Livin’ La Vida Lava

Hawaii’s Big Island offers cool hikes through molten caves.


Visit a lava tube at Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, and you’ll be walking down stairs and along boardwalks under bright lights. Visit a lava tube with Hawaii Forest & Trail, and you’ll be clambering over treacherous terrain with nothing but the sunshine, a thin rope and your guide to help.

Trekking through a lava tube—a cave formed by molten lava—is the highlight of the four-hour Holoholo Hualalai tour, much of which is first experienced from the bumpy seat of a Pinzgauer truck, offered by Hawaii Forest & Trail on the Big Island of Hawaii. The holoholo tour (it means “ramble around”) starts near the beach in Kona, then wanders up 6,000 feet through three climate zones toward the top of the Hualalai volcano.

Special Access to Craters

Our guide, Matt Radosevich, offered the perfect combination of adventure and education. We bounced over the volcanic fields while he provided a running commentary on Hawaiian geology, history and mythology.

The trip ends on private land once owned by the Hawaiian royal family. Hawaii Forest & Trail, named 2006 Ecotourism Operator of the Year by the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, is the only commercial tour operator allowed access through the two locked gates onto land most Hawaiians have never seen.

The tour includes stops at three kinds of craters. The fissure crater was formed when the ground split open as lava flowed to the sea. Lua Manu Aloha (“bird pit,” named for the flock of exotic parrots that once lived there) was formed when the surface collapsed, exposing a hole 100 meters deep and 100 meters across. The Kaupulehu Crater was formed when lava exploded out of the volcano.

Into the Lava Tube

And, finally, there is the lava tube. Plan for a short hike over uneven terrain, then a tricky climb down into the tube and across the sharp lava rocks for a view lit by a natural skylight that few have seen.

The tube is short, about half the length of a football field, but the trail can be treacherous, making it unsuitable for people with mobility problems or small children. The site is unimproved, unless you count the single clothesline rope that aids in the climb down. We climbed over and ducked under huge lava rocks as we picked our way through the tube.

My daughter Tess, 11 at the time, was nervous at first climbing down into the tube. But once inside, she was awed.

We stopped in the middle to run our hands over the black rocks that jutted out from the walls and to marvel at the wonders of Mother Nature. At some points, the tube is just 15 feet wide and 15 feet high, but an overhead crater that serves as a natural skylight lit the interior with a magical glow and made it feel less claustrophobic.

Along the way, expect to be regaled with stories of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.

Our favorite: the story of the Ohia tree. Ohia was in love with Lehua, but the passionate Pele wanted Ohia for herself. When he refused, pledging his love to Lehua instead, an angry Pele turned him into a tree. Lehua, overwhelmed with sadness, turned to the gods for help. They couldn’t bring her beloved back, so they turned Lehua into a beautiful red flower that would bloom on the Ohia tree, allowing the lovers to be together forever.

If You Go

Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes for walking on the uneven surfaces, pants to protect against the sharp lava rocks and, for women, a sports bra to make the jarring Pinzgauer ride more comfortable. The tour company provides everything else you might need, including hand wipes, drinks, snacks and jackets for the chilly air at the higher elevations.

This tour is somewhat physically demanding, so it is best for physically fit travelers over the age of 6 years. The only bathrooms are behind the trees, and there are no barriers or railings at the craters, which made for a few scary moments when an adventurous 8-year-old in our group insisted on edging forward to get a better look.

Destinations: Hawaii, Big Island of Hawaii

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

User Comments

Tripping Big Island We just returned and definitelly recommend taking one of the Hawaii Forest and Trail tours just to get a feel for the island's lore and fauna. The staff were very knowlegeable. We also can recommend the Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer for touring independently. They had all the maps and directions for finding beaches and trails on our own. The last recommendation is going to view the lava meeting the sea in Volcano National Park, a once-in-a-lifetime land being born. Buy or bring some water shoes for walking on the lava.

Added it to my trip list We've been to Kauai twice in the last three years and definitely need to check out the Big Island. We really want to visit Volcanos National Park but were reluctant to do so until our kids got a bit older. I'm pretty sure at 4 and 6 they can tackle this now. Very cool article. Thanks.

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