The 40 mile drive back up to the volcano seemed longer this time because we had already covered this stretch of road a few times. This time we were well prepared with a few gallons of water, flashlights, rain coats, sweatshirts and food. The plan was to hike through one of the older calderas — a hike described as amazing by all of the guide books — and then drive the additional 20 miles down to the ranger station at the shore so we could watch the lava flowing down the mountain from a distance at night.
When we got the park center we were in the same misty rain we had experienced the day before. We described the hike to the kids and they didn’t seem psyched to walk four miles through a random part of the park. The were still most determined to find a way to see — up close — red-hot lava. The park rangers at Volcano National Park must be trained to be evasive about how and where to see lava because it was hard to get straight answer on the chances of seeing flowing lava. Finally, the younger guide, Vance, who had given us an introductory tour the day before told us that there is a field of flowing lava but it requires a six mile hike (three out and three back) out through the trail we had been on two days earlier. Six miles through jet black, crumbled, cracking, glass-covered, lava sounded a bit difficult but the kids were determined. So we filled up the backpacks with all of our water, our flashlights, and some powerbars and headed out the trail. We started by 3:30 so we were sure we could be back to the ranger station by dark at 7:30.
The kids, who were too tired to consider a four mile hike on a regular trail just 30 minutes earlier, were now bounding their way through the lava. The trail is first marked with yellow stickers on the ground and then it switches to "beacons" which are small yellow lights on a pole. There are four beacons along the trail up to the lava flows. They’re not easy to see and spread very far out. We made it to beacon zero (like I said, I don’t think the park rangers were into positive incentive) in about 30 minutes. We felt pretty good. We were also motivated by what looked like smoke along up on the ridge near where the trail was heading. Beacons 1, 2, and 3 were in a line near the shore and then we turned left up the hill off any marked path. The lava was mostly dark black with glass-like coating that cracked as you walked over it. In some places there were flows with folds like a bed-spread nearly bunched together. In other places the lava changed to jagged rock that we did our best to avoid. The most disconcerting was a flat area that looked like a river and big chunks broke under our weight as we walked — just like trying to walk across a frozen pond with very thin ice. There weren’t may people out this far and we still weren’t sure that we’d be able to see anything once we climbed to the top.
We pushed on up the ridge. We couldn’t really see it from below, but the "ridge" was in fact a very steep hill of lava that we had to climb up very carefully. The weather was also being good to us. It was overcast with a strong, cool sea breeze so we didn’t have to drink water as often as the other day. Our two gallon supply was holding up. (By the way, the rangers recommend carrying three quarts of water per person, which means we should have been carrying close to four gallons — so we were still undersupplied based on the official rules).
Once we got to the top of the lava mountain we could see a group of people bunched on the hill. We took this as a good sign. There must be something to see for people to be bunched in one place. Suddenly the kids moved ahead of us and picked up the pace. They were far ahead of us and started waving frantically for us to catch up. They had spotted a red glowing "cave" of lava just a few hundred yards ahead.
As we got closer we could feel the heat all around us. At 2000 degrees the lava makes the whole area feel like an oven. Fortunately the breeze was still strong and kept the heat from being unbearable. WE finally reached the point where we saw the glowing red. There was a blob of lava making its way out of the ground very slowly. It would expand up and then flow slowly down like a drop of semi hardended elmer’s glue — except many thousands of pounds, glowing red, and so hot you couldn’t stand near it (OK, so it wasn’t that much like Elmer’s glue).
Another hundred yards up the hill there was another spot of lava that was oozing down the hill side. This one was more of a flow — we could see it making the distinct wavy curtain/bedspread shape that we saw so many times hiking up.
We took a bunch of pictures and video. The kids had to perform their own experiments with the lava by throwing rocks (of course which were light weight lava pieces) at the red hot spots to see if they’d be burned up. They were disappointed to see the light rocks just bounce off the hot spots. The lava cools fast enough to make it hard on top even when it’s red inside.&nbs
After congratulating ourselves for our success we turned back for the 3 mile trek back to the ranger station it was 5:30 so we were right on schedule. We decided to be "smarter" this time and take a different route. Rather than head straight down the hill and then along the shore, we could make the hike much shorter by just heading in a straight line toward the ranger station which we could see from our high vantage point. We even saw two rangers heading that direction so we figured it would be a good plan.
We were wrong. After just about 10 minutes we came to the top of the lava mountain we had climbed on the way up. This time because were further to the north than the path, the mountain was a sheer cliff rather than a passable incline. It was like standing at the top of the chutes in Steamboat but on hard black lava. We saw the rangers at the bottom of the hill and they explained that they had gotten off course and they advised us not to attempt coming down. We had to traverse across the ridge through a field of razor sharp jagged lava — unlike anything we had seen on the way up. One slip would mean certain death. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but we certainly would have been badly cut up. Luckily with careful steps we made it through and to a point where we could get down the ridge. We were relived to be back on the familiar black lava with only a huge crevasses and sharp glass chips everywhere. We had made it to relative safety.
We altered our course back down to the shore. We ended up at beacon 1 so we had actually cut off some of the hike. Within a half hour we were back at the beginning of the access road and joined hundreds of people preparing to see the lava as night fell. We didn’t expect the night show to be anything compared with seeing the lava up front. Once again we were wrong. As it got dark, we could see glowing lava all over the hillside — near where we hiked but also further down the shore where the flow was entering the ocean. As it got darker we could see a lava fountain spraying up into the air just above the ocean entry. Even though we were miles away, it was amazing to see.
We headed back to the car, drove a few miles back up the access road and stopped at a place were we could still see the glowing red and made sandwiches for the hour drive home. The kids fell asleep during the car ride and fell right back to sleep after we made to the house. It was a long strenuous day, but a lot of fun.