Black Sand Beach and Volcanoes National Park

Yesterday was our last day on the beautiful island of Kauai, but we decided to stop at the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge before catching our flight to the island of Hawaii, also called the Big Island. There, we went to Punaluu beach, also known as Black Sand Beach, and then to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Yesterday was a bit of a relaxing day. Both my mom and I were pretty exhausted from the Na Pali Experience boat tour, so it was nice to have a day where we didn’t have much planned. We did, however, decide to stop by the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge. It was cool to see a lighthouse up close, since I had really only ever seen a lighthouse in movies, but past that, it was actually kind of boring. I don’t think it had really been worth the drive there. However, I did enjoy watching the various birds that had made their home in the area.

After landing on the Big Island, we picked up our rental car and made our way back to our hotel. As usual, we decided to check out the area we would be staying in for the next few days and found that the whole street was filled with all sorts of souvenir shops and restaurants. If there was anything we needed, we definitely wouldn’t have to go far to get it.

We started out today at Punaluu Beach, more commonly known as Black Sand Beach. When people say the word “beach,” most of the time you think of white sand and beautiful blue water. However, Punaluu Beach does not have your average white sand and bright blue water. As the name suggest, the sand is black! Well, it’s actually more of a charcoal color, but close enough. Sadly, the sign at the entrance said that there was a strong undercurrent, and that combined with the large amounts of rocks around the beach made for dangerous swimming conditions, so nobody was really in the water. Since we didn’t get to go swimming like we had planned, my mom and I instead decided to walk over some of the rocks to get a better view of the beach.

A word to the wise, flip flops are not a good idea if you intend to walk on the rocks of Punaluu Beach. I ended up taking my flip flops off because they kept sliding on the rocks and I was afraid I was going to sleep in fall. Walking on the rocks without shoes wasn’t the greatest feeling in the world, but it beat the alternative. My mom, on the other hand, kept her flip flops on, which I’m sure she ended up regretting. One of the times when she went to step up onto a rock, her flip flop got stuck under the rock, causing her to fall. She seemed fine when she first got up, but then we quickly realized that she had injured one of her toes. After a short drive down the road to the nearest hospital, we learned that it was broken.

They patched her all up and then we were off. Determined not to let this ruin the rest of our day, we headed to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park like we had originally planned. Kilauea volcano has been steadily erupting since 1983. While most of the lava is underground, there is currently two main locations where lava can be seen: the Jagger Museum overlook and the Kamukona ocean entry. Lava will also occasionally come to the surface, but this changes day by day, and sometimes even by the hour.

What got me so excited about the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was the fact that it was safe enough for me to actually get close to lava. When looking at pictures from the park, I thought that pictures from the overlook and ocean entry point were cool, but I was mostly fascinated by pictures of the surface lava because it just seemed so close. When we arrived at the park, I immediately set out to ask a park ranger where would be the best locations to see surface lava.

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, there are two main roads that you can take: Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. Each road has various places where you can park and get out and experience different features of the park. Some stops only take a few minutes. Others will take longer if want to experience the full effect. If you want to experience both roads to the fullest, you will need at least a day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, if not two or three days. Unfortunately, I did not have that kind of time at the park, so I priotized seeing surface lava, since that caught my interest the most.

The very last stop on Chain of Craters Road is ironically called End of Chain of Craters Road. I was told that this was the place where I would be able to see surface lava. It’s a five mile hike from End of Chain of Craters to Kamukona, where the lava enters the ocean. The first 3.5 miles are relatively easy because it is a gravel pathway. There are a few hills and the stones can be annoying when they get in your shoes, but otherwise it is relatively easy going. After the 3.5 miles, you come to a rope that prevents you from continuing straight due to dangerous conditions. If you following along the rope way, climbing over volcano rocks and boulders, you’ll eventually reach the point where lava enters the ocean. To see the surface lava, you have to go out away from the rope and up towards the mountain.

I realized later that you don’t really have to walk all the way down to the rope before you start making your way over to the volcano. It’s probably more efficient to start cutting over to the volcano long before you hit the rope. Oh well, live and learn.

And live and learn I did. At the beginning of the hike they warned that this was not an easy path and that people should wear good shoes and bring lots of water. If you were intended on going at night (because the park is open 24/7), then you should also bring a flashlight. I was wearing good tennis shoes, bought a big bottle of water from the small shop at the End of Chain of Craters Road, and had a flashlight on my phone. I though I was set. I was very wrong.

With my mom’s broken toe, there was no way that she was going to be able to climb over the volcanic rock and boulders. Instead, she walked the 3.5 miles with me to the rope, and decided to sit and wait on one of the rocks while I continued on over the volcanic rock. I believe I started climbing on the volcanic rock somewhere around 6:30. I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to go that far before seeing surface lava, and honestly believed that I wouldn’t be out on the volcanic rock for an extended period of time. However, as I found began to find steam vents but no lava, I soon realized that I was only going to have to be much closer to the mountain than I had originally hoped if I wanted to see surface lava.

Knowing that the sun would set around 7:00 and then I’d have maybe a half hour of light before it got truly dark, I decided to start running towards the volcano, or at least attempted to go as fast as I could over the lava rocks, because I was bound determined to see that surface lava. At this point, I could even see the bright red of it on the side of the volcano. Yet, despite how far I ran, the volcano still seemed so far away. I have no idea how far it is from the rope to the base of the volcano, but it was much further than I expected.

When I stopped for a moment to catch my footing, because lava rocks are definitely not flat, I began to realize how stupid of an idea it had been. I was still incredibly far from the volcano, and the sun had already gone behind the volcano. Knowing that I didn’t have much light left, I took a few pictures in hopes that I would at least have some pictures of lava, and then unwillingly gave up my quest for surface lava. Despite how much my heart wanted to keep chasing the lava, my head took over and convinced me to start making my way back to the gravel path.

I took the picture below at the point where I had decided to start heading back. The volcano seems so close, yet in the bottom corner you can see how small the person looks, and only then do you realize just how far away the volcano still was.

Distance from Volcano

Distance from Volcano

This was when I discovered how truly underprepared I had been for this hike. Volcanic rock is practically black, making it very hard to see in the dark. Some of the rock also had lose stones or were not very solid, meaning you really had to watch your step in order to not get injured. A cell phone flashlight is not bright enough to illuminate the volcanic rock. It’s better than not having a flashlight at all, but a heavy duty flashlight would have been much better. Worst of all, almost from the very beginning of the gravel path (long before you reach the volcanic rock), there is no cell service, and I was on the volcanic rock by myself with nobody else around.

Honestly, I really wasn’t in that much danger. Even if I had injured myself out on the volcanic rock, there are apparently rescue crews that canvas the area because there are enough people who venture out unprepared, but I’ll admit, I was still terrified. There was a point where my foot actually got stuck between some of the rocks, and even though it didn’t take me long to pull it out, I was still reminded of how easy it would be for me to injure myself and then possibly be stranded there for a couple of hours in the dark with no phone. By the time I made it back to the gravel path where my mom was, I was of course relieved that I had made it back safe and sound, but overall was in a pretty sour mood. After all of that, I hadn’t even managed to get good pictures of the lava.

EDIT 06/27/2017: When I first made it back to the gravel path, I was super upset and pretty over the park, but looking back, I’d like to try it again. Next time I would know what to expect and how to better prepare for the adventure. It can be a really cool experience as long as you do the necessary preparations.

Despite my sour mood, my mom and I convinced ourselves to go to the Jagger Museum overlook. At this point, both of us just really wanted to go back to the hotel, but we mustered up the will power to go to the overlook if only because we knew we would regret not going. In the end, I was glad that I went because it was a pretty cool thing to see. There was a giant cloud of steam rising from the crater and flowed a bright red. If you were lucky, you could even see a little bit of lava splashing up on the sides. It was the cool view of lava I had been hoping for, but I was content to just have ended the day on a happy note.

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