After hiking many National Parks and doing off the beaten path trips (some bordering on simply worrisome), the most important tip I can give is to trust the park rangers. But in addition, below that are a few more thoughts.
These guys live to help. Don’t think police officer, think EMT or firefighter. Sure they enforce the rules but by and far they want what you want: To be safe & have an amazing time!
I find the rangers at Hawai’i Volcanoes NP to be great help. They hike to the lava nearly daily and will have the best possible information. Ask them questions. I talked with the guys at the back-country office and they were the most helpful. (But you’ll have to wait for them.) The may advise against your trip due to conditions, but unless conditions are likely to kill you they will not stop your trek. So talk to them.
Please be wise. Search & Rescue won’t look for you if they don’t know you’re there. Anytime you hike be smart and take the time to leave your plans with someone in civilization. I do the following. Provide them with a printed map with approximate travel plans. Then leave two estimated times of return:
- 1st is expected time out. (When I plan to be home / in cellphone coverage)
- 2nd is something is VERY wrong. (If they haven’t heard from me call for help.)
These time help me keep moving as well. I usually build in a significant buffer (5 hours) between them. Haven’t had to use them, but glad I had them. (Liking solo hiking and coming upon a mountain lion.)
Hike:In my opinion the best time for the hike is leaving the parking lot in the early afternoon (3pm at the latest). The sun is past its highest point and daylight makes the walk easy. This will put you at the flow between 5-6pm, near sunset where the colors are really vivid. If you are leaving from the visitor center the drive to the parking is deceptively slow. It will take nearly an hour to get there.
Photo: Again, my opinion the best time for photos is sunset and sunrise. (Heavy cloud cover would work too, but that is rare.) This will result in bright shots of the lava but also some landscape. After dark the lava will really pop and stand in stark contrast to the blackness around it.
Take Your Time
You are in Hawaii after all. Enjoy your time on the lava. Why be in a hurry? Stop, listen, watch and enjoy. You are the first human to see the lava you are watching in the history of the world.
But more seriously, as we have learned, take your time on the hike there and back. We came out bleeding from numerous spots where we had fallen because we were in a hurry. I popped my ankle three times and the last mile I was hobbling in pain just hoping to make it back. This could have easily been avoided if we didn’t try to rush back.
Within reason have fun! It’s lava!! Throw rocks onto the flow. Have rock flow races! Cook S’mores or hotdogs over the lava. Throw water on it. Leave it up to your imagination to have some fun. I have heard of people bringing long metal poles to make lava sculptures on the end. Just be smart with what you do.
Odd Fact – Hiking On Top of Flowing Lava – If the plan goes south and you happen to be surrounded by flowing lava worry but don’t panic. Only in EXTREME dire circumstances, when nothing else is possible, you can quickly walk across the lava. If you can find a spot that has cooled for a few minutes it is best. You’ll have about 100′ before your shoes melt fully off.