On January 3, 1983, Hawaii blew up.

Four miles of spewing molten lava split open a remote rainforest on the eastern edge of the state’s Big Island.

For more than 30 years the resulting sore in the earth’s crust has oozed steadily, adding nearly 600 acres of land to the USA’s fourth smallest state. In return, the lava flow has eaten more than 180 houses, a church, and an ancient worship site.

A highway was lost, and now the fiery fingers are creeping steadily toward the town of Pahoa.

Desolation Trail, Volcanoes National Park

Walking the lava-scorched Desolation Trail in Volcanoes National Park.

One of the lava flows sits a mere three miles from the home of Scott Wiggers, our ToursByLocals.com guide to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

“Some mornings I can smell vegetation burning,” Scott says as we bounce in his 4X4 down Hawaii Belt Road. “It’s pretty exciting.”

So goes life on Hawaii’s Big Island, home to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on the planet.

The best place to appreciate the island’s seismic potential is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. You could easily spend a few days exploring the 323,000-acre park. But we’re not in town for long. Scott has offered to take us on a tour of his favorite spots.

He points to a thin white stream rising just ahead of the car. “You see that? That’s coming from the volcano.”

The Heart Of Kilauea

Scott pulls over and we cross a crowded parking lot. The past few days had been rainy and miserable. But today it’s miraculously sunny. From the Kilauea Overlook we can see almost to the sea.

The ground is barren and entirely flat save for a 500-foot deep pit. The Kilauea caldera is the heart of one of the planet’s most dangerous and destructive volcanoes. A stream of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid sputters from the three mile hole.

Kilauea caldera

Sometimes you can see lava in the pit. Today it’s bone dry. That’s fine by me. Even on quieter days, the 2,000-plus degree lava below the surface gives off an orange glow that’s visible after sunset.

Getting Our Sauna On In The Steam Vents

We hop back into the car and head east. Scott pulls into another parking lot. Instead of following the rest of the visitors to a marked lookout point, Scott takes us across the street to a field of wild orchids and guava.

A faint trail leads to a thin strip of white ground-level clouds. As we get closer the air smells curiously of maple syrup.

Hawaii steam vents

The steam is caused by rain water boiling against the volcano. We take turns standing in the hot mist pouring from mineral-crusted gaps in the rock, laughing as the almost-too-hot fog steams our glasses.



Scott stops suddenly and points to a glittering spiderweb at our feet. The thins threads are called Pele’s hair, a volcanic glass named after the Hawaiian goddess of fire claimed to live in Kilauea. From between Scott’s fingers they blow in the wind like real human hair.

pele's hair

Image care of lovebigisland.com

Thurston Lava Tube (AKA Volcano Plumbing)

Back in the car the landscape changes. In less than a mile the road starts to climb and the barren steam-punctured scrub gives way to a thick forest. Light scatters through the leaves of one of the last remaining clusters of Häpu‘u tree ferns.

We park and then descend a series of switchbacks through a dense wall of leaves and limbs. The ground is dotted with thick red bulbs of wild ginger. Crickets and honeycreepers sing in the forest.

The path ends at the mouth of a dripping cave. A cool subterranean breeze washes over us as we step into the plumbing of a 500-year-old eruption.

Normally the tubes are crowded, but today we’re lucky to have the 400-foot underground path mostly to ourselves. The only sound is water dripping from the cave’s ceiling.

Thurston lava tunnel

Destruction and Beauty

Back in the car, Scott gives us bottled water and a promise: “I am going to take you to a real non-tourist spot.”

smooth lava flow

Cars park along the park’s Chain of Craters Road.

Halfway through a desolate stretch of lava fields, he pulls over. “This was a forest,” he says, jumping out of the car. “It took just four minutes for the lava to cover everything we see.”

Lava takes on different consistencies when it dries. This flow is loose and uneven. Our feet slide on the gravel.

lava field

Scott climbs over the uneven lava flow.

We climb a pile of wobbly brownish red slabs to take a closer look at the grey skeleton of a charred tree. Next to it an empty tube marks where the trunk used to stand. During the eruption, the lava wrapped itself around the tree, instantly killing and fossilizing it.

Back on the road, we pull over to walk the abandoned lanes of a highway devoured during one of Kilauea’s eruptions.

lava-covered road

Greg walks along a strip of lava-covered highway.

The park ends at the northeast edge of the Big Island, thousands of miles from the nearest landmass. We follow a path down to a lookout point. The North Pacific crashes at the rocks below.

Stretching into the ocean is the 90-foot Hōlei Sea Arch, a natural bridge carved into the lava by a century of waves. Someday soon the waves will wash it away completely.

Hōlei Sea Arch

The Hōlei Sea Arch stretches into the North Pacific Ocean.

It’s the end of the tour. I ask Scott if it ever gets old: the sea, the lava, the days spent leading travelers through the innards of the earth.

“I have been here more than 150 times and it’s a completely different experience each time,” Scott says. “I love it as much today as I did yesterday. I have the best office in the world.”

We were guests of Tours By Locals. All opinions are our own. No one from the company reviewed the post before publication.

Sign up for the From Way Up High newsletter!

Share this post!