On the east side of the Big Island, bordering Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is Holei Pali, a barren wasteland overlooking the Pacific Ocean that attracts thousands of travelers every year. They come to witness the slow advance of the red-hot rivers of lava that have been pouring down from Kilauea Volcano since the early 1980s. It’s the only place in the country where you can walk right up to real, flowing lava.
It’s a wild, wild spectacle for even the most experienced of travelers—but no one knows this better than Jeff Judd. Since the age of 17, Judd has worked in the lava fields under various roles: first for the National Park Service, then in a decades-long post with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and now as a semi-retired tour guide. In 1970, after witnessing countless eruptions, Judd narrowly escaped death when he fell knee-deep into a river of lava. Fully recovered, he now works with the tour company EpicLava, whose striking, up-close videos of lava have attracted social media followers from around the globe, to show tourists how (and where) to have safe lava experiences. Here are a few of his hottest tips for safely navigating the blistering streams.
Hire a guide
Believe it or not, it’s perfectly legal to walk into an active lava field unattended—but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Judd recommends always going out with an experienced guide who can ensure you have the right supplies and who knows the proper procedures for experiencing the lava.
Wear thick-soled shoes
Wearing sturdy, thick-soled shoes is imperative on two counts: For starters, these rocks get hot. Very hot. Lava typically pours out of the ground at a temperature of around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. While you won’t be walking directly on the lava, the surrounding area heats up fast—so hiking in, say, sandals is ill advised. Another reason is that the cooled lava rock contains raw silica, which is like stepping on shards of broken glass.
Bring the right supplies
The checklist for hiking in lava fields includes the following: gloves (in case you trip and use your hands to break the fall), a flashlight (the hike starts before sunrise, so half of the journey is spent in darkness) snacks (all that walking works up an appetite!), sunscreen, and plenty of water. “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” says Judd. “You cannot run out of water out there.” Of course, anyone who signs up for a guided tour—like the one offered by EpicLava—won’t have to worry about any of this; a supply bag is included in the cost of the trek.
Avoid going out in midday
The conditions between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. are particularly unforgiving when you’re in the middle of a sweltering lava field, with no trees or structures to block the sun. The best time to head out, explains Judd, is early morning or evening. The most popular of EpicLava’s offerings is the Sunrise Hike, which convenes at 4 a.m. and lasts around five hours. At this time of day, the neon orange rivers of lava are easy to locate in the dark; and by the time you head back, the sun will only just be rising.
Keep your eye on the ocean
Lava is no joke. Years ago, says Judd, a woman got separated from her tour group. She wandered around helplessly in the dark, unsure of how to safely exit the fields, and was found dead the next morning. “People can get disoriented [out there], and they panic,” says Judd. “If you’re going to be out there, you have to know what you’re doing, where you are, and where the lava flow is.” One easy way to avoid disaster at Holei Pali: Know where the ocean is. “If you get lost, the ocean is your way out because it leads you back to the road. The ocean is opposite from where the lava is.”
Don’t be reckless
Lava is unpredictable. It can change course, appear in different places on different days, and move in irregular patterns. Of course, it does all this in slow motion—but still, you must exercise extreme caution when hiking around active lava flow. On his tours, Judd encourages people to overcome their inherent fear of being around lava, while still staying respectful of its power. “Be cautious of it, be aware of your surroundings. Use common sense. Know your own capabilities and limits,” he advises. “If you lose control and don’t pay attention, [the lava] can be unforgiving.”
Play with it—safely
On the other hand, there are ways to have fun with lava. For example, Judd shows visitors how to safely scoop up molten lava with a pickaxe, which is likely the closest you’ll ever come to holding liquid rock in your bare hands. (The consistency is almost like thick dough.) Have an extra apple in your backpack? Toss it on the molten river. The intense heat of the lava acts as a broiler—causing a pleasant smell of freshly baked apple to waft in the air.
Be prepared for whiteouts
Ever been skiing during a blizzard? Hiking through lava fields in the rain can be a similarly disorienting experience. When heavy rain makes contact with lava-heated rock, it creates huge clouds of steam: The result is near-zero visibility, an effect known as a “whiteout.” The best thing to do if this happens, says Judd, is to remain still until the rain passes and the steam has a chance to dissipate. Weather moves pretty quickly in Hawaii, so you likely won’t be caught for longer than 10 minutes.
Bring your camera
Molten lava oozing down the side of a mountain is quite a sight to behold—especially when you remember that it’s been trapped under the Earth’s crust for over 4 billion years. There’s nothing that rivals the experience of standing next to it. You’re going to be taking lots of pictures. On a typical tour, EpicLava founder John Tarson encourages visitors to get as close to the lava as their bodies can handle—all in the name of a killer Instagram shot. Really, the only limit is how much heat you (or your iPhone) can stand. iPhones have a tendency to overheat, but other cameras may be more hardy—just make sure to keep a tight grip so yours doesn’t meet the same ugly fate as this guy’s GoPro, which kept recording as it was slowly destroyed by lava.