Friday, March 7, 2014

Best Thing to Do and See in Hawaii

For the past three and half years I have been sharing the Hawaiian island experience with visitors. One question I often get is what is my favorite thing to see and do here. It is a hard question to answer. We have world class surfing waves, great scuba diving, an annual migration of playful humpback whales, and some of the best waterfall hikes anywhere in the country. But as a photographer, a scientist, and an adventurer there is one thing that stands out above all the rest.

Glowing Lava Meets the Ocean
Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has been erupting continuously since 1983. It sits on top of the hot spot in the earth's crust that has formed all the Hawaiian islands over the last 70,000,000 years. While the eruption is continuous, the amount of activity can rise and fall. Sometimes the only activity is churning lava inside the crater, creating a glowing smoke trail. But often on the slopes northeast of the crater breakouts happen. Lava will ooze out of underground lava tubes and slowly work its way downhill. With a flashlight and a dose of overconfidence, or an organized tour, you can hike out to see this flowing lava yourself. But this is just a part of the magic.

Every few years the ultimate spectacle happens. The lava flowing out of the tubes, down the hill, will makes its way all the way to the coast, where it flows over cliffs into the ocean waves below. I have been all over the world and have yet to hear about anything that comes close to this event. I suggest hiking out just before sunset. This way you can have sunlight for your hike out and still see the glow of the lava at night. There is no other color quite like it.

While the risk of cave-ins and shifting land exist, the lava itself is very slow moving. You can actually get close enough to poke a stick into the fresh flow, or melt the soles of your shoes if you're not careful. However I don't recommend that for two reason. One is the safety factor. The land below you is also recently cooled lava which can be very porous and always shifting. Huge chunks have broken apart before. But also for cultural respect. Hawaiians have always been very attuned to nature and had many gods that manifested in nature. A lot of the most enduring stories belong to Pele, the goddess of fire and lava. Remember that when you see a lot of college kids putting beer bottles and throwing trash into the lava. The number one rule while traveling in Hawaii is to respect the 'a'ina' (the land).

So when you are planning an adventure trip to Hawaii and you hope to catch this phenomena there are several ways to see it. First off I suggest checking the USGS Hawaii volcano information site ( for the current status of the lava flow. This is where I find out if there is an ocean entry at the moment or not. If the hiking option is allowed it is a must do. It can be a treacherous hike covering many miles. If you want to take the safer, and also more expensive option, there are boats that drive up to the edge of the lava cliffs (very cool if there is an ocean entry), and going on a helicopter flight is always a sure fire way to see some lava. Do note that even the fresh lava will look like black lava rock during the day.

 Also while you are there enjoying this incredible natural phenomena, also remember that it is quite possible you are standing on the homesite of an unlucky resident. Here is a great story of the last home to go, a great struggle between a man and the elements. 

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