t exist if it were not for the continuous volcanic activity that created all the islands in the state. Seeing this happening in “real-time” is guaranteed to be an awe-inspiring experience.

There are five (!) active volcanoes in the state of Hawai’i: four on the Big Island (Mauna Loa, Kilauea, Hualalai and, still under water but ever growing, Loihi) and one on Maui (Haleakalā). The Kilauea Volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983, which makes it one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Most of the time the volcanoes on Hawaii erupt at a very calm pace (with ‘aloha’), and it is easy to get close to the action. There are two possible ways to see the lava: [1] From a distance e.g. in the crater of the Kilauea Volcano and [2] close by as it flows over the land into the ocean.

The glow from the Halema’uma’u crater
The glow from the Halemaumau crater at night in the Volcanoes National Park, seen from the Jaggar Museum overlook

Lava viewing in the Halema’uma’u crater

There are several places within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from which you can have a good view of the Halema’uma’u crater. Because of safety issues it is not possible to go into the crater, but there are several overlooks that give a stunning overview of the lava from a ~1-mile distance. The most popular and accessible view of the crater is at the Jaggar museum and overlook.

During daytime you can see an impressive plume but the view is truly breathtaking before sunrise and after sunset, when the glow of the lava colors the steam red and can be seen against a background of stars.

jaggar museum halema'uma'u overlook volcano hawaii
The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and NPS Jaggar Museum (foreground) sit on the rim of Kīlauea Volcano’s summit caldera. This gives it an ideal spot to overlook the active lava lake within Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. (image credit: USGS)

There is an element of chance involved in trying to see the lava like this. Because it tends to rain frequently in the park the visibility is variable can be very poor at times. If this is the case during your visit try spending 30 minutes inside the museum (very interesting and educational!) to see if the weather has cleared up or return to the Jaggar museum later during your visit. (back to top)

Did you know the air force once bombed a lava flow that threatened Hilo in 1935? Read about the Volcanic History of Hawaii in our blog if you want to learn more about the history of all 6(!) Big Island Volcanoes

Lava viewing at the flow

Seeing the lava up-close-and-personal is an experience that few people ever forget. Since 2007 a surface lava flow from the Kilauea volcano has been flowing in the East Rift Zone, where lava flows are streaming out of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent. The lava flow activity and location can change daily.

How close you can get to the lava depends on where the flow is active, if it is accessible at all. Access to the flow could be restricted if the park staff thinks it is unsafe. Check the latest Kilauea volcano lava flow update, call the Park at (808) 985-6000, or view a  map of the most current lava flow.

Kamukona ocean entry of lava flow 61g [2016+2017]

As of July 2016 it is possible to visit the ocean entry of lava flow 61g,  close to Kamokuna. To see the lava enter the ocean you can approach from two sides: from the west (the national park side) and from the east (the Kalapana side). Both options are discussed below but the Kalapana (eastern access) in generally preferred.

Note that the distance from either parking area to the ocean entry is between 4 and 5.5 miles. Be prepared to hike that distance on an unpaved road with loose gravel. Bring good hiking shoes, sunscreen and lots of water.

Consider renting a bike or taking a boat or helicopter tour to see the lava if hiking is no option for you but seeing lava a must.

October 2017, kamukona, lava flow, lava viewing, big island, hawaii, lava hike
This USGS map shows Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone lava flow field for October 12th, 2017. Access to the ocean entry is possible from both sides (Kalapana from the east or the chain of Craters road from the west) following the emergency road.

Access to the Kamukona ocean entry from the east (Kalapana)

Security guards will be posted on the emergency road or Highway 130 before the entrance to Kalapana Gardens to provide lava viewing information and to direct parking. Lava viewing along the three-mile stretch of the County’s portion of the emergency road is permitted between the hours of 3-9 p.m., daily [source]. Directions to Kalapana from Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park: Take Hwy 11 towards Hilo to Hwy 130. Follow Hwy 130 until you reach the road’s end and the visitor parking area. (45 miles, about 1 hour).

The total distance to the ocean entry depends on local circumstances such as the exact location of the ocean entry and the route you have to walk to safely get there. Expect a 4 mile and 1.5 to 2-hour hike (one way), and bring plenty of water.

Bike rentals: It is possible to rent a bicycle at the parking lot for easier access to the lava flow. This will cost around $20 / bike and also includes a helmet, lights, and a bottle of water (typical price for March 2017, see for example the Kaimu rentals website).

kamukona, lava, kalapana, map
Map with approximate route and distance from the parking lot in Kalapana to the Access to the Kamukona ocean entry. Image adapted from google maps, the Kamukona ocean entry location is approximate for the ocean entry point in January 2017.

Access to the Kamukona ocean entry from the west

Access to the Kamukona ocean entry from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is possible from the end of the chain of craters road, at a 45 minute drive from the visitor center. Park your car at the Hōlei sea arch and hike east towards the lava. The total distance to the ocean entry depends on local circumstances such as the exact location of the ocean entry and the route you have to walk to safely get there. Expect a 2 to 2.5-hour and 5.5 mile hike (one way), and bring plenty of water.

Accessing the lava from the park side is often discouraged because the approach from the western access to the ocean entry point is both longer, more difficult, and more likely to expose you to poor air quality (see safety concerns below) than the approach from the eastern (Kalapana) side.

kamukona, lava, holei sea arch, hawaii volcanoes national park, map
Map with approximate route and distance from the Holei sea arch to the Kamukona ocean entry. Image adapted from google maps, the Kamukona ocean entry location is approximate for the ocean entry point in January 2017. Note that the route is also approximate and the actual distance may be larger.

Safety concerns at the lava ocean entry

There are two main concerns regarding your safety if you want to see the lava flow into the ocean. These are:

  • The stability of the new land you are standing on (the lava bench)
  • The noxious gasses that are released when the lava meets the ocean.

Park rangers keep a close eye on the stability of the lava bench. They set the lava viewing area based on what they judge to be safe. This safe distance is based on visual inspection and thermal imaging and is currently (October 2017) set at 1/2 mile or 820 meters. Please follow any instructions given by park rangers regarding a safe viewing distance.

lava bench collapse, may 2017, hawaii, big island, kamukona, kilauea, USGS
On May 3rd a large part of the Kamukona lava delta collapsed into the ocean within minutes. Collapsing lava benches can cause a small tsunami and the associated explosions can hurl hot rocks over a large distance. Credit all images: USGS

Once you reach the flow it is very important to stay away from the plume coming from where the lava meets the ocean.  In general the wind carries this noxious ocean entry plume offshore and out to sea during nighttime and early mornings. From mid-morning through late afternoon the wind often carries the plume onshore and along the coast. When this is the case the chances of clearer viewing conditions are greater if visitors approach the ocean entry from the Kalapana (east) side, rather than from the west. It is possible to cross over from one side of the Kamokuna ocean entry to the other side. (back to top)

Guided Lava Tours (lava flow and ocean access)

The following is only relevant if there is an active surface lava flow or ocean entry.

If the lava flows are on land that is accessible to the public you can join a guided lava tour to get very close to the lava or join a boat tour to see the lava stream into the ocean. If the lava is not that easily accessible and you have a couple of hundred of $$ to spend, your best option is to book a helicopter tour that will get you close to the action.

1: Hiking tours to see the Lava

You can find up-to-date information about the lava viewing area at the “what’s going on with the Volcano” web page of the Volcanoes National Park. If access to the flow is possible on public land you will be able to find several companies that offer guided hikes to the lava flow during daytime or at night.

Lava flow visit at night
A visit to the red-hot lava always carries risks. Never do this on your own but choose a respected touring company with an eye for safety

Some companies are better than others but in general the guides are trained professionals that know the terrain intimately. The added value of using a lava tour guide is the extremely interesting background information they can give you, and of course also the peace of mind of a safe passage.

A list of outfitters that organize hikes to the lava can be found on the price comparison website hawaiiactivities1. These hiking tours are sometimes combined with other activities so make sure to thoroughly read the descriptions before committing. Booking a lava hike tour far in advance is risky because at the time of your visit the lava might have stopped flowing. We recommend not booking these tours more than 1 or two weeks in advance.

It is not mandatory to join a lava viewing tour to see the lava and it is often pretty easy to find your way to the lava yourself.  Since viewing conditions can change on a daily basis it is best to inquire yourself shortly before you plan to see the lava. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park visitor center is a good place to check with.

Visit to the Kalapana lava flow
Visiting the Lava with a professional guide is a spectacular experience

2: Lava viewing from the Ocean: lava boat tours

When the lava is flowing into the ocean you can also try to see this from a boat. Going to the lava from the ocean side does not allow you to come as close to the lava as with the lava tours over land, but it will offer you sights that are unique.

As of April 2017 lava boat tours  have to keep a distance of 300 meters (984 feet) from the ocean entry point, outside the safety zone established by the coastguard (source). Under special circumstances tour operators can get granted permission into the lava safety zone. All four lava boat tour providers listed below have received such permission.

You can find lava boat tours at the price comparison website hawaiiactivities1, or at the following websites:

All lava boat tours depart from the Isaac Hale beach park at the end of Pohoiki road.

Safety and licensed lava boat tour operators

Please be aware though that lava ocean entries can create extremely dangerous conditions for the uninformed viewer. The white plume, for example, contains water droplets that can be as corrosive as battery acid and contains a host of possibly lethal gasses. Read more about the dangers of scalding water, steam plumes and bad air on the USGS website.

It is thus important that you choose your lava boat tour with care because of the many risks associated with seeing the lava this way. Make sure to always check if your tour operator is licensed to ensure that they possess the experience and training required to get you to the viewing area and back safely.

According to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources the four tour companies we list above are the only tour companies permitted to offer the lava boat tour activity (last checked: September 2017).
lava boat tour sees lava flowing into the ocean at the Big Island of Hawaii
Lava enters the ocean at the Big Island. You can see this lava flow either from land by a moderate (5+ mile) hike or bike ride, or from the ocean by going on a lava boat tour

3: See the lava with a helicopter tour

Helicopter tours let you see the lava and volcanoes from the air. A helicopter can get you close to a lot of action that is not accessible over land or water. Think for example about a look into the crater lake, seeing surface lava flows from the air, or lava burning through forests.

Helicopter tours that take you to the lava depart from both Hilo and Kona. Tours from Hilo are shorter and thus cost less money. Still, helicopter tours are not cheap. So-called “Volcanoes and waterfalls” tours from Hilo start at a fee of $200 to $250 for ~45 minutes of flight time.

Tours by Paradise Helicopters (external link) leave from both Hilo and Kona. See also our own guide to helicopter tours on the Big Island for an overview of all helicopter tour operators and tour options.

Safety and Practical Information for seeing the lava

Getting close to the lava flow is both spectacular and risky. It is very important to realize that hiking out to the lava unprepared can put you in harm’s way. Volcanic fumes are hazardous to your health and persons at risk of respiratory problems or with heart problems, pregnant women, infants, and elderly people are all discouraged from engaging in this activity.

We recommended that you wear comfortable socks and walking shoes or hiking boots when hiking out. Pack sunscreen and water together with your camera. If you plan to view the lava flow after dusk, remember to bring one flashlight per person. The Kilauea is a dynamic volcano, and lava viewing conditions change daily. Even if a viewing area is organized by the National Park, this does not guarantee close access of the lava. Often a 1+ hour hike over hazardous terrain is necessary to reach the flow front of the lava.

We can’t overemphasize being prepared for the hike. Far too many times, ill-prepared tourists go on a lava hike wearing sandals and flip flops. These shoes are not appropriate or safe for the rough lava surfaces, and wearing them may force you to return home prematurely without having seen the lava. If you plan on staying past sunset (and we highly recommend this), each person should carry their own flashlight for the walk back (see “Guided lava tours“).

If you want to be well prepared take 4 minutes and watch this video about safe lava viewing of ocean entries made by the Hawaii volcanoes national park staff. It is especially good to watch if you want to get as close as possible to lava ocean entries while staying safe:

Vog (Volcanic air pollution)

Contrary to expectations, the Big Island has a lot of problems with air pollution. This air pollution is not man-made but comes straight out of the volcano. This pollution is called ‘vog’.

Vog, a blend of the words “smog”, “fog” and “volcanic”, is so normal that it is part of the common language on the Hawaiian Islands.

Vog is a form of hazy air pollution much like smog. It is created when sulfur dioxide gas emitted by the Kilauea volcano reacts with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunlight. Just like smog, there are certain health hazards associated with vog.

You can find voggy conditions in the downwind direction of the Halema’uma’u crater. Since the dominant wind directions are east and north-east, the areas most affected by fog are those south and southwest of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The USGS has teamed up with IVHHN/Durham university and HDOH to form the Interagency Vog Dashboard where you can find specific vog advice for visitors to Hawai’i.

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