One of my favorite hiking places in Hawaii is the Kilauea Iki trail in the Volcanoes National Park. It’s a first hand encounter with the raw nature of Hawaii. The trail is next to the main summit caldera of Kilauea, an active volcano that has been causing damages to the Big Island for many years. From 1983 to 2018 the Kilauea erupted almost continuously, destroying properties and even entire towns (like the Puna District in 1990.)
Visiting the Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is one of the top destinations for a great family vacation. You can visit the park by car in just a couple of hours, via the Crater Rim Drive. The 11 miles road that encircles the caldera and has access to several scenic stops and short walks. But if you want to fully appreciate the power of this volcano, you should stop and walk around. There are quite a few beautiful trails around the park. The most famous one of them is the Kilauea Iki trail, that takes you inside the Kilauea Iki crater.
Kilauea Iki crater has been dormant since 1959, so it’s safe to visit now. You can choose to simply observed it from above, from one of the many overlooks around the crater, or by hiking the Kilauea Iki trail down to the caldera.
Hiking the Kilauea Trail
The hike begins at the Overlook, where you can actually see what you are about to experience. This hike is a pretty good workout and can be somewhat challenging, depending on your fitness level.
The first part of the hike is mostly level and very pretty. The trail goes through a gorgeous tropical forest and continues down 400 feet with a mixture of stairs and steep terrain. You walk through a canopy of trees and tropical plants, populated with insects and colorful birds.
There are interesting flowers and scenic spots to take pictures all around. Then the Kilauea Iki trail continues down to the crater floor which was once a lake of lava.
What to Expect on the Kilauea Iki Trail
Even after 50 years, some parts of the surface are still warm to the touch. You’ll notice steam coming out in some places. This is caused by rainwater that seeps into the cracks and creates steam when it gets in contact with the hot rocks below. The steam and some rocks are hot enough to cause serious burns, so you need to be careful.
After reaching the crater, the trail continues for about one mile across the caldera floor, through a very scenic landscape of fumaroles, volcanic rock and volcanic vegetation. In the crater the air is very hot and dry, so you will need some sun protection, but the view is absolutely grandiose.
We expected the crater to be an arid and barren area, but to our amazement we saw a great deal of plants coming out of the hardened, cracked lava.
After crossing the caldera, the trail starts climbing up again. The ascent seems more difficult, although it’s almost entirely shaded by the tropical vegetation. On some uphill sections the road is pretty steep, so you might need to take a break or two.
Once you reach the top, you’ll have to continue walking around to reach your starting point, if you parked your car there. There are several other trails in the area, so if you like hiking the Volcanoes National Park is a real paradise. Most trails are well maintained and easy to follow.
The Thurston Lava Tube
Another attraction for visitors to the park is the Thurston Lava Tube. Walking through the lava tube is a short but impressive hike. A real “journey to the center of the earth!” It looks pretty much like walking through a cave.
Lava tubes are formed when the lava flows down towards the ocean and the outer crust begins to harden while the inner lava continues to flow. Once the flow stops, the tunnel formation remains. Thurston Lava Tube dates back some 350-500 years.
The first part is lit by electric lights and is high enough in the center to allow upright walking. But after this short corridor, there is another segment that is completely dark and has a very uneven floor. Tree roots are hanging down from the ceiling and water is dripping through the cracks forming small, slippery pods. This segment is very difficult to walk without a good flashlight.
The entrance to the lava tube is surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and is close to the parking lot away from the Kilauea crater. At the other end of the tube there are stairs leading back to the surface. The Big Island has the longest and highest lava tubes in the world.
Tips for Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail
The Kilauea Iki Trail is 2.4 miles and will take approximately 2-3 hours to hike, depending on how fast you are and how often you stop. There are two entrances for Kilauea Iki Trail. The main entrance is next to the parking lot on Central Rim Drive, close to the Visitor Center (the upper entrance). The other is next to the Lava Tube (the lower entrance). You can start in either director, but after hiking this trail many times I would advise you to take the upper entrance and return at the Lava Tube.
The upper entrance goes around the crater and has some view points (looking down into the crater), then follows down into the crater. The hike is much steeper here, but you are on your way down so you won’t feel it. On the way up (after you crossed the crater) there are a few parts that are a little steep, but overall the trail is shorter so it will be quick.
The Volcanoes National Park is so spectacular that it will make you forget that you are in the middle of nowhere, facing raw nature. Bring lots of water, snacks, sunscreen and a hat. Also bring sturdy hiking shoes and some rain gear, in case it rains. Bottom line, be prepared for all weather conditions and steep, rocky terrain.
The drive from Kona to the Volcanoes National Park takes about 3.5 hours, but totally worth it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.