The truth about lava flows in Hawaii

Flights.com asked me to talk a little about finding lava flows in Hawaii. So I’m here to blow wide open the misconceptions of doing so.

Because if you’re like me and turn to Google for all your answers, you’re likely to wind up thinking that you can literally walk just about anywhere in Hawaii and find yourself five feet away from boiling, smoking, fiery lava creeping across a jungle landscape like slow molasses. You can’t. (Don’t worry though; you can have alternative grand adventures…Hawaii being one of the best surf spots in the world and all.)

I mean all I had to do was search “lava flows in Hawaii” to find pages upon pages of exciting tour offers from guides who will even take you on boat tours to see LAVA FLOWING INTO THE OCEAN.

But there are two important things you should know.

1. Lava flows happen, but like temperamental volcanoes do, they’re irregular and they move around a lot.
2. Unless a lava flow is erupting like right outside town, the chances of getting to one are pretty slim.

So here’s the issue.

I kept asking people I met in Hawaii where I could take a hike on Big Island that would take me to some lava. It’s all I wanted to do in the universe, that’s it. But every time I asked, I’d be met with blank stares and chin scratches. “Gee,” they’d say. “You can’t do that.”

I figured they were wrong. And I was right, sorta.

So I check into Arnott’s Lodge on Big Island and ask the girl at the front desk about a lava flow hike. Turns out there IS ACTUALLY a group that does it, but they sell out quick and it’s expensive and the hike is apparently the most brutal hike that’s ever existed. I checked the TripAdvisor comments. One lady said she cried the whole way.

But otherwise, it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE to do this kind of hike without getting into trouble, and you sure as hell can’t do it on your own. I’m not kidding here, guys. Stupid tourists die all the freaking time.

For one, most of the lava flows carve a route through private reserve properties, meaning if you’re with a guide and you’re accessing these areas, you’re TRESPASSING and it’s illegal. You and your guide may be fined/arrested for trespassing. The amount of illegal guides around Big Island is actually nutty.

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This is as close as it gets.
SECONDLY, and maybe even more importantly, is that a lot of these flows still pose a constant threat to people actually living in Hawaii. So a lot of guides won’t go here out of respect for the locals who are affected by lava.

Finally, it’s dangerous. Flows through forested areas are risky, even to experienced guides, and conditions are unpredictable.

Ahiu Hawaii was offering tours when I was in Big Island, and everyone said it was legal, so I’ll take their word for it. Some guides may have those special connections that’ll let them access private property. But I’m not even entirely convinced, because I called them a dozen times and although their voicemail says they’re open 24/7, I never did receive a call back from them. And the morning that my friend Jen had a trip booked with them, they simply never showed up. They called about two hours later to say they cancelled the trip because of bushfires, but we’re convinced they simply forgot.

So, long story short: do your research beforehand, and MAKE SURE your guide isn’t illegal. It’s detrimental. Even if you’re willing to risk the repercussions, hold back out of respect for the locals.

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You can hop in a helicopter for a tour over Kilauea Crater – a massive pit of lava. Or you can simply go to Volcanoes National Park and see the crater all lit up with a red glow at night. I assure you, it’s still pretty damned awesome.

Photo by US Geographical Survey. Filed under “things I didn’t see.” Two of my cameras were stolen and so I was unable to take photos for most of this trip.

  • April 03 2015
    Lily Lau

    What an spectacular post, Candice! I’d love to have been there too, and of course with a legal guide :) Thanks for allowing us to live these experiences through your blog, girl!

    Lazy Penguins

  • April 12 2015

    Wow so amazing !

  • March 20 2016
    Ivy

    Hi! Would you happen to know which companies are legal? I’m having a hard time figuring out!

  • May 12 2016
    den

    I just did a tour with Ahiu and I’m pretty sure they are mostly legal. It was a killer hike for my wife and I through ankle deep mud and roots and logs in the rainforest but luckily the lava flows are currently going outside of the National Park and supposedly Ahiu actually owns the private land they start on and go through (or at least enough of it to get to the lava legally). They also do hunting tours on their land. They were hard to get a hold of, however, and it turns out the owner has 10 kids and several different businesses. Combine that with the fact that generally everything happens on “Island time” and is very laid back. It took me a month to get a reservation but when the day came it was an adventure I will never forget and will definitely do again when I’m back on the Big Island if the govt hasn’t figured out some way to shut down lava tours for good. I’m sure it’s not the safest thing to do and several local natives feel it’s a violation of sacred sites so I anticipate someday it will be illegal eventually.

    • May 16 2016
      Candice

      Yeah, it’s kind of uncertain territory, it seems. I so wish I could have done a tour! I was so disappointed. I’m sure it was amazing.

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