A reader recently asked if it was possible to take a day trip from Maui to see the Big Island lava flow. The answer is yes, it is possible and there are a few alternatives.
Before I get into the details of the alternatives, let me make sure that I emphasize that an active volcano is extremely unpredictable. In the most recent few months, the lava flow went from pooling in the flats at a restricted area to dramatic flow into the ocean easily visible by a short hike. It is possible that if you schedule a flight or tour to see the lava flowing, you may not get to see it. So, please be aware of that risk when you are booking a flight or tour. No company can guarantee that you’ll see lava flowing.
Now let’s take a look at some of the alternatives for island hopping from Maui to the Big Island.
1. Arrange a tour by air.
Volcano Air Tours operates an flight tour from Maui over to the Big Island and back. The tour is narrated by the pilot. In addition to flying over the active lava flow, you’ll also get to see the beautiful Hamakua Coast and Mauna Kea on the Big Island.
If your time is tight, this tour may be your best alternative. You will see quite a bit of fascinating scenery in a short amount of time. Tours leave from Kapalua airport in West Maui and from Kahului at the main airport. The tours last between 2hr and 2hr 15 minutes. Tours are pricy (hundreds of dollars) and depend on the tour and your point of departure.
A representative from Volcano Air Tours was kind enough to provide the photo (above right) that was recently taken from one of their tours. One important fact to consider when selecting an air tour is how much time will be spent flying around the active lava flow. I asked the Volcano Air Tour representative and she said that the pilots spend about 15 to 20 minutes flying there. That should be very adequate for allowing everyone to get a good view
2. Arrange a air/land package tour.
I did some research and couldn’t find a comprehensive air/land. I did find that Hawaii Forest & Trail offers a day tour from Hilo. You can arrange your own flight to Hilo, then they tour you around this part of the island. You would need a dedicated day for this tour as it is 7 hours long.
Seeing lava is not guaranteed. That depends on if lava is flowing at an accessible location.
3. Arrange your own independent tour.
This alternative gives you the most freedom, but will require that you work out the logistics and details of renting a car, navigating the island, etc. As of Feburary 2012, Hawaiian Airlines provides the only non-stop flight service Kahului Maui (OGG) to Hilo (ITO). Per the current schedule, the flight arrives at 10:05am and departs at 7:13pm.
You could choose to fly there and back in the same day or stay overnight (or longer). If you attempt to do it all in one day, you will be pushing it to the limit because the lava viewing point doesn’t open until 2pm and the flight from Hilo back to Maui leaves at 7:13pm. Allow at least an hour for your round trip hike to and from the lava viewing. Then add another 45 minutes to drive back to the airport. Then factor in time for refueling and returning the rental car, etc. See what I mean about pushing it to the limit?
Since the current lava viewing point doesn’t open until 2pm, you could spend the morning exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park which is about a 45 minute drive from Hilo Airport or you could check out the waterfalls in and around Hilo. (See this link for suggestions of what to see and do on the Big Island.) Another alternative you could consider is picking up a helicopter tour from Hilo.
One thing to bear in mind is that lava is much more dramatic if viewed at night, so an overnight stay might be something worth considering. See my tips for viewing the lava flow.
Please note that all information was accurate at the time of publishing. Lava activity and location is subject to change. To check where the lava activity is, see the resources in this article: How to find out what’s going on with the lava on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Most recent update: February 27, 2012.