A Barren Landscape
When you arrive on the Big Island of Hawaii one thing is immediately obvious – lava is omnipresent and shapes the land in a big way. I know, you may be thinking to yourself, “Of course it does! It’s Hawaii”, but until you drive through miles on miles of black, barren, lava fields for the first time it is hard to imagine how dominant the lava is over the Big Island. Once you get past the incredible scale of lava fields and begin to zoom in on the lava formations themselves, it is even more difficult to determine how the intricate loops, curls, folds, chasms, and bubbles form in the fields. Bubbles within bubbles, curls over swells, loops and swoops, nothing it seems is impossible for lava. I was grateful to visit the lava leads of Volcanoes National Park which put some of questions to bed.
Hiking the Lava Fields
There is no official trail to the lava leads (open flows of lava), so you are “bush whacking” (an ill fitting term considering there are few bushes in the newly scorched earth) across the lava fields. When I took my first step onto the blackened earth it gave a satisfying crunch – like several thousand tiny glass panes had broken simultaneously. This isn’t far from the truth as I learned that the surface of the lava cools in a glass-like structure. With each crunching step we plodded closer to our goal – smoke rising from a hillside. About two miles in we caught sight of a bright orange flash on the hillside. Even in the daylight it was so bright that it seemed a person in a blaze-orange jacket was propped in the rocks. It was my first look at lava, and I couldn’t wait to get closer! 30 minutes later we were standing only 20 feet away from the open leads of lava to observe their beauty and feel their heat first hand. Check out the video below for a taste of the hike in and the beauty of lava.
On the Nature of Lava and Its Formations
Standing and watching the lava leads swell, break their crust, cool, and repeat helped answer a lot of the questions I had. For instance –
- How fast does lava flow? The answer all depends on the slope of the hill. Further up from us the lava flowed like a small river – much faster than a person could run. Near us, in the toe of the slope it ran much slower.
- The lava fields were incomprehensibly large, so how fast do they form? Much, much quicker than I expected. Open lava leads could form meters of new, scorched ground in just a few minutes. It became evident how quickly the lava leads could create new land or in many cases in Hawaii, new islands.
- How does the lava form the different shapes? There are so many complexities to this. I believe it has to do with the temperature of the lava (1300 – 2200 F), the crack it was bursting through, the wind, the air temp, the slope, the rate of flow, and so much more. I did get to watch as the lava formed bubbled as well as more unique shapes such loops and curls like overlapping layers of chocolate from a fountain.
An open lava lead flows just a few feet away from me.
Darkness Falls Over the Lava Field
Our plan was to stay late into the night and photograph the Milky Way over the lava leads. The night was warm, but even if it had not been it is easy to stay warm in a lava field – if you pick the right rock it is like laying on warm concrete thanks to the percolating lava below. We curled up for naps on our geologically heated sleeping spots and then enjoyed the brilliance of the open lava in the dark night. At 10PM the clouds rolled in thick and light rain started. The rain in particular can create hazardous conditions when it comes in contact with open lava by generating nauseous gas, so we decided to call it a night and made the trek home. Overall the experience was my fondest of in Hawaii and is in the 10 of all-time life experiences!
Planning a Trip?
The lava conditions in Volcanoes National Park change constantly, and you will want to check on current conditions on the National Park Service website before heading out. Our hike to the open leads of lava ended up being 10 miles round trip, but if you are fortunate the lava will be much closer to the road if you go for a trip. Bring good shoes, lots of water, food, and a camera!