Big Island’s habitual volcanic activity has created some truly unique geological formations, from Papakolea Green Sand Beach in South Point to Halemaumau Crater at the summit of Kilauea Volcano to the newest addition to the list: “Ahuaila’au”, also known as Fissure 8, which cropped up during the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption and has towered over the small East Hawaii neighborhood of Leilani Estates ever since. Such phenomena have made the island an international destination for geology enthusiasts involved in what can also be described as “volcano-tourism”.

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Also on that list of curiosities is Lava Tree State Park, formally known as Lava Tree State Monument; 17-acres of rocky fields, massive outcrops of weathered black lava rock, and towering walls of jungle outside the small town of Pahoa that feature some of the strangest geological sights to be seen on the island: lava trees. Centuries ago, a cascading lava flow swept through this forested part of Big Island’s lower Puna District, surrounding tree trunks and encasing them in molten rock.

The lava was unimaginably hot – upwards of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit – and it contacted the cool, wet trees, creating pockets of moisture trapped between bark and cooling lava that helped insulate the trunk and prevent its instant incineration. This insulation was so effective that even today, visitors can see the perfect imprint the tree bark left in the rock itself.

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Still more lava filled the land, reaching a height of roughly 11 feet, before another fissure opened and all the still-liquid lava drained back into the earth. What had contacted the trees had already cooled and hardened by this point, leaving the ghostly molds intact.

Over the years, what remained of the trees has rotted away, leaving the structures visibly hollow in the center. To volcanologists these are informally known as “lava molds” – the remaining rock impression of the long-since-dead trees. They are scattered throughout the park’s main area, accessible via a curving concrete walkway which forms a complete 0.7-mile loop around the park and delves into dense forests of native ohia trees and highly invasive strawberry guava.

The true age of the lava monuments are clear to see: thick layers of bright green and gold moss blanket the structures, clinging to holes in the porous rock and giving the appearance of fuzzy towers. Some are straight and tall – well over head-height and tapering to a cone at the top. Others are short, stubby and broken, with small mounds of cast-off, weathered stones lying beside them. The lava trees located nearest to the park’s entrance are its prime specimens, while the monuments in the farther-out forested section are dilapidated and crumbling in many places. 

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Even so, opting to venture father along the footpath reveals other curious sights not found in the park’s main area, like a young ohia tree with its striking red puffball flowers growing out of the hollow center of an old, broken lava tree. It turns out that as the black lava rock weathers, it breaks down into patches of fertile soil ideal for wind-blown seeds to land in and sprout. The variety of plant life making their homes in the hollow mounds of cracked rock is astounding: forest ferns, field grasses, moss, lichens, creeping vines, broad-leafed shrubs and even bona fide tree saplings grow out of the lava cracks, in some places threatening to cover the formations completely in a thick carpet of green.

Also in the forested section of the park are a handful of simple shelters built with handsomely hewn poles, with metal roofs and mortared lava rock entryways. These are for hikers who get caught out in the far reaches of the park during one of East Hawaii’s frequent torrential rainstorms and need a temporary shelter to duck into. There is a much larger shelter area nearest to Lava Tree State Park’s parking lot which has several picnic benches and a wide assortment of reader boards nearby explaining the history of the lava trees and much of the surrounding ecology.

Much of the grounds are well-manicured, with overgrown stands of colorful tropical flowering plants punctuating the footpath and vividly contrasting against the wall of dark green jungle. There are a few plantings of ornamental ginger found throughout the park, and the rich, dark hue of the red variety stands out most strikingly. For plant enthusiasts, it’s a great place to catch a glimpse of what a typical lower Puna forest looks like in modern times, with plenty of native plants and trees like ohias and ferns, but with an unfortunate helping of invasive species like strawberry guava and the large, star-leafed tree known as cecropia.

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Bottomless Cracks in the Earth, and A Close Call

Next to the parking lot is a massive crack in the ground with a chain-link fence and guardrail preventing haphazard visitors from falling in. On a sunny afternoon, beams of light will illuminate the walls of the fissure, but can never pierce far enough to reach the bottom. This is just one of the stops on the circuit, and another testament to just how volcanically active this area of the island truly is. Then there’s the warning signs scattered throughout the park cautioning visitors about the hazards of noxious volcanic gasses, lava tube sinkholes and uneven terrain.

All of the stunning beauty of the park – from its lava trees to its impressive chunk of forest reserve to its resident bottomless pit – came very close being destroyed during the 2018 lava flow, clearly seen today in the very short walk that it takes to get from the park entrance to the edge of the new lavafield. The deep red tidal wave of molten rock bypassed Lava Tree Park that fateful summer, and instead steamrolled down the hill destroying hundreds of homes, engulfing thousands of acres of land and creating miles of new, desolate, inaccessible coastline. Thousands of Lower Puna residents had to evacuate their homes, and even several years later some houses are still standing but cutoff due to road loss.

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But even in the face of all this destruction, somehow the monuments were spared, and after being closed for a time due to 20-foot-high lava walls blocking the highway, Lava Tree Park was reopened amidst a renewed interest in volcanism among visitors to the island and locals alike. This interest is helped along by the several stands of educational reader boards found in the park, with colorful illustrations of its geological and botanical history, along with a simple map of the forested footpath loop. Those who make the trek to Lower Puna to see the lava trees will breathe a sigh of relief knowing these 300-year-old testaments to the rich volcanic history of East Hawaii are still standing. And the realization that less than a mile down the road from the park is Big Island’s newest lavafield will really put things into perspective for the novice volcano-tourist.

How To Get There:

From the town of Pahoa located roughly 20 miles south of Hilo, continue along Highway 132 passing the entrance to the neighborhood of Nanawale Estates on the left-hand side of the road. Less than three miles south of Pahoa, a wooden sign will appear for Lava Tree State Park on the left and lead through a bright yellow-painted gate down to the parking lot.

The sections of Highway 132 destroyed during the 2018 eruption have since been rebuilt, and the highway is open leading to the former small town of Kapoho. So, it is possible to access the park coming from the other direction as well, where visitors will climb the hill from the ocean and pass through miles of new lavafield laid during 2018, and then will find the entrance to the park on the right-hand side of the road immediately after the entrance to Puna Geothermal Venture on the left.

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Restrooms are available adjacent to the parking lot, but potable water is not. So, stock up on supplies for a picnic or a short bit of hiking at the newly built Malama Market supermarket in Pahoa’s Puna Kai Shopping Center, or at the locally renown natural food store in town known as Island Naturals or simply, “the natch”. The park gate is open daily from 7:00am to 6:45pm and entrance to the park is free. Entrance is restricted to daylight hours since there are no lights on the path, and activities like camping and mountain biking are prohibited. 

Although the concrete footpath looping around the park is largely well-maintained, there are a few places where tree roots have dislodged the pavement to a dangerous degree, so small children, elderly visitors and people with physical disabilities may need assistance to complete the loop. So, wear a good pair of hiking shoes, bring sun protection and some lightweight rain gear, stay on the path and be prepared for a few uneven and slippery spots if you’re keen on taking the hike. 

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