Banana Lava Flow
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has much to offer the hiker, and one of its best features is the opportunity to see active lava flows. Now this opportunity doesn’t present itself everyday, although your odds are really good that it will, it just all depends on the temperament of Madame Pele. Lucky for us, the fire goddess had decided to show her stuff, in a big way, the day we visited the park.
Our goal for this hike was to venture out across the jagged, steam covered, black lava field to one of the most amazing features of an eruption…an ocean entry. The clash between molten lava and the Pacific Ocean is a breathtaking sight. Anyone who has seen fiery red lava flowing into the deep blue sea can attest to the violent nature of creation. Bearing witness to the formation of the newest land on earth brings one to reflect on the primal force of nature, and just how powerful that force can be. In a primordial display of fire versus water the ocean entry puts on a heck of a show. Waves crash onto and around the flowing lava creating a billowing cloud of steam, and the lava, in its quest to add acreage to Hawaii’s Big Island, fights back by hurling explosions of rock and red lava high into the air. It is a scene not soon forgotten, but first you have to get there, and the only way to see it is to walk.
The hike begins at the end of Chain of Craters Road. At different times, depending upon conditions, the trail will be marked with orange cones and/or ground reflectors part of the way, but before starting off you need to make sure you are prepared. Check with a ranger on conditions and to find out how far you need to walk to see the lava, keep in mind there is no trail. Read the signs and heed their advice on water, clothing, and light sources. Of course, plenty of water is needed, and sturdy footwear is a big help on such an uneven surface. Most hikers start their hike in the late afternoon and then return after dark, so it is essential that you have a flashlight or headlamp. The reason for timing the hike this way is to be able to see the lava glowing in the darkness, but to only have to make one leg of the journey at night. This is exactly what Dauster, Butchwacker, Karabeener, Berg, Pick, and I decided to do. We left on our hike around 4pm, hoping the gray skies and drizzle that were accompanying us would soon pass, and that Madame Pele would welcome us with some serious pyrotechnics.
We weren’t far into our hike when both wishes were granted. The rain had passed and the ground was steaming eerily as we neared a gathering crowd. The source of attraction was soon unveiled when we saw an oozing red hot lava flow! The flow was emanating from a small crack in the lava rock and was easily accessible. We could walk right up to the source of the flow, and one guy was even poking a stick into the fiery substance—Berg was extremely jealous since this is what he wanted to do, but he was unable to find an appropriate poking device...ahhh, the irony. We all congregated around this amazing spectacle and awed at the oozing lava for several minutes before trekking on towards the ocean.
The entire hike out to the ocean entry affords amazing views of lava formations and the rugged coastline of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It is one of those hikes that you just can’t believe you are lucky enough to be experiencing! We could see the steam cloud where the lava was entering the ocean just ahead of us and we knew we were getting close to our destination. We headed down a slight incline past a formation that looked like it came straight out of a horror movie, to where you could see the lava flowing into the water. It was an incredible sight! We set up all of our camera equipment, had a little snack, and waited for night to fall.
As the light changed around us the lava took on an entirely different aura. At first, in the daylight, it appears brisk and almost brutal in its quest for the sea, but as darkness envelops the scene the mood changes. What was once white billowing steam now takes on the orange glow of the lava, making the whole setting almost ethereal, some might even say it is hellish in nature. Ocean waves, steam, and fire all mix to create what looks like an impressionist painting. This is a hard contrast to the crisp landscape viewed in the light of the sun. If you make this hike when the lava is flowing, make it a point to stay late into the evening so that you can witness this scene for yourself.
The return journey across an inhospitable environment cloaked in darkness is one that is not easily undertaken. It is important that you remain extremely aware of your surroundings for a couple of reasons. One being that you don’t want to stray to close to the ocean. Due to the fact that this is new, unstable land, it is possible that it can collapse into the ocean at any time. Known as the bench, this portion of land extending 1000 feet inland from the ocean, is constantly being undercut by the action of the ocean waves so it is advisable to keep your distance. The other reason to keep your wits about you is twofold, the first being that if you fall you can be sure that you will be seriously injured by the glass-like shards of lava, and secondly, you never know where an active lava flow is going to break the surface from below. In fact, it is quite possible that you are walking on what appears to be solid ground, when in fact it is newly formed crust only a few inches thick. One wrong foot placement and you could find your favorite hiking boots crashing through the surface to the molten lava below, taking your favorite feet with them! Just be careful where you step and mind your footing so that you don’t trip. A word of caution: one thing can undermine your chances at exiting the lava flow unscathed and that is to piss off Madame Pele. :-)
One sure fire way to bring the wrath of Pele down on your head is to confiscate as a keepsake one of her precious lava rocks. Balderdash! You say? That is what Berg said too! Until on our way back to the car he fell and gashed out of his hand a nice chunk of flesh. By the time the rest of us realized what had happened to him there was blood covering the entire length of his forearm, dripping in quite a nice stream from his elbow. None of us had heard him fall, and he, of course, was not about to complain…I think he could have lost his entire hand before he might have conceded a flesh wound. The only thing we had available to stop the bleeding was some lens tissue from my camera bag. It was quite obvious that he most likely needed stitches, but he was adamant that it was not necessary. A kind hiker passing by offered up some bandages and that was an immense help---thanks to you whoever you are! After we got Berg all bandaged up we broke into conversation about how he fell. Berg is always quite surefooted, so it was surprising that he was the one who fell and not myself, Karabeener, or Dauster (we tend to be the ground testers of the group). Sheepishly, Berg admitted that he had collected a few lava rocks just to test the taboo legend; well needless to say, he ditched those rocks after that episode! The moral of this story is: Do not under any circumstances balderdash Madame Pele!
The rest of the hike back to the car was injury free and we even came upon another breakout flow! This one was even more impressive than the first, mostly due to the fact that it was dark and the lava was glowing intensely. Some people were getting way to close for comfort on this one; I guess some people just like to test Darwin’s Theory. This hike can make for a long day so keep in mind that there are no services along the way. One of my favorite quotes of the night was when Karabeener said, “Hey, remember when I really had to pee and we were still hiking on a volcano?—Oh wait, that’s NOW!!!” We all had a good laugh when she delivered that line with deadpan accuracy. We arrived back at the car at around 11pm for the late night drive back to our hotel. Hawaii Volcanoes had provided us with an amazing opportunity to hike to a fantastic display of nature. Not many people can say they have seen lava entering the ocean, so if you have a chance to experience this for yourself, don’t hesitate! Get out there and hike that lava!
All photos by Read/Pickering except for photo #2 and #40, courtesy The Berg, copyright JBergstrom 2004