Before we discuss the fun you can have with liquid rock... we should discuss exactly what you can and can not do within the park boundries.
When the lava flow is on the Kalapana side it is often outside of park boundries and therefore national park laws do not apply. We can have much more fun with the lava outside of the park boundries than we can inside the park.
Lava flows within the park boundries are protected by national park laws. Most of these laws apply and make sense, while a few do not really make sense given the nature of an active volcano. Regardless of what we think of the laws, you need to abide by them, or at least be aware of the risks.
The lava flow usually has park rangers that are at the end of the road, as well as out at the flow during normal daylight hours. We tend to see the park rangers arrive between 6:30 AM and 7:30 AM, depending on conditions, and stay till dusk. After dusk and up till 6:30 AM there are usually no park rangers at the flow though there might be some volcano observatory scientists.
The current park administration is fairly good about allowing locals and visitors full access to the lava flows. Only in situations of extreme danger (such as an unstable bench) will the park rangers keep people back from viewing the lava. Other than that, the rangers in general do not inhibit people from hiking to the pali, ocean entries or surface flows.
There is a local myth that taking lava off the island will result in misfortune to the person who takes it. Thousands of pounds of lava rock (not necessairly taken from the park) are returned each year because of misfortune people feel they have received after returning home with the souvineers. This myth is chalked up to a Hawaiian myth, but in reality was started a number of years ago by a park ranger who wanted to discourage people from removing lava from the national park.
Currently there is a federal law that prohibits removing anything from the park (there is an exception to this for people who ask for forging rights for berries and plants used for leis and other ceremonial uses). It is illegal, under the law, to remove lava. However, in our mind this is somewhat unusual because there is so much new ground being created daily - and almost always ground covers ground so that where you were standing yesterday may be 2 to 10 feet below the surface today.
To illustrate how far the park rangers will go (and it totally depends on the ranger) one visitor to the island had setup his tripod to take pictures of the flow and had a bit of active flow coat the base of one of the tripod legs. As he left the flow he encountered a ranger who made him knock off the small quantity of rock on the tripod. This is going a bit far in our minds - but laws are laws.
Is it illegal to cook food in lava? Probably not if you pushed the point but we know of people who have read our Cooking In Lava pages and have been stopped by rangers, loaded with shovels and chickens, from going to cook in the lava.
So, with that in mind... just what kind of fun can you have with lava? Plenty... we recomend however that you make sure that your out of view by the rangers and we don't recommend you taking out anything you create unless it was created outside of park boundries.
The Basics... Bring A Stick...
Even the rangers will let you get away with this one... bring a hiking stick (nothing fancy) and when you get to flow... have fun. Sticking it into the flow is facinating to see how thick and taffy-like a flow is. Most people think that lava is like water, and indeed it can be at times. But most of the time lava flows like a thick molassas or taffy on the surface of the ground. You can put holes in the lava with a stick and watch the lava slowly refill the hole. If the stick is still a bit green, sticking it into the lava will usually result in the stick making a screaming noise as the steam is forced from the wood.
Throwing Things At Lava...
Most tourists will pick up a small lava rock and toss it at an active flow - we are certain they expect the rock to splash into the flow. Almost always they emit a squeal of surprise as the rock bounces off the liquid rock, skitters a short distance and then just sits on top, being carried off.
Throwing things at lava is virtually useless. The lava, as we stated above, is thick like taffy and thus objects are carried along ontop of the flow, rather than sinking into the flow.
Putting Things In The Path Of Lava...
While throwing things at the lava is useless, putting things in the path of the lava is much more interesting. Local myth holds that the Goddess Pele loves both cigarettes as well as gin. We often leave a present of cigarettes and bottle of gin for the Goddess when we visit. Cigarettes should be presented either as a single cigarette, or an entire pack. If you present a pack open the pack up and extend one cigarette partially out of the pack as if offering the cigarette to Pele. When offering gin please do so using a glass, rather than plastic bottle (glass is, after all, closer to lava than plastic). It is customary to take a small drink of the gin, pour a bit out on the ground, then set the rest, in the bottle for Pele to consume. (We prefer to leave the cap on because it makes for a better effect, though do NOT do this if there are people in the area because it can explode resulting in glass distributing in a small area.)
To leave a gift, such as cigarettes, or gin, or Ti-wrapped gifts, simply place the gift in the path of the lava flow, step back and enjoy. Sometimes Pele will take the gift, sometimes she will avoid the gift. If she takes the gift she will certainly consume it all and soon it will be completely covered in solid rock.
Enjoying The Basic Lava Forms...
Of course, one of the easiest and best things to do is just watch how lava flows. Lava is very dynamic and there are many different forms the lava can take. Watching lava flow will educate you as to how the different shapes are formed and what exactly lava can do (such as pour uphill).
Make Lava Sculptures...
To make lava sculptures you have to be a bit prepared. You will want to make sure you are wearing long denim jeans and probably a long sleeved non-flamable shirt. You will want non-flamable gloves and we HIGHLY recommend these gloves which are spun glass and kevlar and can withstand 2000°F lava for 20 seconds of direct contact.
The best way to make sculptures is to go to the local Longs Drug Store and purchase inexpensive kitchen whisks. Bring two or three along with you to the flow. To make a Kitchen Whisk Sculpture... find a fairly fluid flow where you can approach the flow without getting too hot. Grip the whisk by the handle and dip the whisking end into the lava and quickly turn the handle to accumulate a glob of lava on the bottom of the whisk. Stand away from the flow and firmly push the red-hot glob of lava and whisk onto the cold ground to form a flat base (allowing the whisk to stand upright on it's own). Wait about 5 or so minutes and then take the same whisk and repeat the process adding a second coat of lava (we call this double-dipping). Allow the whisk to completely cool (about 20 to 30 minutes) before trying to touch or carry it out.
If you do this within park boundries you may not want to take them out of the park due to the federal laws (not like the volcano will miss the lava). If this is the case, after you have had your fun simply smash the rock whisk against the cold lava and the rock will break away from the whisk and you can now take the whisk out without fear of the rangers wrath.
Other things can be dipped into lava, just about anything, including making a lava patty and pressing silver dollars into it, etc. You are limited only by your imagination.
Getting Lava To Flow...
Often times a promising flow will start to cool off right when your getting ready to have some fun. If this is the case, and the cooling hasn't gone too long (e.g., the rock still has to be glowing red) - you can often induce the lava to continue pouring.
If you have a walking stick, poke the cooling flow to open up holes. Often a single hole will be all that is necessary to release the lava pressure and begin the flow again.
Another technique, and one I personally like because it tends to amaze anyone looking on, is simply to use my boot to reopen a flow. The easiest way to do this is approch the stubborn flow, turn your back to it and with one leg give a solid backwards kick to the flow. The crust should buckle inwards. Continue to do this until the crust buckles enough that lava begins to flow again. Because you are kicking backwards and facing away from the flow, your tendency, if you fall, would be to fall forward away from the flow (which is better than kicking it facing the flow, it is also less hot).
This technique REQUIRES you to have these special gloves. Do NOT attempt this without the gloves we indicate. This is NOT trivial and can be very dangerous.
You can actually hold liquid lava in your gloved hand with the right gloves. Using the spun glass and kevlar gloves grip the edge of an active lava flow firmly with your hand and lift up. You will, with difficulty, be able to lift the flow from the ground. This is an amazing thing to do and it is quite a surprise to see the the rock under the flow is solid, cold lava rock. The liquid rock, even though it is 2000°F, has not had enough time in direct contact with the cold rock to bond or melt the cold rock. If you see liquid lava pouring out of a hole (called a firehose) you can even cup your hand in the flow and let the lava pour through your gloved fingers.