Usually, when speaking of geological phenomena, one speaks of time in “aeons” or references events as “prehistoric.” But on the Big Island of Hawai’i, the vocabulary is a little different.
Lava—or Pele, as it is commonly referred, after the volcano goddess of the Hawaiian religious tradition—is a fact of life that actively and regularly reshapes the land. It’s not uncommon to drive down a highway and find that lava has flowed over the road and rendering it inoperable, or to hear someone mention that a house or property was “taken by Pele.” On a hazy day, locals will complain of the vog (volcanic smog) and seasoned fisherman will tell you that the best place to catch fresh ahi is in the waters warmed by the lava pouring into the ocean.
It’s no small wonder that Hawaiians and visitors alike continue to give offerings to the unpredictable volcano goddess. She exists as an unparalleled geological spectacle and an active reminder of the power of nature over man. Spiritually minded travelers who trek out to see the lava flows will often bring Pele wishes wrapped in ti-tree leaves (the same leaves that are used to make leis) or small gifts to leave at the site.
It’s hard to describe the experience of being in the presence of an active lava flow. But to witness Pele in action, you have to do a little detective work, seeing as no one can ever quite predict where the flows of magma will crop up. The more scientifically-minded could do some research into fault lines and plate tectonics, but for the average traveler, the simplest way to do some lava-hunting is to simply ask around. People in the area tend to know.
Lava, like many things that glow, is best seen in the dark. Because of this, many people perform their treks in the evening, but this can be challenging—and dangerous—for visitors unfamiliar with the terrain. Go with someone who knows the land, as it’s easy to get lost. Depending on where the lava is flowing, there may be organized hikes (where everyone gets to wear neon orange construction vests), boat rides, or scenic flights. If none of these are an option or you decide to do some do-it-yourself adventuring, just remember: lava may be pretty, but it’s dangerous. Don’t get too close.
Know Before You Go
Check out the visitors information for guided tours, the wonderful video presentation and fun places you can hike on your own.