Let’s Get Up Close and Personal with a Volcano …. Shall We?

by Jay Hood on August 14, 2013



Hawaii. The very word conjures up a myriad of tropical images from sandy beaches to fruity drinks with umbrellas to hula dancers at sunset to scorching lava. Step off the plane in Honolulu and before the day is out, you can probably run through most of your tropical paradise checklist.

But lava, that takes a bit more effort. Madame Pele moved off of Oahu tens of thousands of years ago and has taken up her current residence about 200 miles south on the Big Island.

From Volcanoes National Park on the south shore of the island you have a fine view of steam hitting the water. For the more adventurous, you can hike out and get a bit closer to the lava. But the source of all that lava typically remains a mystery. The current eruption, which started in 1983, is flowing from a vent known as Pu’u O’o, and is incredibly inaccessible. Unless you take a helicopter tour, you aren’t going to get close. However, there is one way. The long arduous hike along the Ka-hau-a-Le’a Trail will get you right up close and personal with the Pu’u O’o vent.

Let’s take a hike … shall we?

The trailhead is at the end of a very rocky unpaved road. Unlike most of the island, this doesn’t seem like a place tourists are welcome.

The hike starts with a simple warning about staying on the trail. Stay on trail? Sure, I can do that.


Like most trails in the mountainous areas of Hawaii, this one is wet and muddy. Footing is treacherous as a barely maintained path leads through tropical forest.


About a mile in comes an ominous sign. I will definitely be staying on the trail if that is the helipad.


The trail winds through the forest and you need to scramble over, and in some cases, under trees.


As you progress further along the trail, old lava flows start appearing. The mud gives way in places to hardened lava rock. Signs that has originally said “please” at the trailhead have been replaced by “danger” signs.


Four miles into the hike and the heat and humidity of the forest begin getting oppressive but that is offset by the fact you know you are getting close.


Ferns line the last portion of the trail.


And they feel the need to give you one more warning before you reach your final destination.


The trail eventually opens up into a clearing and you turn a corner and are greeted by the cinder cones of Pu’u O’o.


Once past the tree line, a scene of incredible devastation is laid out before you.


Heeding the warning signs actually seems pretty wise. The sound of steam hissing from the vent is in the air. The ground is very unstable gives way underfoot every few steps. Above, red hot rock can be spotted within the cones.


We explore the fringes of the area but decide to stay clear of the cone and don’t venture too far away from the forest. Despite the ongoing flow of lava life is still managing to cling on.


As helicopters start to circle overhead, we’re thankful we took the hard journey and got an up close and personal look at Madame Pele in action.


Update: Since hiking this trail, the eruption from Pu’u O’o has taken a change of direction. New lava flows have erupted directly next to the forest. However, it sounds like you can start hiking this again soon.

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Jay Hood (Section Chief Shea Garage/Contributing Editor)

Jay Hood has lived in Baltimore, Maryland for the past 25 years.  He likes to travel and is an avid photographer.  His photography has been featured in several obscure and unassuming locations, such as John Ball Zoological Gardens.  He does not eat vegetables and is learning to enjoy seafood.  He strives to keep his DVR no more than 40% full.  Comfort is paramount and he is not above a little slacking.

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