In November of 2010, me, my wife and our best friend Tim Myers spent our four day Thanksgiving weekend on the island of the Big Island. We had all traveled to Kauai recently and explored there together so we knew each others trends and all knew that we were gonna be in for a busy four days. During the first two days of the trip all my wife and my friend Tim would talk about is how they wanted to see lava up close and personal before we left the island. I did a little research but couldn't find anything definitive as far as directions to flowing lava. I recalled that when I had visited Kalapana about a year prior to this trip that I went to a viewing area at night off of highway 131 where the highway abruptly ended due to the lava flow wipeing it out. We were near that same area late in the afternoon so I told Tim we should stop and see if we can get to that viewing area, which was still a few miles from the actual lava. I told him if we could get there then we could try and find a way to go around the safety ropes and get closer to the lava. Before we even got to the end of highway, where the trail to viewing area was, we came upon barracades and cop cars. They told us that they had shut down the entire road becase the lava was flowing very close to it. I asked if there was anywhere else we could go to see lava and one of the guys was very nice and to my amazement actually gave me a little hint.
We drove back the way we came and parked in the very next neigborhood on the right that I dont recall the name of and parked where the street came to a dead end. We took a little trail out to a black sand beach and from there we could see the smoke where we believed lava must be flowing, but it was miles away and we were totally bummed. From this vantage point we could also see the devastation to the land that the lava had done. After Tim, my wife and I had all talked it over, we came up with an idea that we all thought was far-fetched, but we went ahead with it anyways. The plan was simple, we would walk across the dried up lava field and just walk in the direction of the smoke. I was sure that this would not work because the smoke was so far away it didn't look reachable. With no water and in sandles and with no flashlights and the time nearing 3pm we headed out. Very bad judgement on our part and something I am ashamed to admit. We walked for a few hours and started talking about turning around since we knew it would be getting dark soon.
We decided to go just a little further and if we didnt see anything we would turn around. We came upon a little clearing and decided to head towards the ocean and thought maybe from that vantage point we could see how far away we were. As we got closer to the ocean we saw smoke and then realized there was literally flowing lava right next to us. The sun was going down just as we arrived and as the night went on the glowing of the lava got more and more impressive. The lava shelf not far from us was breaking off and falling into the water. None of us had expected to witness anything of this magnitude. There was lava flowing everywhere around us and in the dark the glowing was easy to see and made it almost impossible to step in the wrong spot. A few people were even putting sticks in the lava and stirring it, which was followed by their sticks catching fire. We met a resident of the nearby houses in Kalapana, whose name was Bo, and he told us that this was one of the best lava flows he had seen in years. We couldn't have gotten any luckier. It was like we had hit the jackpot. Luckily we met a canadian guy who had ventured down to the lava and he had an extra flashlight and eventually led us back. Without him and his extra flashlight we would have never made it back that night.
I never set out on any hike these days without at least my headlamp, regardless of what time I leave and plan to be back. Three days after our trip to the flowing lava, the lava had advanced closer to the houses in Kalapana and unfortunately completely burned down another house in the neighborhood, yet again. Not long after this trip the puu o'o lava vent closed and up until just recently the lava flow in Kalapana was almost non-existent. Unfortunately for those that still live there, the lava will probably return one day and once again cause havoc to their land.
Your best option to see flowing lava these days, is probably a boat trip along the shoreline. Many people recently have been heading to the Big Island to go down the chain of craters road, which was just opened by the national park. You might see some lava, but at the end of the day, it's gonna be marginal and it's a ploy by the park service to get you to visit there and spend money. I haven't seen any pictures recently to suggest I am wrong in this assumption. You could also do some research and go to other areas (you will be trespassing though) and see good flows, but safety is always an issue and good judgement will come in to play.