When most people think of Hawaii they think of sandy beaches, tropical forests, and sunny skies. However, if you have ever made it to Volcano National Park on Hawaii’s Big Island, you know that there is a much harsher side to this chain of islands. There are many trails within the park where you can view magnificent scenes of inactive volcano craters, along with Hawaii’s currently active volcano Kilauea. If you venture to the bottom of Chain of Craters Rd though, there is a trail head where you can walk down a short way and see where old lava flows have covered the rd. Most people will get to this point, take a few pictures, and then head back. However, if you keep going the hardened lava flows go on for miles and miles, and if you are physically fit you can hike roughly 8 miles to where you can stand 5 feet (I wouldn’t get any closer!) from lava flowing into the ocean. The hike is far from easy though. My girlfriend and I hiked out with much more gear than the average person would go with because we were planning on capturing time lapses and taking stills. The combined weight of our packs was over 100 lbs.
We started off our hike at around 3:00pm because we estimated it would take us about 4-5 hours to get to where the lava was and wanted to get there just after sundown so that we could see the lava glowing. The thing to keep in mind is that this is not a conventional trail. The path is marked by reflectors for the first mile or so which during the day doesn’t seem so important, but at night they will become a life saver. As you hike, you will get to a certain point where the reflectors stop, and your new point of reference to stay on course becomes beacons that sit roughly 3/4 of a mile apart. If my memory is correct there are about 8 of them before they stop. Mentally, those beacons helped out a lot. I used each one as a goal to get to and broke up the hike to make it more manageable.
Depending on where the lava flow is, will determine how far you actually have to hike.
It’s a good idea to look this up prior to your hike from the parks website to give you an idea of how far you actually have to hike. When we arrived at the 8th beacon, there were no more in site. By this time it had become dark and the beacons flash at night. All we could see in the distance were small red lights that we thought to be head lamps from other hikers. Once night falls, it becomes much more difficult to navigate the lava field. As we ventured closer you could feel breezes of intense heat, and the small lights we saw in the distance grew bigger and became apparent that it was the lava flow. After another couple miles from the last beacon we had finally reached the lava flow. You could smell the sulfur in the air, and the bottom of your shoes warming from the hot rock below your feet. The site was amazing, and was completely worth the long grueling hike. As the lava surfaced, the red glow shined onto the rocks.
You could see the light from the stream hitting the ocean, and the occasional burst from hot lava rock falling into the water. There was a certain uneasiness about knowing that the earth was moving below you. As we set up our cameras to capture the lava flow, you could here the crackling of the rock similar to what you hear with wood in a camp fire. We snapped a few photos, but then noticed that more and more lava started to surface. I had set up a time lapse shot, but couldn’t stay long enough to finish it. The sulfur gas started to get stronger, and made it very difficult to breathe. We were happy that we made it that far and were able to get some really cool photos, but knew staying any longer wasn’t worth risking our lives. There is only so much comfort you can have sitting next to a river of lava, so we packed our gear up and headed back
Without having the lava flume ahead of us, it was much more difficult to navigate the way back. We realized the importance of our headlamps and a compass because without these it would have been impossible to make it back before day break. We couldn’t see the beacons that we followed on the way there, but knew that if we kept the 100ft cliff to the ocean on our left and Kilauea on our right we are at least going in the right direction. We took a few breaks to rest including a half our nap to regain strength. We even sat down once and noticed a crack in the rock next to us smoking. If that doesn’t get you moving, I don’t know what does. After hours of hiking in the pitch black, we finally saw a beacon. Turned out it was beacon # 4! We passed 4 flashing beacons in the dark without even noticing them. That goes to show you how easy it is to get lost out there. If one rock blocks your view of that beacon you have another 3/4 of a mile to try and find the next one. We finally made it back to the trail head around 3:00am.
If you are going to make this trip, there are a few things you should take into consideration:
- Wear boots, pants, and a long sleeve shirt. The lava rock is sharp, brittle, and can break away with the slightest change of weight. Make sure your boots are broken in, so you do not get blisters while hiking.
- Bring plenty of water, at least a gallon per person if you plan to make it all the way to the lava flow. Also, make sure to bring something to snack on to give you energy as you go. Those little carb chewy things from gatorade are great. You’ll need a lot of energy!
- Multiple flashlights and batteries for headlamps if you plan on hiking at night. Your headlamp will become your best friend. Without being able to see where you step, you will most likely end up hurting yourself.
- A compass! If you hike past the last beacon (Which I believe means you are outside the park boundary) , a compass will help you from getting turned around especially on the way back.
- If I do it again I will definitely have a gps device with me where I can drop points to make my path more accurate.
For photo gear, I had the following with me:
Canon 60D, Phillip Bloom Pocket Dolly w/motion control equipment, Tokina 11-16mm lens, Sigma 2.8 70-200, and a Tamron 2.8 28-75mm.
This was a difficult hike, but was definitely worth it. I plan to do it again and get some time lapses, but will be better prepared for the sulfur gas. If you have a questions, comments, suggestions please don’t hesitate to let me know.