Lava Bike & Hike Tour - Kalapana, Hawaii
We travel around the world to see natures beautiful creations - waterfalls, mountains, beaches, etc. - many of which have existed for a long time. But how often do you get a chance to see new earth being created? Kilauea is an active volcano on the southern coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Pu'u 'O'o vent on the eastern rift zone has been erupting continuously sending lava flows down the volcanic slopes and into the ocean.
Viewing the lava flow up-close is a very popular activity for visitors of Hawaii. Among other options, a hike to the lava flow area is the best possible up-close and personal experience. It is an adventurous hike that demands good physical fitness and requires some preparation. It involves quite a hike on a very uneven and potentially dangerous lava field. The hiking distance is unpredictable as conditions change daily or even hourly. But the reward is just unbelievable.
Lava Flow at Kalapana, Hawaii
Here is a report on our lava viewing experience. We have included many photos and as many details as possible incase anyone reading this plans on going.
Our bike/hike tour was with Kalapana Cultural Tours. Their office is located at the end of Kalapana-Kapoho rd., next to eateries and shops (Uncle's Kitchen there serves delicious food). This compound is right next to Kaimu beach park, a beach now rebuilding itself after a disastrous lava flow 20 years ago buried entires villages and the beach, moving its shore 1/4 mile down the ocean. Read more about Kaimu black sand beach.
Kalapana Cultural Tours (first booth to the right)
Our tour was at 4pm. Our guides were very knowledgeable, friendly and caring of the whole group. They carried extra water, first aid and flashlights for everyone. Once the whole group was assembled, we were shuttled to the bike trailhead.
For independent hikers, there were bike rentals and food stalls about a mile back.
Surrounding landscape was just amazing, like we were on a different planet altogether. There were homes built on the uneven black lava field and one of our guides actually lives there. These houses are built over the land that previously was a housing community but got destroyed by lava flow many years ago. They run completely on solar energy, rain water and propane tanks. "Lava dwellers" as they are called, completely love their off-grid living style. How cool is that! And scary at the same time to live right next to an active volcano.
Houses built on lava bed
Our guides got us settled on our bikes and made sure we were comfortable before starting our ride. We rode on a loose gravel road to the hiking trailhead. By taking this tour, we escaped 2 miles of hiking by foot. But I must say, biking on that road was not easy either. I don't know how I made it without scraping my knees at least once.
Gravel road to trailhead and ocean entry viewpoint
After 2 miles of riding we arrived at the hiking trailhead. For unguided hikers, it is 4 miles upto that point and the real hike was just beginning. We parked our bikes, locked them up and listened to a few instructions from our guides.
Smoke coming off from the mountain ahead looked closer than it really was, giving us a false notion that we weren't too far. But the truth is we hiked a long way and it seemed never ending. We started our hike towards active lava flow, on the freshest earth we could possibly step foot on. As you can see in the pictures there was no trail as such. We simply hiked on the uneven bumpy lava bed, avoiding cracks and loose rocks.
Pu'u 'O'o - Kilauea Volcano / Trail to lava flow
Cracks and crevices are formed as the lava cools and hardens. These cracks expand over time and become wider and deeper. We had to be extremely careful, especially on our way back as it was very hard to see in the dark.
Cracks show beautiful colors and layers
You would think life cannot originate for decades on this kind of barren volcanic environment. Surprisingly, plants thrive through the cracks in less than a year after the lava flow. Photo below shows "Sadleria" or "Ama'u" in Hawaiian, the first fern to grow on lava before any other plant.
Sadleria or Ama'u - First fern to grow on lava
Much of the lava flow there is of "Pahoehoe" lava, a thick liquid like lava that flows over and above rocks and bumps, and finds its way through cracks and crevices. It moves slowly creating interesting shapes and patterns.
Lava flow through crevices / Looks like worms
The Pahoehoe lava forms smooth surfaces or shapes resembling twisted ropes and crumpled blankets. These shapes can be seen across Volcanoes National Park.
Pattern of twisted ropes
Our hike got more interesting as we got closer. We were walking on the freshest lava, few months to a year old. Surface color was metallic, it was delicate, brittle and made crunching sounds as we walked over it.
Brittle metallic surface
A close up look shows interesting metallic colors and patterns. But it is not something to play with. It is like broken shards of glass and can easily cut through if not careful. A fall can be very unpleasant and will need immediate first aid. Something to keep in mind while hiking on your own.
Beautiful colors and patterns / Back side
At about 3 miles, we could feel the hot air and hear crackling sounds few feet ahead. And then there it was, the magical moment we were waiting for. We were standing right in front of 1500-2000 fahrenheit red hot lava flowing slowly and majestically, creating new earth in the process. It was a phenomenal sight.
As the lava flowed, it made crackling sounds and threw little bits into the air. The surface seemed to cool down instantly forming a silvery layer, while red hot lava flowing underneath cracked open the cooled surface and flowed out creating a new track.
Red hot lava
We could get as close as 5-6 feet, though only for a few seconds to get a picture. Any longer than that was difficult to handle the heat. We spent nearly an hour getting pictures and videos. Within that hour, the unstoppable lava advanced more than 10 feet.
Just keeps flowing / Unstoppable
When it was time to head back, we each were given flashlights as it was almost dark. Hiking back took longer because it was difficult to see the cracks and bumps even with flashlights. Half the group made it back quicker than the rest. While we sat there waiting for the others to join, we noticed that the area had become very crowded than when we came in. Hundreds of people hustling towards the ocean entry viewpoint.
Hike back in the dark to ocean entry viewpoint
We too hiked another 1/4 mile to the ocean entry viewpoint. It was not as close a view as our morning boat tour, still worth it. Sitting there under the dark sky, watching fiery lava puff up thick smoke into the air as it disappeared into the ocean was also a different experience.
Ocean entry viewpoint / Fiery Lava
Bonus pic - Ocean entry view during sunrise boat tour
It was time to pick up our bikes and head back. After more than 6 miles of hiking we were so happy we didn't have to walk anymore. But... First of all, it was a bit scary to ride on that gravel road in dark. Plus there was too much foot traffic. And, physically it wasn't as easy as we thought. Our legs gave up completely and we rather found it easier to push our bikes than ride them. Now quite obviously, we were the last ones to get back to our van while the others already settled down and waited for us impatiently. It was 9pm and some of them had to drive back to Kona at that hour. We had an hour drive ourselves. Overall, it was a thrilling and extraordinary experience. Something we highly encourage everyone to do atleast once in their lifetime. We would definitely do this tour again if we ever go back to Hawaii.
A guided tour is highly recommended to safely view the lava and to learn lots of interesting facts about it. See below for some useful information that may help you plan your trip.
Where to Stay: We stayed in a Vacation rental in Volcano town close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Check out other options. For accommodations closer check here. Hours and Cost: Kalapana Cultural Tours offers different tours and combinations. Check their website for accurate information. Ours was a combined boat and bike tour - $280 + tax/person. Trail: This tour needs good physical fitness as you will be hiking on rough terrain and the distance is unpredictable. What to Bring: Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, plenty of water, snacks or food, sturdy shoes, rain poncho and definitely a camera. Things to do in the area: Kaimu black sand beach, Kehena black sand beach, Uncle's Kitchen.