Visitors flocking to new Big Island lava flow

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Visitors view new lava flow from the end of Chain of Craters Road within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Visitors view new lava flow from the end of Chain of Craters Road within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Photo Credit: NPS volunteer Eric Fandrick
Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

A new Kilauea lava flow is drawing all sorts of attention to the southeastern corner of the Big Island of Hawaii, where visitors are hoping for a good look at some molten red rock.



Traveling southeast from Kilauea's active Pu'u O'o vent, the flow has streamed over the Pulama Pali near the southeastern boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and as of Thursday was advancing along the flatter coastal plain while a little less than a mile from the ocean.

Last month, the County of Hawaii Civil Defense opened up a Kalapana Lava Viewing Area at the end of Highway 130, near the eastern edge of the national park, offering both residents and visitors a chance to enjoy a good look at the lava during a 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. viewing period.

"From a distance, you can see the lava all along that viewing area route," said Kanani Aton, a spokeswoman for the County of Hawaii Civil Defense. "And the bright incandescence from the flow itself gets better and better as evening descends."  

Officials have set up a parking area near the end of Highway 130, where the route connects with a gravel emergency access road that leads to the national park. The "viewing area route" Aton described is actually about a three-mile stretch of that access road folks are walking along out toward the lava flow itself to get a closer look.

Aton noted, however, that county officials are discouraging people from leaving the gravel road and hiking through older lava fields to get to the new molten red flow.

"It's very, very dangerous to go out closer to the flow, because first off there are older lava flows covering private property that are very sharp with glass-like qualities," she said. "And there are broken edges and cracks that are ankle-breaking hazards. We've had a lot of injuries reported each day, including bumps, bruises, scrapes and cuts."

People are also getting a look at the new flow from within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where visitors can drive in the main entrance and then down to the end of Chain of Craters Road to access the other end of that same gravel emergency road. Folks still can't drive on the access road within the park, but they are walking out along the gravel route toward the new flow.

The trip is a bit longer than from the Kalapana side, however, as it's about seven miles out to the flow one-way, according to John Broward, the national park's chief ranger.

"We highly discourage unprepared people to hike out there," he explained, noting that there has also been an increase of injuries reported within the park linked to the new flow.

"We responded to calls about turned ankles, lacerations, dehydration and disoriented visitors in the coastal lava plains all weekend," he said. 'It's exceedingly important to plan ahead, have proper footwear and bring plenty of water, or better yet, enjoy the show from the end of the road on either side."

Park officials would prefer folks didn't leave the road and hike through the lava fields, but there's no private property restriction in the park itself, which is open 24 hours. Even so, Broward stressed his preparedness point for folks who are considering making the long journey.

"If people check the websites, do some planning, bring water and extra food and flashlights, things like that, then they should have an enjoyable time hiking out there without any incident," he said, encouraging people to visit the park's main visitor center before any hike. "But if people are in a rush to get out there, because they go to the beach in the morning and want race to the lava flow in the evening, they're setting themselves up for a potentially miserable evening."

Broward suggested travelers might also want to consider planning a whole day if they're keen to try and see the new lava flow, and he encouraged people to think seriously about staying overnight in either Hilo or the small community of Volcano near the park's main entrance.

"Another issue we've had in the past, during previous lava flows, is people will come all the way over from Kona to see the lava," he said, discussing what is a several-hour road trip one way. "And they'll race out there to see the lava, and then they'll want to race back to Waikaloa [on the Kona side], and they further their risk of getting into car accidents and those kinds of things."

One option for travelers who are absolutely set on trying to get as close to the new flow as possible is booking a guided hike out to the lava with operators who have access to the private property covered in old lava flows on the Kalapana side.

People can, for example, book a six-hour tour twice daily, starting at either 5 a.m. or 3:30 p.m., with Kalapana Cultural Tours (www.kalapanaculturaltours.com) for $150 a person that will take clients over the difficult terrain and out to the new flow.

"We're a family-owned and -operated business, and pretty much everyone that works with us is from the Kalapana area  their families have been here for generations," said Kira Altman, a company spokeswoman.

"With our tour you also get a lot of history about the place, what it was like before the lava came, and what was underneath all the lava," she added. "But right now, we really don't suggest the tour for people with knee injuries, bad hips or foot injuries or recent surgeries."

Still, for those in good physical shape, it sounds like it's tough to get much closer to molten lava safely.

"We take you within a foot to 5 feet of the lava, depending on the conditions and how things are on that particular day," said Altman, who added that "it's been really busy down here."  

For more details about proper hiking preparedness in the national park and the lava conditions on the Big Island of Hawaii, click here.
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