Sights from a Hawaiian helicopter ride over active lava flows

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People often ask me to name the coolest place I’ve ever been. After visiting Hawaii, I have a new answer: Hovering a couple hundred feet over an active volcano with lava swirling about.

Yes, there are still active volcanoes on Hawaii, especially on Hawaii island itself (otherwise known as the Big Island). They don’t shoot lava way into the air like you see in the movies. Instead, there are craters and sections of earth where the lava swirls around and sometimes comes to the surface.

You’ll find lots of helicopter companies willing to take you into the air to see the volcanic activity. We went with Blue Hawaiian helicopters, because they seemed to be the most reputable and reliable. A couple of other companies are slightly cheaper, but you don’t want to take shortcuts on an excursion like this when your safety is on the line.

blue-hawaiian-helicopters

(Note that I paid for my own flight. There were no freebies involved. Based on my experience, I am very comfortable recommending them, but feel free to do your own research.)

We boarded our flight at the Kona airport. Before boarding, there’s a safety video, and guests are seated according to weight to balance out the copter. This flight included just the pilot, myself and my travel friend, and two other tourists.

Guests are warned not to wear white, since light colors can reflect in the windows and ruin everyone’s photographs. So with our dark clothes, we headed over to the copter and strapped ourselves in.

Headsets are required to talk with the pilot and passengers since copters are loud. Once you put on the headset, you really feel like cool things are about to happen.

helicopter ride

And they did. We shot up into the air. The ride was smooth, never scary, as we headed down the east coast of the island. We immediately saw smoke drifting up into the air from the lava-filled vents in the area. Behold the sulfur dioxide!

helicopter-volcano-views

volcano-smoking

crater-smoke

One of the interesting sights we quickly noticed was the texture of the hardened lava on the surface. It contained all these weird designs and shapes. It looked like a giant field of dried tar.

hardened-lava-from-above

Much of the island surface is composed simply of hardened lava, but there are plenty of trees and forest sections as well. Often these trees are destroyed during heavy lava flows. We got to see this in action up close when the pilot approached an area where lava is currently coming to the surface along the tree line.

From a distance, we spotted the smoke from burning trees.

trees-smoking

And then we flew in for a closer look and could actually see the lava seeping up through the ground setting the trees ablaze. Cool!

lava-meets-trees

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The flows are the result of the continuous eruption of Kilauea, which has been erupting steadily for more than 30 years. We saw several examples where sections of trees had been spared during previous lava flows. That results in these little clumps of isolated trees right in the middle of the huge black landscape.

trees-in-lava

What you’re able to see in terms of actual lava flow depends on the day you fly and the ever-changing activity within the craters. We flew over to a particularly active spot. From here, we were able to peer directly down into the lava pit.

Here, we observed red-hot lava gushing around. This is what we paid to see!

lava featured

You can see a rim of orange lava around an oval-shaped surface layer. That top layer had turned black after being exposed to the air for a while and cooling, so it was acting sort of like a pudding skin. The red-hot lava underneath it would emerge periodically from around the eyeball-shaped lava skin.

We lingered at this spot for several minutes to take photos and stare in awe, because how often in life do you get to have a magma sighting?

lava close

Finally, we moved on, taking in a few other sights near Hilo before returning to the airport. Way off in the distance stood the volcanic peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

mauna-kea-from-a-distance

We flew past a series of waterfalls, which looked very cool from the air, as well as a residential area and a little bit of the ocean.

waterfalls-from-above

hawaiian-town-aerial

copter-ocean

We flew by the town of Pahoa, which was barely spared when a 2014 lava flow stopped just short of town. Being up in a helicopter and seeing how lava has shaped and changed Hawaii was awe-inspiring and really brought home just how powerful lava and volcanoes can be.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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