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Lava Ocean Entrance

December 2 1997

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Lava Day Hike

I still can't believe I pulled that stunt yesterday and exhausted myself so completely. That doesn't stop me though to try to approach the lava entry into the sea from the East today. I have breakfast on the deck and head out direction of the volcanoes. I don't stop anywhere before I reach the Kalapana end of the road.

Lava streams from Kupaianaha destroyed the village of Kalapana and its famous black beach. The number of books written about this event gives evidence how many people were affected, and how profoundly their lives were changed. Later the eruption moved West to P'u O'o and it is still going strong - for 16 straight years now!

Kalapana Road End

End of Kalapana Road End of Kalapana Road

To get on the described tour take the road to Kalapana which forks off towards the coast (south) from the road which connects Hilo and Volcano Village.

Follow the road until it ends, which it does in quite a spectacular way - it is covered by a lava stream. An unfriendly sign greets the visitor, insinuating you are about to enter some sort of restricted area.

Sign (Detail) Sign (Detail)

Though the road has been built with private funds it leads over public land. Offcially nobody can shoe you away. This means you can use the road, but be forewarned some people might not like it.

This information I got from the book "Hawai'i - The Big Island Revealed". It's the best travel guide about Big Island money can buy, so get it :-) They've got a web site ( as well where you get the latest updates and news.

The sign probably dates from the time when the destruction of Kalapana by lava was still going on and the authorities tried to keep potential looters away.

Pandanus Tree Pandanus Tree

Following the gravely path comfortable patches of the old Chain of Craters show up from time to time. Along the road all kinds of vegetation can be seen, amongst that the Pandanus tree on the photo.

Pandanus leaves are used all over the Pacific islands to weave mats to cover walls and roofs of huts. Close to this tree I saw the biggest centipede that ever crossed my path: it was at least 15cm long. Since I heard they might bite I kept a good distance.

Lava Fields

Lava Field and Pulama Pali Lava Field and Pulama Pali

After 1.5h of walking all vegetation ends, and the lava fields begin. To the right you see Pulama Pali (cliff) on which the lava from Pu'u O'o travels down in a lava tube.

The lava is new enough to still have a glassy coating. It does not only look glassy, but it actually is volcanic glass, and cuts just like any other glass or worse.

This is why gloves are a recommended addition to your equipment when hiking over rough lava fields. In case you stumble and get some hands-on experience with the ground, it's better to cut the gloves than the hand...

Sign in Lava Field Sign in Lava Field

As you proceed you might encounter evidence this place was once the location of a town. This sign has outlived its purpose; there is nothing left to loot and plunder. It shows as well how thick the lava stream is in this area: about 1.50m (that's 5 feet) or so.

A sign here, a car wreck there, some bent iron bars: This once was inhabited land, but the lava has covered each and everything in unnerving slowlyness. People fought the advancing lava by spraying it with water to cool it of and make it congeal, but the inorexable supply overwhelmed any resistance.

Pahoehoe Lava Pahoehoe Lava

Continue to the very end to the road and then aim for a spot a couple of hundred meters away (inland and - in respect to the coast line - before) the steam plume.

The Pahoehoe lava you're walking on forms amazing patterns and forms. It's tempting to take lots of photos (and I did), but I'm refraining from showing you all 32 on this page. :-)

Pele's Hair Pele's Hair

During an eruption (and where steam explosions throw up lava just like here at the ocean entry) the wind might catch thin lava threads and carry them away.

These collect in cracks and crevices and looks like black-golden hair - hence the name "Pele's Hair". Just for your information: Pele is the Hawai'ian goddess of volcanoes.

The small lava drops you might find are known as "Pele's Tears".

Ocean Entry

Sign at Lava Entry Sign at Lava Entry

As you are coming closer to the steam plume a sign is warning you of the dangers of the area.

I recommend you read it and decide whether you want to accept the risk or not.

From the sign close to the lava ocean entry:


Avoid fumes

Lava entering the ocean creates a toxic cloud that contains hydrochloric acid, superheated steam, and volcanic glas. These substances will irritate your eyes, skin, and lungs. Leave area at once if acid mist clouds are present.

Do not approach areas where lava enters the ocean

New lava may appear solid, but often extends into the ocean without a stable base. It may collapse at any time without warning! Steam explosions hurl hot lava rocks inland. Stay away - don't risk your life!

Beware of getting trapped by lava

Never enter areas where molten lava may cut off your escape route. Keep a safe distance from fresh lava, which is about 2000 degrees F. Be aware, stay alert, and use caution at all times.

Steam Plume Steam Plume

Having read this we either spend some time watching the steam plume and head back or approach the steam plume with even more respect than before.

Make sure you approach the plume with the wind in the back. You definitely do not want to be caught in this toxic steam.

Apart from that it smells bad even from a distance as far as Napau Crater Hike it has the potential to kill you; no kidding.

As 1200C hot lava makes contact with cold sea water the water flashes into billowing steam. Because the molten rock is so very hot the salt in the water takes part in the production of chloric acid gas.

Explosion Explosion

The lava either flows quietly in underwater tubes or gets ripped apart and thrown into the air by more or less small steam explosions.

Be aware these explosions can be strong enough to haul big rocks and bits of molten lava dozens of meters inland.

Explosion (Detail) Explosion (Detail)

This detail of the last photo clearly shows bits of molten lava being flung into the air. Pele's Hair, Tears, and plain black ash is produced in the process.

This looks impressive in daylight and incredible in the night (see "Alternative: Night Excursion"), but is difficult to photograph (this is why I got no photos of that).

Tube Explosion and Lava Stream Tube Explosion and Lava Stream

After waiting for 10 minutes (and you do not want to wait on ground with high collapse potential for this long) for the steam to move away and give me some view of actual lava the curtain parted for a second and I managed to take this shot.

Tube Explosion (Detail) Tube Explosion (Detail)

This is a small explosion in the water, a couple of meters away from the shore.

This happens when a portion of water gets sucked into an underwater lava tube. It travels a bit with the lava, turns into steam and produces an explosion, rupturing the tube.

A note: though all the scenery looks quite violent no sound is heard - the action of the waves and the wind are louder than any other sound.

Lava Stream (Detail) Lava Stream (Detail)

And, there on the shore: A thin stream of red hot flowing lava.

The lava tube which comes down Pulama Pali splits into dozens of small tubes on the plains. This means this lava stream is only a small fraction of what flows into the ocean.

Steam Plume from Rear Steam Plume from Rear

When I crossed over to the other plume (it's only one plume in 1999) I was aware I walked over dozens of small lava tubes.

The ground is so hot you can't touch it, and in the night you see cracks glowing red in the deep - an eerie feeling.

I wouldn't have done it without the example of a park ranger doing the same I have to admit.

Steam Plumes and Wrecked Van Steam Plumes and Wrecked Van

After you absorbed the view it's time to leave the unstable area and turn back to the road.

Here another relic of former times sports an advertisement for a lava tour - I don't know them, so I can't recommend them.

Alternative: Night Excursion

Lava Entry in the Night Lava Entry in the Night

An alternative to the day hike is coming in the night. This offers a totally different view of the same area. But what I would actually recommend is coming during the day, staying there at dusk, and hiking back in the dark.

I hiked in in complete darkness (and this was my first time there), and it definitely feels more comfortable to have seen the landscape in bright daylight before you have to stumble through in the night.

Make sure you bring two flashlights, and spare lamp and batteries for both of them. You just do not want to have to walk over rough, craggy, and crevassed lava without seeing where you step.

Photo tips: You'll want 100ASA film for the day and 400ASA film and a tripod (bring it!) for dusk and night. If you have a long lense, bring it.

Because exposure times are long and you don't want to shake the camera while taking the photo, shoot with either a wire thingy (you know, this primitive form of wire based remote control which you screw in your camera's "click" button) or use the self exposure feature (you shoot, the camera waits, you take your hands off, the camera takes the photo).

Regarding my photo: This is what you get when you shoot free handed with a 100ASA film. But always try, it might turn out as well as my image! (I like it).

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