That’s why you came to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park—to see lava, right? Unfortunately, you can’t see it all the time. Months, even years, will go by when it’s visible every night, and then (for instance, in March 2011, timed with the tsunami and a series of small earthquakes that shook the Big Island) it disappears. So even if some assertive tour guide tells you that he or she will take you there, call the Kalapana lava viewing hotline (808/967-8862) first to see if there is actual lava flowing, or check online.
The viewing area on Highway 130 (follow the signs and veer right when the road splits; it’s right before it reaches Hwy. 137) opens mid-afternoon, but there is really no reason to get there before sunset since you can’t see anything until it’s dark. Aim for arriving around sunset. From the parking area to the viewing area, depending on conditions, is usually about a 15-minute walk—it used to be longer when they’d let you get closer to the flow. Bring a flashlight and some warm clothes, as it can get chilly at night.
Another way to see lava is by boat. Arguably, it is not the most enjoyable way to see the lava—the water can be rough at night and it is not the most economical option. But it is a way to get close to it and take some great photos. Only a handful of companies organize these tours, and they all offer sunrise and sunset choices: Lava Boat Tours (808/934-7977, $165 per person), Lava Ocean (808/966-4200, $175 per person), and the small tour operator Lava Roy’s Ocean Adventure Tours (808/883-1122, $150 per person). Before you book a trip, check with the lava-viewing hotline (808/967-8862) to make sure there’s lava to see.