Walking on Lava


In 1959, this quiet little caldera exploded. The shallow quakes preceding the event gave visitors and rangers only a short three hours to prepare for a full scale eruption that launched lava and rock as much as 1,900 feet into the air in plumes of ash and fire. The fountain that flowed continuously reached regular heights of 290 feet, creating a spectacle that brave visitors could watch from across the way.


The Pu’u Pua’i cinder cone was the mouth of the volcano, heaving and spewing into a lava lake over 400 feet deep. When the lake finally covered the top of the main vent, the force of the eruption created massive waves of 2,200-degree lava that lapped against the sides of the molten lake. The weight of the lake was enormous – 86 million tons, or 235 times heavier than the Empire State Building.

Day 116 / 04.26.11

The pressure from above caused the floor of the crater to sink (which it still does by approximately 3/4 of an inch each year), and as the lava cooled and the floor sank, large fissures formed, which today allows piping hot steam to seep from the still-molten depths, and from those depths, new life emerges.


Above, Kat hovers near the mouth of the volcano, the face that once spewed out some of the hottest lava on record.


Through holes bored into the lake’s surface, scientists could tell that the lake remained at least partially molten until the 1990s. Though it is now solid (a plus, considering the very popular day-hike trail that traverses the solid lava flow), the rock that now forms the lake is still extremely hot.


You can find the boreholes on the surface, but be careful: they continue to emit scalding steam as rainwater slips in cracks in the lava and hits hot stone beneath.


Apparently, I’m adverse to following rules, because I stuck my camera right into one. It was hot but not scalding, so I guess I got lucky. But it’s eerie to think that down there, where this steam originated, is a volcano planning a sneak attack on cheerfully oblivious vacationists.



As per an agreement with Native Hawaiians, the National Park Service allows people to leave offerings, conduct religious ceremonies and gather specific natural resources for religious purposes inside park boundaries.


Leaving a little something to Pele is a common activity as the lava rises and flows in the Halema’uma’u crater beyond.


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