Once parked you are actually at the Tree Molds and no walking beyond that is required. If desired however, taking the very short 0.2-mile stroll around the loop and back to your car allows you to take in some of the native plants that make up this interesting spot.
This stroll is in the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in Volcano. However, it is not directly in the park-proper, but outside, off the highway. If you are coming from Hilo, go past the park entrance and continue another couple of miles. You will pass Pi'i Mauna drive and the next intersection will be a right hand turn onto Mauna Loa Road. Make a right onto Mauna Loa Road and then another immediate right onto the road to the Tree Molds (it is marked). If you are coming from Kailua-Kona you will pass the campgrounds first and then you will see the left for Mauna Loa Road.
The road the Tree Molds is a very narrow, twisting one-lane road so drive carefully as there may be people coming out. The road twists and turns for about a half mile and then reaches a one-way split that takes you to the right. This is the loop (and our stroll). Continue to drive around the loop to the opposite end where there is a very small parking lot. Park, you are at the Tree Molds.
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This hike is a simple .2 mile loop on a paved road. Most of the loop has tree cover so you will not need sunscreen, hats or food - though you may wish to bring a bit of water and (of course) your camera. There are no bathrooms or shelter here.
Things To Be Careful Of
The following are general cautions and warnings for this stroll:
Some of the Tree Molds are deep - up to 25 feet deep. While railings protect most the molds, if you have children with you do not let them get too close to the holes.
There are a couple of small molds that are not protected. Be careful not to step into them as while not deep, they could seriously twist your ankle or break your leg.
Do NOT go into the underbrush on either side of the road. There are other hidden Tree Molds that you cannot see until you step into them. Stay on the mowed areas or on the paved road.
If you take the stroll, lock your car and do not leave valuables in sight.
What You Will See
Why are there so many more examples of Lava Trees, than Lava Molds? Both features can start out the same way, by quick flowing lava filling up an area. The lava hits the wet cool trees and hardens around the tree. Eventually the heat of the lava burns the tree out leaving a hollow inside. This is the point at which a Lava Tree and a Lava Mold are the same thing.
What happens next is what determines whether or not trees will be left standing or molds will be left in the ground. To produce a tree the lava has to quickly drain out of the area, leaving the now cooler crusted lava tree standing. If the lava does not drain out, the top of the lava is now the new ground and the burned out trees become molds, or holes, into the ground. (Trees can also be created by fountaining lava falling and covering a tree - molds can not be produced in that situation.)
While both Lava Trees and Tree Molds are fairly rare - tree molds are even more rare as they tend to get filled up with other flows or buried in debris. Thus there are very few places where you have such outstanding examples of Tree Molds as you do at this spot.
Once you park you will note a number of railed off areas on both sides of the road. A small display nearby states:
The land shudders. Up slope the fiery blood from the heart of the earth spews forth once more. Old land is covered, but the grand trees cannot flee. Their water-laden trunks, resistant to the lava's first touch, allow the flow to harden around them. The heat is too great though, and each tree eventually bursts into flame. The flow stops, but the tree molds in the flow mark the former forest and the flow's depth.
While some of the molds are not very deep, a couple are easily 20 feet deep - a testament to the original ground level when the event took place. One of the deepest and largest molds is not actually 'officially' recognized. If you walk down the road, in the direction of car travel (counter-clockwise) for about 20 feet you will see, on the right side of the road, a single white board guardrail. Go up to the guardrail and you will note it is protecting a very large and very deep hole that is right next to the road. This hole is about 25 feet deep and is the largest mold - the tree must have been very big or perhaps it was a dense group of smaller trees.
We also recommend walking around the loop back to your car. Either way is enjoyable. The trees are native Koa and on a bright day make a beautiful contrast against the blue sky. The walk is easy and the plants include both native ('Ōhi'a, 'Ōhelo, Pūkiawe) and non-native plants (including some delicious berries when in season).
The way out is the way you came in. Follow the road in the counter-clockwise direction until you get to the split then carefully take the narrow winding road back out to Mauna Loa Road. Make a left to the highway (or a right to go visit Bird Park or take the drive to the 9,000 ft end of Mauna Loa Road) At the highway a right takes you towards Kona and a left toward the Volcanoes Park entrance and Hilo.