The Molten Lava Trek (East Lae'apuki)

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Hawaii, United States, North America
Route Type:
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Time Required:
Half a day
Variable lava terrain

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The Molten Lava Trek (East Lae'apuki)
Created On: Mar 14, 2007
Last Edited On: Sep 10, 2007


Special Note (Sept. 10, 2007): The eruption that caused this viewable flow has changed course leaving this flow inactive. But there may be similar viewing areas opening up. In light of this, I may simply change this page from being a route page to being merely a Lava Album for the Kilauea volcano.

Want to put yourself in a happy mood? Then do this hike. Everyone we met was in a good mood. It’s no wonder why.

This is a description for the hike out to the molten lava flowing into the sea at the end of Chain of Craters Road. This lava entry point is called East Lae'apuki (I think). In a way, it is my hope or intention that this route page double as an album for photographs of Kilauea lava--mostly of the molten variety.

Starting in the early 1980s, Pu'u Ō'ō near the northern park boundary began erupting. It is still erupting today (though with less vigor) and there is still fresh lava flowing into the sea. The flow closed the continuance of Chain of Craters Road, which used to connect with Highway 130 to Pāhoa. Lava crept over the road and into the sea where its final plunge resulted in plumes of steam rising from the surf. Plumes still rise today, though not as large as the “good ol’ days.”

Effluent from Pu'u Ō'ō travels about eight miles to reach the sea, going over the low-angle escarpment of Pulama Pali then the coastal plain in the process. Sometimes, but not all the time, lava is visible coming down the pali. The Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole (PKK) tube is the main channel. Its source is Pu'u Ō'ō’s southwest flank. At about one mile from Pu'u Ō'ō the channel splits into two with the western one flowing down to East Lae'apuki (the area of concern here) and the eastern one (the Campout Branch) further splitting and flowing to the Kamokuna and East Ka'ili'ili ocean entries. The latter of these is not currently active. See this map for clarification.

This has got to be one of the easiest opportunities to view lava up close and personal. You could even step on it if you dared or were not paying attention, but no one in their right mind would want to. A burnt boot is one thing. A trapped leg in solidifying superheated ooze is another. The only kind of lava you will see here is pahoehoe (the smooth stuff).

Excellent information concerning this hike can be found here. It is required reading.
Plus, this page provides detailed information of the source and longterm forecast for the flows in the area.
Also, this wiki page is good (there’s a good diagram on it).

The Hike

In terms of the terrain itself the hike is only of moderate difficulty. It is roughly 3 miles in length to the viewing area with the first half-mile being on the closed portion of Chain of Craters Road (they moved the ranger station back half-a-mile in 2003). There is or will be an extra quarter to half-a-mile of walking to get to your car if you happen to get there when everybody else does.

When does everybody else get there? They get there near dusk for the best time to view the lava is during gloaming and into the night. During the day the lava is still there and still flowing but the brightness of the sun makes it more or less indistinguishable from already solidified lava save for the odd bright burst-out flow or the odd wisp of smoke (steam?). Speaking of steam, I have to wonder what viewing this lava would be like when it’s raining.

Because the hike back (or even out) and hike around the lava occurs at night there is the added difficulty of not fully seeing where you are going or have to go to get around safely. Flashlights and/or headlamps ARE REQUIRED. Don’t even think about trying to navigate this ugly pahoehoe landscape without one. There are too many bumps, rises (tumuli), small drop offs, ankle-eater cracks, maneater cracks, and loose clinkery debris, not to mention the sea cliff. Beware also of possible choking fumes. Oh yeah, and DON’T FALL on this stuff. It’ll scrape off your skin quicker than a razorblade shaves a wart. And it would probably hurt anyway.

Fortunately, the Park Service has made things easier for you. For the first few hundred yards to the first orange beacon atop an A-frame construction barrier they have glued two-inch-high reflectors on the ground. These reflectors are like the ones you sometimes see on highway centerlines. After the first beacon the reflectors end and you must transit the vast pahoehoe field from beacon to beacon. There are six more. At the fifth one (the sixth one if you count the A-frame one) you will need to turn slightly right as if to head to the ocean. After the last beacon you will come to a white rope stretched among white A-frame barriers. This is the limit of your seaward travels. Simply follow the rope leftward to the (present) position of the lava.

At about halfway (at one of the beacons standing atop a rock outcrop), a view of the lava flowing in the ocean can be had. The northern steam plume is over the rocky horizon and too far away to see its base or get to from the Chain of Craters side. That plume must be viewed from the end of Highway 130 from Pāhoa. The black sand beach of Kalapana used to be there. I was told it is only a 2-mile hike to the plume. I won’t vouch for the safety of your belongings in your car. Car prowls may or may not be common. The Pāhoa area (called the Puna area) is said to be the “lawless” part of the island (quoting Andrew Doughty’s book “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed”, page 112 of 4th Edition). There’s a great map of that approach on page 113.

Distance to lava = 0.5 miles of road + 2.5 miles of lava = 3 miles (+ the distance from where you parked to the end of the road)
Time to lava = 70-100 minutes depending on fitness level and how far from the end of the road you have to park. Basically, the primo time to get to the lava is about fifteen minutes before dusk. You can speed-hike/jog a lot of this terrain by daylight if you have to be in a hurry. But don’t go running to mommy if you twist an ankle or run too far right into some liquid rock.

Lava Photography Tips

As the sun goes down you will be tempted to use your camera’s flash. Don’t (or only do so if taking pictures of your friends). But if you don’t use your flash then you can’t hold the camera in your hand. The shutter speed is too slow in the low light. The best thing to do is use your timer (or a remote trigger) with your camera either propped up on a tripod or on a bump of rock. For the latter, I found that resting the camera on a backpack worked quite well. If you have a long-legged tripod, that might be best.

Essential Gear

Take at least a quart of water for each person and probably even more—especially if it’s hot outside or you intend to be walking in the day more. Also, some snacks will be a good idea.
Take a headlamp and/or flashlight. You will either want to have a back-up light or spare batteries. If you will be traveling alone (doable but not necessarily recommended) I suggest you bring a spare light as putting in spare batteries in total darkness without dropping said batteries can be a daunting activity (trust me, I know).
Take good shoes. Though not as notorious a shoe-eater as a’a, pahoehoe is no walk on the linoleum either. Sandals are a big no-no. Sneakers should be okay.
Take trekking poles. You may see a lot of folks without them out on the lava but, trust me again, they make the walking balance much easier (not to mention safer). These poles can also be used to poke at rock to see if it’s still molten (in case the telltale heat coming from the rocks isn’t enough). Heck, you could even poke at obvious orange lava, but you might lose the tip of your pole. Certainly you don’t want to get it stuck. That would suck.
Take a camera. You’ll want to take your photos back home with you to wow your friends and co-workers. See above for lava photographing tips.
Take a tripod if you have one. Blurry night time shots don’t say “Excuse me, I was drunk” they say “Excuse me, I was dumb.”
Take your time. For many of you this will be a once in a lifetime experience. It’s not going to get any darker if you wait around an extra hour. Just when you think you’ve seen all the molten lava you want to see, a new little flow bursts from an orange blob to spirit your happy disposition and renew your interest. It’s pretty cool, I mean HOT.

The Molten Lava Trek (East Lae'apuki)

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