I sat in a helicopter with no doors, buckled tightly and quite nervous, looking at flowing and glowing lava for the first time in my life. We were still over 3,000 above the lava flows that were both beautiful and very destructive. There were fountains and rivers of molten rock making a path to ocean and taking out homes, and anything else in its path, along the way.
This would be my second time in Hawaii, with the first visit having missed the goal entirely of seeing red hot liquid magma, while the second trip took a helicopter ride on my last day to finally see it. There were many attempts prior to the helicopter ride, all ending up in failure, but failure in this case was definitely a wild ride.
Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to visit the Big Island of Hawaii. I can remember photos of exotic looking black sand beaches, tropical fish, and active volcanoes. But for me, seeing lava flowing from an active volcano was definitely the number one draw. I wanted to see lava, actual lava, spewing from the Kilauea Volcano, just like I had seen in pictures and videos. Kilauea volcano has been erupting essentially nonstop since 1983 (since I was in junior high school) and getting to see a live lava flow with your own eyes is pretty much a slam dunk, at least that’s what I thought. So with family, I was fortunate to get to visit the island of my dreams for the first time and try to check off a couple of other bucket list items while we were there.
We arrived in Hawaii and made plans to see the sights, including Kilauea, which is mostly located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Inside the park, there is evidence of volcanic activity everywhere with steam rising from the ground in many places along the rim and a large amount coming out the Halemaumau Crater, the main and largest crater in the park. However, there were no rivers of lava anywhere that we could see from inside of the park so we waited until it got dark to look at the crater at night and could see the orange reflection of lava in the clouds of steam. This was still pretty cool but not the rivers and fountains of lava I dreamed about as a kid, and it certainly wasn’t seeing lava directly with my own eyes. Reflections don’t count!
We decided to come back to the park later in the trip and hike into the crater of Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea). The hike is a four mile loop hike that starts in a rainforest at the rim of the crater, descending onto the barren crater floor. The hike starts at the Volcano House in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with a restaurant and gift shop on the rim. As you step out of the Volcano House and into the rainforest, you’ll be in perhaps the closest example of a ‘perfect’ rainforest you can imagine, almost like what you think of when you imagine what the Amazon rainforest would look like. The greens are greener, the foliage is denser, and all of this is as you descend into a volcanic crater where the terrain couldn’t be more different.
The crater floor is paved with thick black hardened lava that resembles a highway that has suffered massive earthquake trauma, minus the painted lanes and auto traffic. As you walk along the valley floor, steam shoots out of small cracks in the rocks and is a subtle reminder that you are very close to the core of an active volcano. Kilauea Iki however, is not the place for active flows, it’s just a great place to hike in a crater that once had a massive fountain of lava pouring from it way back in 1959. As an added bonus, there is an excellent lava tube, the Thurston Lava tube, just a short distance from the main trail. It’s well worth the extra half a mile or so that gets added onto the total hike and it is one of the most visited sites inside of Volcanoes National Park and all of the Big Island. This hike had evidence or lava everywhere, it just didn’t have the hot flowing kind. So we left Hawaii this time without seeing lava but otherwise the Big Island was, and is, an amazing place to spend a couple of weeks. We would return two years later to a very different volcano.
This time the volcano was going nuts. You’ve all heard how devastating the Kilauea Volcano has been from news outlets this year with so many people losing their homes to the lava flow. I have so desperately wanted to see this rare phenomenon but not in this way, while people are losing their homes. So I was conflicted but ultimately felt like I was not disrespecting anyone by simply wanting to witness it myself.
We set out from Kona one day for the long drive out to the Puna district in search of lava with hopes of seeing it in an area where homes weren’t being immediately threatened. We made our way to Pahoa where the first signs of the volcano could be seen. The first hint that anything at all was happening was the discolored smoke that was rising from the area just south of town and it was in the town where there was a command center set up for coordinating rescue efforts. This was truly the first time I felt like trying to see the lava was something more than just a cool thing to see, it was truly an active situation affecting the lives of people in a real community.
The roads leading in and out of the active lava flow area were either closed or only open to local traffic and were guarded by local police along with the Hawaii National Guard. We drove to a couple of these roads and were turned around by the blockaded intersections. I was beginning to get discouraged but found one back road on a map that looked promising and might yet yield an opportunity to see the lava flow from close up. It was a very small road that followed the shore line and it showed that it would eventually lead an area that would get us very close to the flow. As we rounded the last turn in the road before getting to this spot, there was another blockade with the National Guard controlling access to the area. This was a devastating blow to my hopes but the soldier pointed us down the highway back towards Pahoa, and according to my maps, would lead us right past the open fissures. As we drove along this road, there was a slight ridge between us and the lava flows and it was just enough to prevent a sighting. That was it! No lava for me! Only I could manage to not get to see lava when a volcano is in full eruption mode. Perhaps it was all for a reason that I didn’t get to see lava that day.
So after a lifelong desire to finally witness this incredible natural event, it was, admittedly not exactly under the circumstances I had hoped for. I feel fortunate to have seen the incredible power and beauty of Kilauea and I hope the families that have been displaced can rebuild their homes and their lives. I did achieve a bucket list goal and it was incredible. Now I have added a more specific bucket list goal: to see lava while standing on the ground, close enough to feel the heat. Maybe to a place where the flows are not threatening homes or lives? Maybe a trip to Vanuatu?