The Lava Tree State Monument – A Fascinating Piece of Volcanic History

Formed during a volcanic eruption in the 1700s, these hollow, vertical lava structures stand as a testament to the dynamic and powerful forces of nature, creating a surreal landscape.

We went to the Lava Tree State Monument and learned about it's flora, fauna, and of course - the lava trees!

Did you know that you can see the remains of a volcanic eruption shrouded around the dead bodies of trees?

If that sounds morbid – trust us, it’s really not!

The Lava Tree State Monument is a small park that showcases the natural phenomenon that occurs when a lava flow creates a stone casing around a tree trunk.

The result is a chimney-like stone structure that protrudes from the earth like a finger from a golem.

We went to the Lava Tree State Monument in Pāhoa to see this awesome piece of natural history – and it was unlike anything we’d ever seen before.

Lava Tree State Monument Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Hike time: 30 minutes
  • Distance: 0.7-mile loop
  • Terrain: Mostly paved, forested
  • Elevation gain: Mostly flat – negligible
  • Weather: Varied – Can be sunny or rainy
  • Hours: 7:00 am – 6:45 pm
  • Pets: No animals allowed
  • Permits/Fees: None
  • Parking: Free parking in the parking lot
  • Facilities/Bathrooms: Restrooms, covered structures, picnic tables

Exploring Lava Tree State Monument

Traveller Trey standing at the entrance to Lava Tree State Monument
Trey welcoming us to Lava Tree State Monument!

The Lava Tree State Monument is just 3 miles outside of Pāhoa, on Highway 132.

Even though the trail at the park is short, be prepared for sun or rain since the weather in the area can change quickly.

We were greeted by blue skies when we got there, but it started downpouring while we were walking the trail (good thing the park has shelters)!

One of the first things that you’ll find when getting to the park actually isn’t a lava tree – it’s a cave in the ground!

We’re not sure where the cave goes, but it’s a cool sight nonetheless. It really gives you the impression that the park is a living, breathing place that’s constantly evolving.

Cave in the ground at Lava Tree State Monument
We’re not sure where this cave goes, but it looks deep!

The front of the park also showcases the most impressive lava trees in the park.

A woman standing in front of a lava tree and pointing at the sky
Trey’s stepmom Wen showed us how tall the lava tree is!

The reason that the lava trees are so large in this park is due to the depth of the lava flow that encased the area in 1790.

It is estimated that the lava flow over this area was about 11 feet – so that’s why there are some lava trees in the park that tower over any person walking by.

At this point, you might be wondering: Why aren’t there more lava trees around Hawai’i?

Like any geologic feature, lava trees are eventually erased with time.

There are some lava trees that are mostly untouched since their creation over 200 years ago.

But there are other lava trees that are close to complete reclamation by the earth.

The aspect of the park that we found most interesting is that you can see lava trees in various stages of decomposition.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the height of the lava flow determines the height of the lava tree.

So if lava flows over an area quickly, it won’t build up and create the large, substantial lava trees that are found in this park.

Lava Trees Aren’t the Only Thing at the Park

The lava trees are definitely the main attraction at the park. But the area is also teeming with native plants and wildlife.

The park is truly a work of nature in progress – besides the lava casts created by a volcano, you’ll find trees growing and dying and birds flying around.

Of course, you can’t get away from the obligatory chickens hanging out in the parking lot either.

Chicking walking on the grass
The mandatory chicken hanging out in the parking lot of Lava Tree State Monument.

How Does a Lava Tree Form?

A lava tree forms when lava flows around a tree.

The lava directly around the tree cools and hardens, creating a stone mold in the shape of the tree’s trunk.

When the eruption stops and the lava flow recedes, the hardened stone mold from the tree remains in place.

Eventually, the tree decomposes, leaving the lava tree mold in place.

Informational sign at Lava Tree State Monument detailing the creation of a lava tree mold
This sign in the park provides an overview of how lava trees are formed.

History of the Lava Tree State Monument

The history of the Lava Tree State Monument dates back to 1790 when the Kīlauea volcano erupted.

The lava from the volcano flowed down the mountain, leaving a wake of destruction in its path.

As the lava flowed over the landscape, it engulfed the endemic ʻŌhiʻa trees that grew in the area.

The lava that directly encompassed the trees cooled, causing it to partially harden.

As the lava flow receded, the casks of lava were left in place around the now-dead trees.

The dead bodies of the trees eventually decomposed, leaving the hardened stone “lava trees” that remain today.

In 2018, the Lava Tree State Monument had another close call with a lava flow when Kīlauea erupted once again.

A fissure vent named Fissure 8 erupted out of the ground and began spewing lava in nearby Leilani Estates. The lava flow from Fissure 8 came within a few hundred feet of the park’s borders. 

In fact, the lava flow from Fissure 8 created lava tree molds of its own.

Much of the area near the Lava Tree State Monument is now covered with lava from the 2018 eruption, but the park itself remains untouched… for now.

Trey Lewis is an outdoor enthusiast. Whether its hiking knife-edge ridges or just fishing by the river, Trey isn't afraid to get dirty in search of the next adventure.

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