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Kilauea Iki Crater, Big Island, HI

2005-04-29 5 min read Great Hikes marco

The Big Island of Hawai’i is famous for its volcanoes. It actually is not one, but five volcanoes that are joined by overlapping lava flows. They vary in age and activity, and the youngest and most active of them has been the center of attention ever since mankind reached the islands.

{moszoomimglink:It was really flowing} Kilauea means spewing, and no volcano on Earth could be as true to this name. Kilauea has been spewing incessantly since 1992, and to this day you can hike up the brank new lava and see the red flow coming down the mountain.

{moszoomimglink:From Jaggar museum, looking into the caldera} The summit area of Kilauea is currently just a hickup in its much larger sister mountain, Mauna Loa. A dozen or more craters are lined up in an amazing cluster, the most prominent being the Kilauea caldera itself, a gargantuan gaping hole in the ground, with another smaller but deeper hole, Halema’uma’u, considered to be the house of the volcano goddess, Pele.

Slightly to the East of Kilauea is a much smaller, but still very impressive crater known as ‘Little Kilauea’, or Kilauea Iki. This crater has been dormant for a few decades, but was the location of the most amazing eruption of 1959, when a gigantic fountain of lava shot out of the side of the crater, filling the crater until it had turned into a lava lake. The eruption then stopped and moved to another vent, but the lava was trapped and took a few decades to cool down for real.

Getting There

{moszoomimglink:The road through Ka’u} To get to Kilauea, you’ll have to drive on Hawai’i Belt road from either Kailua or Hilo. Kilauea is much closer to Hilo than to Kailua, so if you plan a day trip, try to sleep there. You will ascend to 4000 ft, which means it will be cooler than at sea level. It is quite likely it might rain, so bring gear with you, and good spirit.

Once in the park, stop at the Visitor Center and check out the latest. The park rangers are extremely friendly, knowledgeable and outgoing people, and you’ll have a much more fun time in the park if you talk with them about excursions beforehand. Of course, they will tell you to hike Kilauea Iki…

{moszoomimglink:Forest on the trail} Once you get out of the Visitor Center, retrace your route and turn right just before you get to the park exit. This is Crater Rim drive, although this section actually goes through pristine rain forest. You’ll drive for a while until you get to Kilauea Iki overlook. Park there, and enjoy your hike.

This is not a very strenuous hike, so no extra gear is required. If you want to do something special, take your lunch with you and eat it on the crater floor. Don’t forget the water!

The Hike

{moszoomimglink:Kilauea Iki from the overlook} Check out the panel on the left of the overlook: it has a few very good pictures of the eruption that led to the current state. And when you then look down into the pit, it is easy to imagine the fiery lava gushing in waves now frozen in time.

Start on Crater Rim trail towards the West. You’ll walk through a magnificent rain forest, touching the crater rim a few times, seeing the lake from different angles. It really looks like a regular lake whose ripples and waves are strangely immobile. You’ll see steam coming up from cracks, too, which made at least one visitor a little uncomfortable.

{moszoomimglink:Entering the lake} Once you hit the end of the forest, you’ll start a short descent to the lake itself. The trail is well-marked and soon you’ll reach the first section, that looked a little rough from high above. The lava is uneven here, big pancake stacks strewn on the crater floor at odd angles. To the right, the big hill is Pu’u Ulai, a cinder cone marking where the lava was shooting out. The whole hill was created in just a few weeks in 1959!

{moszoomimglink:Crack in a lava dome} Past Pu’u Ulai, you get to the real lake. What from above looked perfectly flat is indeed a collection of lava shields separated by big, ugly cracks. The trail is faint and unmarked, but you essentially just need to cross the lake West to East (the long way) to get to the trail up.

{moszoomimglink:Lava against the green wall} You can spend as much time on the lake as you want. It has an acrid smell, slightly corrosive, and a day after the hike I was still feeling an odd freedom in my sinuses. Sit down, walk, enjoy. You will not sit on another lava lake in your life, so take your time.

Once you cross the lake and have taken in fumaroles, you’ll notice the traditional Hawaiian rock stacks, offerings to the gods, I am told. That’s almost the end of the hike, and the only thing remaining is to walk up the trail, a few switchbacks only, until you hit Crater Rim trail again. Follow it back to your car, and you should be done in only three hours of hiking.

All images in this section from the corresponding {moszoomalbum:Kilauea}