What is the scariest thing about volcanoes? When I asked that question in a recent poll on Instagram, the number 1 answer was: Their unpredictability!
I definitely get that. Some things can’t be predicted with any kind of reliability, and 2200-degree lava exploding out of a mountain is one of those things! But does that mean you should be afraid of it? Does that mean you should avoid going to places with active volcanoes, like Hawai’i?
I have always believed that knowledge is power, and knowing facts about your fears gives you power over them. So, here is a little information about volcanoes, lava, and traveling to visit them! Once you’ve given this post a read, you can decide for yourself if it’s worth being afraid of volcanic destinations.
The Short Answer: No
Believe it or not, a volcanic eruption on the Island of Hawai’i might actually make your trip even more epic and memorable!
Check out our experience from 2017: Everything You Need to Know about Taking Our Lava Boat Tour
When you know the right words, you can understand what’s going on, and use the words correctly. You’ll sound super smart, too! Here are a few words you will definitely want to know:
- Active: This is a volcano that either is erupting or could imminently erupt.
- Dormant: This is a volcano that has not erupted recently, but still could erupt in the future.
- Extinct: This is a volcano that should not erupt again (but on rare occasions, an extinct volcano has erupted!).
- Magma: This is liquid rock inside the earth.
- Lava: This is magma that has exploded or flowed outside of a volcano.
- Lava tube: Naturally formed tunnels where lava flows underground. This is how lava travels to different locations (e.g. Kilauea Volcano is located inland on the Island of Hawai’i, but one of its lava flows led into the ocean several miles away). There are several lava tubes in Hawai’i that you can walk through.
- Tephra: When lava forcefully explodes forcefully from a volcano into the air, then breaks into solid rock. These could be pebbles, or full-size boulders like the one below!
More here: The Ultimate List of Hawai’i Questions You’re Too Embarrassed to Ask
Where are the Hawai’ian Volcanoes?
There are actually six active volcanoes in the state of Hawai’i! On Mau’i, you’ll find Haleakala, famous for hiking, biking, sunrises, and Haleakala National Park. People visit here all the time without realizing it’s still an active volcano. Why? Because it hasn’t erupted in hundreds of years. But that only means it’s due!
On the Island of Hawai’i, you’ll find five active volcanoes! Mauna Kea is the tallest, and the most recent eruption happened several thousand years ago. Then you have Mauna Loa, which started erupting in November 2022 for the first time in 40 years!
The Hualalai volcano is the third most active of Hawai’i’s volcanoes, and you can actually still see its most recent flow at the Kona Airport! The lava you see there came from Hualalai’s most recent eruption in 1801. The one you may be most familiar with is Kilauea, the youngest and most active of the volcanoes. It’s been erupting almost continuously since the 1980s.
The most unusual of Hawai’i’s volcanoes is one you have definitely never see, and likely never heard of. It’s underwater! It’s called Kama’ehuakanaloa, and it’s 22 miles southeast of the Island of Hawai’i. It most recently erupted in 1996 and is currently just over 3,000 feet below sea level, but it could eventually become a new Hawai’ian island!
The above information and more can be found and fact-checked on the USGS website.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel in Hawai’i
How to Know When a Volcano will Erupt
Well… You won’t! The USGS is responsible for monitoring active volcanoes in Hawai’i and American Samoa (where there are three active volcanoes). They can measure seismic activity created by the volcanoes, and even give a prediction of whether or not an eruption is imminent, but as for the exact date and time, no one can really say for sure!
For more, including how the USGS monitors volcanic activity via webcam, satellite, aerial observation, lava sample collection, and more, see their website’s Monitoring Page.
More here: The Ultimate List of Safety Tips for Your Trip to Hawai’i
What Happens When a Volcano Erupts
In short, an eruption happens when the magma inside a volcano comes to the surface and comes out, either flowing or exploding its lava. This can cause earthquakes and tsunamis (but not always). The more immediate problem is the “vog” that’s created by the volcanic gases and other particles in the air. It poses a threat to people with respiratory illnesses, plus, it smells like sulfur!
For more, check out the USGS webpage about Volcanic Hazards.
Keep reading: The Most Helpful Hawai’i Info You Will Ever Find
The Hawai’ian Legend of Pele
No blog post about Hawai’ian volcanoes is complete without Pele! Pele is the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes and fire, from whom the Hawai’ian islands were created. Some legends say that she was exiled from Tahiti by her father, due to her temper. Her home is Halemaumau Crater, at the Kilauea Volcano, and she is depicted sometimes as a young woman, sometimes as an elderly woman, and she is sometimes accompanied by a little white dog!
For more about Pele, take a look at this article from Hawaii.com.
Read next: The Ultimate Island of Hawai’i Bucket List
How to Participate in Volcanic Fun
So, now that you have a better understanding of volcanoes, and you know you don’t need to be afraid, you get to plan on having fun with it! There are several ways you can see the lava and learn about the volcanoes. Here are my favorites.
Explore Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Millions of people have visited Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and they all have the same plan: To see the lava! And when there’s lava to see, you will definitely be able to see it here. However, there’s a lot more to this park than that. There are also hiking and biking trails, driving routes, museums, native Hawai’ian animals and plants, and more.
The Park Rangers are ready to answer all of your questions. They also point you in the right direction if you’re looking for something in particular. Even better, when we visited, they even had a telescope focused on a current lava spurt for easy viewing!
Head to a Viewing Area
The best time to see lava? At night time, when it glows! But that doesn’t work for everyone, and it could be dangerous stumbling around on the side of the road in the dark! For just that reason, the Hawai’i County Civil Defense Agency and the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park set up designated viewing areas when there’s a new eruption. People are going to come and look no matter what, so this way, at least you’ll be safe and have the best view possible!
Take a Scenic Flight Over the Lava
This is a pricey option, but if you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, this is the winner! Having a bird’s-eye view of the volcano and lava will make for spectacular photos, and completely unforgettable memories. Locals recommend Paradise Helicopters, which offers several scenic flights over O’ahu, Lana’i, and the Island of Hawai’i. They are currently offering a special Mauna Loa Volcano Experience, but only while the lava is flowing!
Go to Haleakala National Park on Mau’i
While Haleakala is currently not erupting (as of this writing in late 2022), it’s still an active volcano that you can visit! If you want to see the sunrise from the summit, you will need advance reservations, but sunset viewing and stargazing can both be done on the fly. You can also attend a Geology Talk with a Park Ranger and get all the juicy, volcanic details!
Read on: What to Know Before You Visit the Island of Hawai’i
Huge mahalo to John Kapono Carter for the images of the Mauna Loa eruption that began November 27, 2022! Please check out his Instagram @johnkaponocarter for more photos and epic videos, as well as his YouTube Channel @johnkapono!
Want more? Get everything you need on my dedicated Hawai’ian Islands Page!
Love this post? Pin it for later!