I have watched the piecewise creation of the world; new pieces burn gold-red, creeping into place like honey, lethally hot in the ocean-moist air.

And of course took lots of pictures.

Back Story · I owe this experience to one of the many photographers on Google+, who posted on shooting lava. Since we’d planned a vacation to the Big Island you can bet this caught my attention. I’d visited the island and the volcano a couple of times, but live lava always seemed something that you had to be an extreme-hiking fanatic, and prepared to die in the attempt, to see. Or, rich enough to rent a helicopter. Well, it turns out that there are walking tours from a place you can drive to and park at.

The one that caught my attention was Poke-A-Stick, so called because that’s what they promise; poke it into molten rock, they mean. Lauren and I signed up, hiked across the lava to the lava, and sticks were poked. More on the tour operation later, but first the experience.

The Walk · It’s five or so miles (around 8km) from car-park to lava and back, all tough going, over lava formations that are irregular, sometimes crumbling, often sharp.

Walking across cold lava to hot lava

There isn’t a single minute of the hour it takes to get there that your eyes aren’t being grabbed by one lava formation or another: Twisted, folded, woven, broken, wrapped, interpenetrated.

Cold lava formations
· · ·
Cold lava formations

Both those pictures are full-color not B&W, by the way.

I’d thought the biggest lava flow had been 1992; so I asked our guide whether we were walking on 1992 lava, and he said “no, this is from 2010.” It had little sprigs of fern here and there; and then, a few minutes later, where there were no plants, that was 2011 lava. Sobering.

Ferns growing in 2010 lava flow

There’s another story visible in that picture above, if you enlarge it. Kalapana is the town most completely erased by the volcano. But its people still own their now-lava-covered lots, and a few have put houses back up, some perched on naked rock; look at the top right of the picture. Our guide told us that property taxes are low.

Fear · There wasn’t much, to be honest. The operator seemed competent, the online reviews were good, there were other groups in the distance headed in the same general direction, I was confident I could manage three or four hours of rough ground.

Well, except for once, when it was obvious we were approaching the live lava. Wisps of steam here and there, and I noticed the ground we were walking over was hot, and then the heat was everywhere, coming from below and rocks all around. (But that was an anomaly. Mostly, the rocks underfoot weren’t hot, even right up next to the outflow.)

Live Lava! · We scrambled over a little heap of coiled grey rock and there it was, unsubtly yellow in the afternoon light. And moving.

Live lava!

We spent maybe half an hour there and three times as long wouldn’t have been boring. It was like water finding its random way over irregular ground, only honey-slow not water-fast; then the heat and the colors.

One hump on the right in the picture above piled up just before we got there; look close and you can see a crack across the top. Then with a lurch it pushed open and the hot glow was oozing away left and right.

Live lava outburst

There are these curved-fold formations you see in any lava field, and here’s how they get made: A tongue of lava spreads out, flattens, gets pushed from behind as it cools and stiffens; hey-presto, bent ripples of stone!

Where lava ripples come from

It’s never fast, even when a flow goes over an edge and has air underneath to fall into. So you can do things like stand right in front of an advancing flow for that good camera angle, and not worry too much.

Standing in front of an advancing lava flow

There’s no noise to speak of; a little rustling, no more.

Poking Sticks · I admit to having thought this notion a little gimmicky, maybe disrespectful even. If I believed in any gods at all I might worry about Madam Pele’s feelings. But what can be the harm in it? Your marks are gonna be overrun, whether within ten minutes or in next year’s flow; which should teach useful respect for the evanescence of anyone’s impact on the world, even when inscribed in stone.

Sticks being poked

Man, that stuff is hot. By the time you get close enough to poke, your face is burning, your lungs are stressed, and those of us who are shooting little 35mm Fujifilm primes as opposed to huge 70-200mm CaNikon zooms are wondering about their camera’s temperature tolerances.

When you poke the stick in, usually there’s a little rush of flame. The stick doesn’t instantly vaporize or even ignite. But you can make it burn, you can even hoist a bit of lava on it. One family brought marshmallows for gleeful toasting.

It sets fast; within a minute, a bright-glowing edge that’s soft to the touch has skinned over and trying to poke it is, well, hitting rock with a wooden stick; feels silly.

Steam · As dusk gathered, we hiked from the live lava down to the cliff edge over the shelf where it enters the sea. You can’t actually see molten rock hit water; but the glow in the evening light is stark, and often there are bright fragments rolling back and forth on the beach. And from time to time, something impacts something and bright gouts of lava arc up and away from the entry-point. It was a good place to sit down, get a sandwich out of your backpack, and contemplate.

Lava enters the sea
· · ·
Lava enters the sea

Hiking Back · Really arduous; in deep dark, single-filed behind the guide and his GPS, everyone with a little flashlight to make the next few steps safe. For the best part of two hours. With a crunch-crunch-crunch like walking through a certain class of thick Eastern-timezone snow; recent-lava surface is brittle.

This particular lava is nearly half silicon, which means it sparkles wetly when you light it up at night. So I’m trudging through the huge dark with my little flashlight beam showing me ropy, shattered, twisted, wet-looking black shapes, and I’m thinking “This is totally Ridley Scott.” Which I said out loud but nobody seemed to relate. Mind you, I’d watched Prometheus on the plane down to Hawai’i.

It was tough and after a while my feet were killing me, but the real danger was wandering attention. I found myself thinking about volcanoes and people and islands and how to photograph them and write about them and more than once suddenly realized I’d dropped back, leaving a maybe-dangerous gap in the single file.

Logistics · Normally, when you visit a Hawai’i tourist attraction, the show begins with a glowing introduction about the kozmick wonderfulness of the islands’ birth in fire out of water. But on this trip to actually watch the birthing, it was pretty well just “You all ready? Let’s head out.”

Cheryl Adler, who runs Poke-a-Stick as part of her Lava Refuge operation, isn’t a geologist or a volcanologist, she just happened to own a palm-tree farm that got cut off by the 1989 flow and is a really great jumping-off spot for lava walks.

The land you’re walking across is still privately owned (some by Cheryl) even if it is under a few feet of lava. They trade for some access rights and pay for others. So anyhow, you’ll get a hell of an experience, but you’re not going to get much mysticism. Which is OK by me.

In our party of a dozen or so, half were from Vancouver, a few from Spokane, and there was a young seeing-the-world Norwegian couple.

Should You? · Hell yes! If you’ve got reasonably good legs and no big cardiovascular issues. There was a kid in the party, maybe nine or ten, and while his Dad had to carry both backpacks sometimes, he made it both ways fine. It’s forty years since I’ve been a kid and I did OK too.

Well, to be honest, my feet and ankles were seriously sore the next day; Lauren stumbled and cut her hand on that sharp silicon-rich rock, and got probably-permanent lava stains on nice walking pants.

But how often do you get to watch the creation of the earth?


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Justin Watt (Mar 27 2013, at 20:46)

Lovely. If/when I make it to the big island, I will refer back to this post. For a different sort of volcanic hike, I just posted my photos from a hike down into the crater of Haleakalā on the island of Maui: http://justinsomnia.org/2013/03/into-haleakala/


From: a feed reader (Mar 29 2013, at 04:40)

Very nice writing and pictures, thanks!


From: Jon Allen (Apr 10 2013, at 04:35)

It looks great, i would be keen to try the hike if I ever get to Hawaii.

Just a few days after I saw your post, a link to these guys who go Kayaking around volcanos appeared in my news feed :


that I thought you might find interesting.


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