Your Volcanic Adventure Awaits
Hawaii is so symbolic of lush green trees and sparkling beaches that many people forget that the islands were – and still are – formed by an active volcano. Kīlauea and Mauna Loa are two of the most active volcanoes in the world and add to the Big Island yearly, sometimes daily. Kilauea is currently erupting at two vents, one within Halema’uma’u Crater and the other 10 miles east on the rift zone. Visitors are not permitted to get near the lava flows.
Both vents are contained within Volcanoes National Park and despite being kept at a distance, the sight is both thrilling and awe-inspiring. During the day the plumes are visible as columns of steam, but the lava paints the steam a pulsating, glowing red at night.
Volcanic fumes are caustic and irritate the eyes and lungs. Very sensitive visitors will want to plan hikes based on which direction the winds are blowing. Even with planning, you will be exposed to the fumes – expect it and plan for it. Have any needed asthma medications with you at all times and carry a bottle of saline rinse for your eyes. These two simple precautions will make your visit a lot more pleasant.
Weather in the area is unpredictable and frequently has large temperature swings. Bring layers of clothing and be sure your tent is waterproof. While there are two convenience stores in the park, your money will go a lot farther if you stock up before you get there. There are two campsites within the park boundaries, both with a seven-day limit.
Kulanaokuaiki is free, but primitive. There is no water at the site and no fires are permitted. Absolutely no pets are allowed in order to protect the nesting areas of the Nene, the endangered Hawaiian Goose.
Nāmakanipaio is green and grassy and has restrooms, water and barbecue pits. Bring cash so you can pay at the site. If you aren’t traveling with a tent, there are cabins to rent (not much more than a large, wooden tent – 80USD/night, sleeps four close friends) or you can spring for the hotel (upwards of 200USD/night).
Your first stop should be the Kilauea Visitor Center, not only to learn about the areas you’ll be hiking, but also to find out about active eruptions and road closures. Fill or buy water here because there is none in the park. No streams, no rivers, no creeks – none. Bring the ten essentials and pack extra in the car.
Several trails can be reached from the visitor center and are worth the time for the glimpse into the power of the earth that they offer.
The sulfur banks trail is an easy boardwalk trail along the steaming cracks in this very thermally active area. The smell can be quite strong and a little uncomfortable if the wind is blowing the fumes towards you, but it’s a quick 2km trip.
The road was closed in 1983 after an earthquake and is now only a walking path. It is short and easy, and often offered as an educational ranger walk.
The Sandalwood Trail is an easy 2.4km loop that has great views of steam vents and earthcracks. The vents are spewing scalding steam – stay away from them.
A paved path through the cinder fallout from the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption, this is a great way to see how life returns after complete destruction. The trailhead is four miles from the visitor center and the walk is an easy 1 mile loop.
This 17.7km trail circles the caldera. Although this is an amazing hike, a section of it is currently closed due to ongoing eruptions in the area preventing hikers from doing the full circle. Don’t let that deter from exploring the open sections of the trail and the many connecting trails that let you investigate different parts of the caldera. The surface is rough, slippery and hot. Steam vents can make breathing difficult and the lava crust may be thin if you leave the path. Bring food, a lot of water and expect to go slow. Leather gloves will help protect your hands from sharp lava, but your knees and other body parts will suffer if you fall. It’s hot, dirty, difficult and possibly the coolest hike you’ll ever do.
Most hikes along the Chain of Craters Road are short and are connected by car travel. This doesn’t mean they are easy.
Kilauea Iki Trail
This is a hike down into and across a (mostly) inactive crater. The drop and subsequent ascent is about 400 feet (122m) along switchbacks and steps. The crater floor is flat, but with cracks and boulders that may require some navigation. The entire trip covers only 4 miles (6.4km), but it is a hot, dry trip. About halfway across the crater you’ll come to cracks that are still steaming. It’s right about here that you remember that you are walking in an active volcano – and the way out is a long climb in front of you. From the parking lot at the rim of the crater the right trail down is mostly stairs; the left is all switchbacks. Decide how you prefer to ascend and choose your direction accordingly.
Along the left trail you’ll also have access to the Thurston Lava Tube, a short but interesting detour. You’ll want a flashlight to see as much as possible.
The Pu’u Huluhulu trail crosses Pahoehoe lava flows from the mid 70s and takes you through growth that amazingly takes hold in the seemingly sterile, solid lava. It’s a bit of a climb to the summit (moderate) but the view on a clear day is well worth the effort. Round trip is about two hours or less, and check the wind direction and strength before you go if you’re sensitive to sulfur and volcanic fumes.
The Nāpau Trail is more of a commitment, taking you over 14 miles (22km) and decades of lava flows. Backcountry camping is possible here with a permit, however the area is still quite active and can close quickly due to volcanic activity. Definitely check at the visitor center before tackling this trail and bring a lot of water. On a sunny day the black lava beneath your feet warms up quickly and you will dehydrate if you aren’t careful. Once you leave the trailhead there is nothing until you get to Nāpau Crater. The trail runs along the East Rift Zone and you’ll see the Pu’u‘Ō’ōvent, the other activesite in the park.
The Na’ulu Trail connects to the Nāpau Trail or can be accessed from a separate parking area. Both trails are above actively moving lava that can shift or erupt at any time. The crust can be thick and solid, or just a deceptively smooth surface over hot lava. Don’t leave the path. Seriously. Don’t leave the path. If you see lava on the trail, move away and upwind. The ground near the lava outbreak is hotter than you think and will melt your shoes in about a minute. Seriously. Don’t fool with lava.
The Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs are an easy stroll from the parking area. These ancient figures were carved into soft lava some time between 1200 and 1450 AD. The glyphs are surrounded by a boardwalk to protect them. It’s a quick, one-hour walk to view ancient carvings.
The road you’re on used to connect to Hilo until Pele decided to reclaim it. In April 2003 lava swept down the hill destroying everything its path and covering the road with molten rock. This is less of a hike and more of a tramp over rough, cracked, relatively fresh lava. If there are active flows in the area, this can be the best place to view steam vents or lava flows into the sea. Even with no volcanic activity it’s pretty awe-inspiring.
On the other side of this road is a viewing area that opens in the evening. Usually it’s just a great sight of the glowing red steam column, but you may be lucky enough to be there during an active eruption in which case you’ll be treated the sight of trees bursting into flame and the ground glowing just a few feet in front of you. The area is usually crowded and well monitored to keep people from venturing past the barriers. There is nothing there but rock so bring a flashlight and something to sit on if you plan to stay a while.