There are over 150 miles of hiking trails within the park. One long trail heads up the flank of Mauna Loa to its top; a spiderweb of trails loops around and across Kilauea Caldera and into the adjoining craters; and from a point along the Chain of Craters Road, another trail heads east toward the source of the most recent volcanic activity. But by far the greatest number of trails, and those with the greatest total distance, are those that cut through the Ka‘u Desert and along the barren and isolated coast. Many have shelters, and trails that require overnight stays provide cabins or primitive campsites.
When it’s cooler it’s also easier to spot all the steam vents, which are an active reminder that the crater could erupt again at any time.Because of the possibility of an eruption or earthquake, it is imperative to check in at park headquarters, where you can pick up current trail information and excellent maps. In fact, a hiking permit is required for most trails outside the Crater Rim Drive area and that stretch along the coast beyond the end of Chain of Craters Drive. Pick up your free permit no more than one day in advance. Much of the park is hot and dry, so carry plenty of drinking water. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses, but don’t forget rain gear because it often rains in the green areas of the park. Stay on trails and stay away from steep edges, cracks, new lava flows, and any area where lava is flowing into the sea.
If you will be hiking along the trails in the Kilauea Caldera, the free park maps are sufficient to navigate your way. To aid with hikes elsewhere, it’s best to purchase and use larger and more detailed topographical maps. One that is readily available and of high quality is the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park map by Trails Illustrated, and it is available at the gift shop at the visitors center.
Self-Guided Moderate Hikes
If you’re willing and able to complete more moderate hikes and want to experience the volcano with your own two feet, then attempt one or both of these hikes. Both hikes can easily be completed in one day.
Kilauea Iki Trail
The Kilauea Iki Trail takes you from the top of the crater and lush tropical rainforest of native vegetation and native birds to the bottom of the crater floor, which is devoid of vegetation but still breathes volcanic steam. This is a moderate four-mile loop because you descend and ascend 400 feet to and from the crater floor. It takes on average three hours to complete.
The trail for this hike is clearly marked. The parking lot for Kilauea Iki is the first one on the right on the Chain of Craters Road. It’s usually packed. From the parking lot go right and follow the Kilauea Iki sign, which will keep you to the left. As you hike along the rim look to the left and down at the various railed off lookouts. Below you is where you’ll be as you descend the trail into the crater floor. Essentially you are passing along the rim and then descending across the barren landscape and back up through the trees.
Upon ascending the trail out of the crater floor, you will pass by the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot. This is a worthy addition to the hike to see a lava tube, but it is also one of the most popular stops with tour buses so it can get crowded. Note: Your car was not stolen; you are in the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot, not the lot you parked in. Keep walking through the parking lot to the next parking lot where you left your car.
The best time to do this hike is first thing in the morning for several reasons. It’s cooler in the morning and more of a pleasant hike in the floor of the crater. When it’s cooler it’s also easier to spot all the steam vents, which are an active reminder that the crater could erupt again at any time. Finally, the birds are also much more active in the morning. Look for them along the crater rim as they search for insects to keep their bellies filled. Pick up a trail guide for this particular trail at the visitors center or download it from the park’s website for further descriptions of the sights you’ll pass on your way.
Pu‘u Huluhulu Trail
Another notable hike that can be completed in just two or three hours is the 2.5-mile roundtrip Pu‘u Huluhulu Trail to Mauna Ulu. This hike is for those who like adventure, since the trail isn’t marked well. Follow the signs along the Chain of Craters Road. Turn left where the road splits and there will be a sign for Mauna Ulu. Follow the road and the signs until it ends. The trailhead will be to the left of the parking lot.
This moderate hike will take you to the summit of a steaming volcanic crater that can also provide you with 360-degree panoramic views of the park, and on a clear day, if you’re lucky, you even see the ocean. The trail crosses lava flows from the 1970s so you will still see young plants sprouting out from cracks in the lava. Follow the trail to Pu‘u Huluhulu (Hairy Hill), a crater that has an island of vegetation (kipuka) that didn’t burn during the 1970s flows. It’s a short hike to the top of the pu‘u (hill), which gives you a good view of Mauna Ulu, the big mountain right in front of you. You can’t hike past Pu‘u Huluhulu without a permit, but you can follow the old flows up toward the top of Mauna Ulu. There aren’t official trail markers to the top but it’s easy to pick your own way up the young lava and return the way you came back to the trail. From the top of Mauna Ulu you can peer into the crater, which is hundreds of feet deep, and imagine what it must have been like when lava was spewing from it up to 1,700 feet into the air. A trail guide is available at the visitors center or online on the park’s website.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.