Pele is a fickle beast: You can never be sure what kind of show you’re going to get. No, we’re not talking about Pele the Brazilian soccer magician, he of the beautiful game. We’re talking about Pele-honua-mea, “Pele of the sacred land,” the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes—a whole other level of beautiful game.
Hawaii Island consists of five volcanoes: one extinct, one dormant, and three active. Of the active ones, Kīlauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. Right now it’s active at two locations—the Halema‘uma‘u Crater in the summit caldera, and the Puʻu ʻŌʻō volcanic cone in the eastern rift zone—and you can actually see lava from both.
Bear in mind that the nature of the eruptions and lava activity can change daily. Not only are there no guarantees you will see anything, but viewing lava is intrinsically hazardous, especially where it enters the water with explosive force. The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has daily updates on both activity and safety and they are mandatory reading before going to see the hot stuff.
That said, here’s how you can view lava on Hawaii Island:
From the Jaggar Museum Observation Deck
The Jaggar Museum in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park provides an excellent introduction to volcanoes in general, and its observation deck is the most convenient and cheapest way to see lava right now. The view point is on the edge of the huge caldera at Kīlauea’s summit, and about a mile away you can see the active Halema‘uma‘u Crater. The crater is effectively a lake full of lava, fed by a vent. You can’t normally see the lava because its level is too low, but sometimes—like now!—it rises enough to be visible, and at night you can see plumes of molten rock fountain upward like a dancing fire of the deepest red. You can hear it, too: a constant rumble punctuated by the occasional pyrotechnic crack. It’s mesmerizing.
From the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area
Just east of the national park (although over an hour’s drive, because you have to go northeast then south) is Kalapana. This traditional Hawaiian fishing village was destroyed by the series of eruptions from Kīlauea’s eastern rift zone that began in 1983, with lava flows fully engulfing the area—and creating new coastline—by 1990.
The Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent is still erupting, with the lava currently flowing into the ocean nearby. To view the ocean entry, drive to the end of Highway 130. From the parking lot, it’s another four miles along a bumpy gravel road that’s closed to vehicles other than emergency services and the few locals who rebuilt housing in the area. Most visitors rent bikes from the parking lot, though you can make the eight-mile round-trip journey on foot. It’s a surreal and sobering experience to traverse this blasted landscape of black and jagged rock, bounded to one side by the slate gray ocean and with thick plumes of gas rising into the sky in the distance.
At the viewing area, you have to scramble over the old lava and jostle for a spot to watch as the molten rock hits the water. You’re some 300 yards away and all the steam can obscure the view somewhat—basaltic lava can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—but you are present as ka wahine ʻai honua (“the earth-eating woman”) creates rather than destroys the earth. It’s even more spectacular at night, as the flowing lava glows an incandescent red that pulses brighter and dimmer as the elements collide. The viewing area is open until 9 p.m., so take a flashlight for the journey back if you are staying out anywhere near sunset.
From the sky on a helicopter tour
Take to the sky for an unmatched overview of Hawaii’s volcanic activity. While not cheap—bank on a few hundred dollars or more for under an hour in the air—a helicopter can take you places there’s no way you’d get to see otherwise and give you a much better sense of the full scope and mechanism of the eruptions. On open-door flights, you can even experience the intense heat radiating up from the lava.
From the ocean on a boat tour
If you’d rather hit the sea than the sky, take one of the many boat tours that run throughout the day and provide a ringside seat at the lava ocean entry at Kalapana. It can be a rough journey to get there, and it’ll cost around $200–$250, but once you arrive you can potentially get within 50 feet (or less) of the lava entering the ocean. The ranger we spoke to at the national park said this was probably the best way to see the eruption, but also the most nerve-wracking, as you’re within spitting distance of the lava splatters, flying rocks, and steam explosions.
On a hiking tour
Numerous companies offer organized tours to view lava up close and personal. Experienced guides monitor what the lava is doing and where it’s going on a day-to-day basis and take you out to wherever you’ll have the best experience. You may not even see the ocean entry, but hike inland to where it’s safe to observe actively flowing lava from close up—potentially just a few feet. Most tours start mid-afternoon and last until after dark, and require you to be in reasonable condition for a moderate hike. Expect to pay around $150–$200 per person.