Pu'u O'o Lava Flow
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park represents one of the most fascinating biologic landscapes in the world, and its volcanic significance is well known—especially since it allows the average person access to several amazing volcanic features. One such feature is the Pu’u O’o-Kupaianaha eruption vent, which began on January 3, 1983—historical and present day flows from the Pu’u O’o Vent present hikers with an incredible other-wordly landscape on which to explore.
In June of 1999, we were lucky enough to visit the Hawaiian Islands—our expectations high for the Big Island and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in particular. I am happy to report that are expectations were met and exceeded by the incredible adventures we had while exploring the island—one such adventure was our ill-prepared hike to an active lava flow.
To access this awesome phenomenon you must drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road and then hike 4 miles across rough lava. This hike is inherently dangerous and is not recommended by the park, but if you want to see the newest land on earth being created before your eyes, then this is the trek for you! The 200-yard trail begins at the end of Chain of Craters Road, just beyond the safety information station—marked with reflective cones, the trail is rugged and has uneven footing. Hiking boots or sturdy shoes are necessary, as the lava surface, known as 'a'a lava, is a jagged rock surface that resembles broken glass. In addition, a flashlight is essential after dark—prepare accordingly.
Cupcake, Pick, and I arrived at the trailhead at approximately 5:00 pm. We arrived late in the day in order to take full advantage of the diminishing light—we had heard that you could see the red glow of the lava flow much better when it is dark. We also, at that time, had no intention of hiking to the lava flow itself.
We headed for the information station (a trailer located near where the lava swallowed up the road) to check out the status of the flow—they informed us that there was an active lava flow about four miles from the station—this was an exciting discovery. After hearing the news of the flow, we were tempted to make the trek to the lava, but it was late in the day and we were unprepared to hike in the dark—the park service had flashlights available for rent, but at that time, we still just wanted to walk the recommended trail.
Upon exiting the information station, we spotted the orange cones that marked the “recommended” trail and immediately noticed that there were a few rangers stationed around the trail—lava flow viewing is unpredictable s, obey all of limit signs and heed the instructions of park rangers on duty. From this vantage point, you could also see the massive steam plume off in the distance that is produced when the red-hot lava hits the Pacific Ocean—consisting of hydrochloric acid and volcanic glass particles, the steam is very dangerous—stay a safe distance away from its caustic gases. The light was beginning to fade as we made our way along the path, and just as promised, an orange glow from the lava was visible reflected in the steam—the glow was especially prominent when “explosions” from the lava intensified the glow. After awing at the prowess of Madame Pele, we continued hiking to the end of the cones (the 200-yard trail) and then stopped to listen to a ranger who was talking to another hiker. As we listened, we heard the ranger inform the hiker that if you hiked for another 30 minutes you would soon get to the point where the road, which was covered by a lava flow in 1995, opens back up again. Since 1986, an almost continuous flow of lava from Pu’u O’o has engulfed several miles of the road as well as several other park facilities—including the Wahaula Visitor Center. Hiking to a portion of the road spared by the flow sounded intriguing, so after a brief discussion, we made this decision to set off for the road armed with one Mini-Maglite flashlight between the three of us—not the smartest thing we have ever done, but anyway, our excitement got the best of us and off we went.
The hike started off without any problems, which upped our confidence, so we continued over the jagged lava rocks, being sure to stay away from the coastline—the park recommends that you always stay 1/4 mile inland from the unstable coastline, since fractured rocks combined with frequent earthquakes and rough seas often result in coastline collapse—best to not be there when that happens! Continuing on we finally arrived at the point where the road reappears from under the black lava—it was very dramatic to see the contrast of the gray concrete with its yellow centerlines peeking through the harsh lava. We stopped and snapped some pictures and soon realized it was starting to get quite dark—the perfect time to spot lava flows. The three of us scanned the horizon for the telltale red glow of active lava, and sure enough, we spotted several areas that were glowing off in the distance! We discussed whether or not it was a good idea to continue on, or better to turn back—of course, you can guess what we did—we kept going!
As we hiked closer to the molten lava, we noticed that the ground beneath our feet was changing in appearance—contrasting with the chaotic jumble of rough chunks and boulders associated with 'a'a (ah-ah) lava, we were now walking over the smooth mounds and ropy strands of pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy). In addition to the changing topography, the intermittent red glow of the steam plume was becoming more intense as the sun disappeared below the horizon—Pick led the way towards the red glow. We hiked over the harsh landscape, taking note of the huge chunks of lava that surrounded us in every direction—the ocean was to our right and the East Rift Zone was to our left. Our trio trekked on through the harsh landscape without too many worries, until, after walking for about 3 miles, we started to get a little freaked out—it was getting darker and we were getting closer to the flowing lava. The ground was starting to get hot under our feet and we were concerned about stepping onto a shelf that might possibly collapse into a river of hot lava. We all stopped and discussed, again, whether we should turn back or continue on—we were now 3 miles away from the car—a long hike back in the dark. The dark was not our only fear; we would also have to cope with uneven and treacherous hiking conditions. At this point, we estimated that we were still about a mile from the actual lava flow—that is to say, from where it entered the water. Cupcake then noticed another hiker who was closer to the lava flow, an observation that renewed our excitement and gave us confidence to hike on a little further—everyone was gung ho and we started off with renewed passion! About five steps later Cupcake placed his foot on what seemed like a sturdy spot and then his foot sank about 3 inches into the earth’s crust! It totally scared us all to death and we decided to turn around right then!
We headed back towards the car, hoping that we could find our way with the little illumination that we had available to us—it was at this time that we started to question our sanity. We walked for what seemed like forever as the night became darker and darker—not dark like what we were used to at home—this was DARK. The night was pitch black and we were walking on a rocky black surface, making it virtually impossible to see one foot in front of the other—we had to stay really close to each other in order to see to take one step. Pick had the honor of being the light bearer, and she wielded that Mini-Maglite like a consummate pro—taking a few steps over the more technical sections and then turning around to shine the light towards Cupcake and I, so that we could also see where to walk. Needless to say, this was a slow process. Adding to our anxiety, we started to notice that we were getting into some vegetation—this was especially unnerving since we had not seen ANY vegetation on the hike out. Cupcake started to get concerned that we were getting closer to the ocean, and when I say concerned, I mean totally irrational and completely spastic—he was sure that we were about to walk right on to one of those unstable benches that would collapse and send us all to a fiery death. I attempted to calm him down by reasoning with him, and then I had us all sit quietly so that we could hear the ocean—judging by the distant crashing waves, we could tell that we were a safe distance away. I expressed my concern that we were too far inland, and then I finally convinced everyone that we needed to head towards the ocean. Soon after setting off on that course, we could see the lights of other hikers walking in the distance—a comforting sight. After scrambling over brittle lava rocks for several yards the ground started to level out again, and we kept walking until we finally came to where the road was visible—we were so excited to see that little patch of road! At least at that point, we knew we were headed in the right direction. We walked on the section of road that had been spared from entombment for as long as we could, and this allowed our feet and legs to get a little rest from the rugged terrain. Ahead, we could see the light on the information center, and we soon arrived back at our car. Exhausted, but no worse for the wear, we jumped in the car at about 10:30 pm, having survived yet another bird-brained adventure!