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Kilauea’s Practical Visitor Guide

This article is written for anyone intending to pay a visit to one of the world’s most popular and active volcanoes. This is not a “what to see” or “where to buy” guide, but rather a “what to expect” and “how to prepare” guide. If you are planning a trip to the Big Island any time soon, it would be a wise idea to take a look through this article so that you can avoid making some of the major mistakes common to tourists in Hawaii.

What to Expect

Kilauea is, arguably, the most active volcano on Earth. It has been in a constant state of eruption for over 20 years now and shows no signs of stopping soon. This is what makes Kilauea so attractive, but don’t expect to see lava shooting hundreds of feet into the sky.

The lava

The most important thing to see when you visit Kilauea are the lava flows. Now, these are not occurring five feet from the visitor center; I had a friend park ranger who was literally yelled at by an irate tourist because he’d have to hike to the lava flows. You enter the park near the summit of Kilauea and must drive partly around the caldera to Chain of Craters Road. You must follow this road all the way to the coastline which can take over an hour (and you should make a number of stops along the way). The end of the road comes abruptly where it was cut off by lava flows…and the end of this road changes from time to time as new flows come in. Some times it is a short walk, but usually you can expect to hike at least three miles; part of the way over abandoned road but mostly over pahoehoe lava flows. These are extremely lumpy; that is, you have to go up and down over small flows which will be difficult to anyone out of shape; always allow lots of extra time to get there and back. Once you find the flows, don’t expect giant rivers of lava. The flows are generally small (inches to a foot or two tall) and slow moving. The flows come down a large cliff, but don’t expect to see lava falls; these are extremely rare. Usually the flows come down through tubes and can’t be seen. If you’re lucky, you might be able to watch lava flow into the ocean (sometimes this is happening, sometimes it’s not).

Unless something dramatic changes during the next 20 minutes, you will not see lava shooting into the sky anywhere. This style of eruption ended during the eighties. What now occurs is a very quiet, gentle effusion of lava. One of my friends described it best when he said “Kilauea is leaking lava.”

The caldera

At the summit of Kilauea lies its largest feature: the caldera. This is a giant collapse feature (a large crater basically). Within the caldera lies Halema’uma’u crater, which is a pit crater that contained an active lava lake at the beginning of this century and for a while during the sixties. Now, the crater area offers a magnificent view as well as several special sights. To begin, the terrain can seem alien as it is largely devoid of plant life (mostly due to the intermittent flows, acid rain, and toxic gasses being released). Soaring over the crater are numerous tropical birds which ride air currents into and out of Halema’uma’u. One of the more interesting things you can look at are gas vents issuing steam and gas along the trail.

The coast

Along the coast you usually have a nice ocean breeze, which can be helpful against the heat. There are a couple of sights, such as the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, along the coast, but the main feature is lava flows. For info on that, see the above section.

The vent

You will never see the vent unless from a helicopter. The name of the vent is Pu’u O’o and, at one time, issued beautiful fountains of lava. For over a decade, however, Pu’u O’o has quietly oozed lava from within through a system of tubes. If you fly over Pu’u O’o, you will see an impressive vent with a large crater issuing deadly gasses from within. You will probably see know lava at all, and any you see will be quiet flows like you can find along the coast. At tourist kiosks in Hilo and Kailua you will see charter flights displaying videos of lava fountains with the words “eruption update” underneath; this is a ploy to sucker in tourists. Those fountains no longer exist. The helicopter flight may offer spectacular views, but don’t expect to circle a massive eruption.

You cannot visit Pu’u O’o from the ground. It is both illegal and suicidally dangerous. Even experienced volcanologists who have worked with Kilauea for years and are completely prepared are hesitant to approach on foot (and aren’t supposed to). In short, do not attempt to hike to Pu’u O’o unless you’d like to die a painful and gruesome death. You can gain an excellent vantage point from a safe location along a short trail. You begin by parking in the Mauna Ulu parking lot and hiking along the Napau trail one mile until you get to Pu’u Huluhulu (a large heavily forested cone rising beside the trail). The aptly named Pu’u Huluhulu trail rises to the top and provides a spectacular vantage point from which to observe Mauna Ulu and also Pu’u O’o steaming in the distance. Just understand that the trail, though short, is somewhat miserable. The trail is steep, hot, and wet…but worth the climb.

Dangers on the Volcano

Volcanoes National Park is probably one of the dangerous National Parks you can visit. Ironically, few visitors have any notion of the dangers that surround them when the visit. For this reason, it is absolutely vital for you to read this section before visiting Kilauea. Following a few simple rules will help you to identify dangerous situations and avoid them; it will guarantee a fun and safe visit for you and your family.

Stay on the Trails

When hiking within the park on any kind of trail, at all, do not venture from it more than a foot or two. There are several excellent reasons for this. Along several trails there is an extremely endangered plant which grows almost strictly along the summit of Kilauea known as “rat’s tail.” It’s not an impressive looking plant, so don’t feel the need to look for it; it’s a small ground hugging vine that looks rather ordinary. Regardless, it is extremely endangered and will die when trod upon. So, unless you enjoy promoting extinction, stick to the trails.

There’s another reason for sticking to the trails: much of Kilauea is considered sacred by the native Hawaiian peoples (before Europeans arrived, only shamans would approach the summit). The fact that people can hike all over it is considered sacrilegious by some, but the park system tries to accommodate by asking visitors to stick to the trails. Think about it: would you want a bunch of slack-jawed tourists walking into your church during a sermon, taking pictures and climbing the walls? Try to respect the culture of the native people.

Neither of these is the most important reason for sticking to the trails: safety. On average, several tourists die in the park each year; usually by getting lost. If you stick to the trail, you really can’t get too lost. Leaving the trail can rapidly leave you disoriented and lost. There is another reason, however; many of the dangers at Kilauea are hidden and can be unexpected. Sticking to a trail will reduce the risks of encountering these dangers to virtually nothing. A few examples?

Along the Halema’uma’u Trail, there are a number of steam vents; these are relatively benign since the majority of what comes out is steam and carbon dioxide (I still ask tourists not get on their knees and inhale the gas [which I have seen them do]). Appearing elsewhere along the crater are fumaroles which look the same, but issue a lethal dose of sulfur-dioxide. This gas is invisible…if you’re lucky, you might see the steam on a cold day. Inhaling it at a distance will result in permanent scarring of your lungs and can lead to asthma and emphysema. Some of these dangerous vents are located just meters from the trail. You can sometimes identify these vents by a yellow crust surrounding them, which is sulfur. The crust may also be white, from the carbon dioxide.

Walking across old lava can be dangerous as it is sometimes hollow and only an inch or two thick (trust me, I know). You can avoid it by staying on the trails. Walking on it may result in a broken limb, which is pretty common on Kilauea. Separating this fragile lava from the solid stuff at a glance can be nearly impossible, even for experts.

If you’re not sure how safe it is, don’t go near it

If it looks dangerous, it very well could be. If you see a gas vent and aren’t sure about it, don’t go near it; especially if it’s off the trail. This goes for absolutely everything.

Stay away from cliffs

Cliffs are, by no means safe. Having perfect balance could just as easily get you killed also, so don’t rely on this. Cliffs are ALWAYS temporary features. Along Halema’uma’u crater, and all others, there are extremely sharp cliffs. These cliff walls break off and fall into the craters on a pretty regular basis. NEVER leave the trail to approach a cliff. The trails are located and the closest possible safe distance from the crater. Here is an extra tip: if you have to walk over a crack in the ground to get to the cliff, stop where you are. These cracks are called faults. These are places where the cliff is in the process of breaking away and falling into the crater. Do not cross these faults. I have found people practicing meditation on the edges, as well as a pair of teenagers who had actually jumped across a crevasse to get to a block that was leaning precipitously into the crater (a fall is certain death). At times, I would actually yell toward people rather than approach the place from which they were snapping pictures (which offered no greater view than the observation deck, trust me). Always stay away from the cliff. There is another reason for not getting near.

Even if the block you’re playing Russian Roulette on doesn’t fall away, you may lose your balance. Upping the risk is the unpredictable winds. Winds gust from nothing to 20-30 mph on a regular basis. Near Halema’uma’u crater you can also get, what I call, mini-tornadoes. I only experienced it once while collecting gas samples near the crater (decked out in all sorts of safety gear of course). There was no wind, but I heard a strange rushing noise. Suddenly I was hit by a wall of swirling wind which reached speeds that I estimated to be at around 50 mph. I had to kneel down to keep from falling over and keep my eyes shut to keep debris out. This swirling mass of wind blew for around four minutes before disappearing or moving on. If I had been taking pictures on one of those cliffs, I would have been knocked right down to my death.

So, what’s the theme here? Stay away from cliffs (namely Halema’uma’u) unless the trail takes you there…in which case, stay on the trail!

Beware of Gasses

I talked about this briefly in the trails section. There are numerous gas vents on Kilauea, mostly around the caldera. DO NOT APPROACH ANY THAT ARE OFF THE TRAIL. The ones that lie directly on the trail are pretty benign, but I still wouldn’t advise sticking your face in it. Coming out of many of these fumaroles is a gas called sulfur dioxide. It produces a pretty offensive odor so that’s a good indicator that you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be. This gas causes scarring of the lungs and can lead to emphysema and asthma. If you already suffer from either of these conditions, AVOID the Halema’uma’u trail. Along this trail there is an invisible plume of sulfur dioxide gas, though in a small enough dose that it is not dangerous to healthy persons. You should be aware, however, of this gas’ presence and its effects.

There is one other place that you might encounter this dangerous gas; that is, along the coastline. The eruptive vent, Pu’u O’o produces several thousand tons of this gas everyday, which blows out over the ocean. It usually crosses Chain of Craters road between Kealakomo and Halona Kahakai overlooks. If you are in the plume, you will notice an acrid smell and the sky will look smoggy. Don’t stay in this plume for long if you don’t need to. Sometimes this plume will be hanging over the lava flows; in this case, it’s up to you, but I would strongly advise against going out there. Especially turn back if you have a respiratory condition of any kind. Making the hike through the plume will be extremely uncomfortable and may lead to long term lung damage. You will see Park Service officials in the area wearing gas masks for a reason.

Don’t play with the lava!

The lava is very cool, no one will deny that. When I get around the stuff, I suddenly feel like I’m six years old…and I’ve worked around it for months. What is important is not acting like you’re six years old when you get there. Lava, though seemingly slow, can still be extremely dangerous. Rule number one: don’t play with the lava. Do not stick anything into it. I know the kid in you wants to poke everything with a stick, but that’s a terrible idea with lava. First of all, you shouldn’t get yourself close enough to do that; if you were to trip or lose your balance (which is very easy to do), you could be badly burned. Second, when you pull the object out of the lava, it will still have liquid rock on the end of it. I’ve seen lava flung carelessly like this and it’s extremely dangerous (luckily no one was hurt in that instance, although I did severely scold that individual). As the lava on your stick cools, it turns to glass; consequently, you can get glass strands that are several hundred degrees dangling from the end of that stick. Fact of the matter is that it is against the law which, together with the other reasons, should be enough for you to not be stupid about it. If you dip an object in, you can’t take it back with you. Nothing from within the park can be removed, which includes lava. If you’d like to have some fun with it, throw a rock into the liquid lava ; it will float across the surface.

Rule number 2: Be very careful when taking pictures or looking around. Though the lava moves slowly, it can be pretty easy to get cut-off by advancing lava flows. To protect against this, always keep a watchful eye if the lava flows are on two or three sides of you. You don’t want to end up surrounded.

Rule number 3: Never walk across partially cooled lava. Volcanologists do this all the time, we have been specifically taught what to look for and how to proceed. You do not want to start walking across it and then watch your foot sink in. You wouldn’t walk again for months, maybe years. Simply walk the extra distance around a flow, rather than across. A fall will burn your hands severely and your shoes are guaranteed to melt regardless (we go through a lot of shoes working out there).

Rule number 4: Don’t do any unnecessary climbing. Tumuli (large uplifted blocks) may offer a slightly better vantage point, but often cause painful cuts and sometimes broken bones. If it’s near a flow, that’s also a good way to end up surrounded if you’re not careful. Play it safe; it’s a good way to have a great trip.

Rule number 5: Stay at a safe distance. When lava flows across soil and vegetation, you get what are called methane explosions. The intense heat of the lava incinerates the debris, but once it’s covered, it can’t burn due to a lack of oxygen. As a result, pockets of superheated methane form beneath the surface and can explode violently and unpredictably. You can be injured by scalding debris and blocks. The best way to protect yourself against this danger is to keep at least five meters from any lava flow that is crossing any sort of field, soil, grass, or series of bushes. If you see smoke or a blue flame rising from the rocks anywhere (which I’ve seen occurring as much as 200 meters from the flow front), get away immediately. The methane can travel through rocks and tubes and these signs show that an explosion is imminent in the next few minutes.

Avoid the LAZE

When visiting the lava flows, there is a very dangerous hazard that few people recognize. That danger is called LAZE (from lava haze). You should absolutely try to avoid it at all costs!

When lava enters the water, you have a violent reaction between the thousand-or-so degree lava and the sixty degree water. There are small explosions and a burst of steam…but this is not ordinary steam. Due to the violent change in temperature of the water, the molecules dissociate. The resulting steam is a mixture of water vapor, hydrochloric acid, and microscopic glass (which is inhaled directly to the lungs and will slice and dice your lungs). This scary mix is called laze and floats downwind in a plume that you can usually see and looks like ordinary steam. When it blows back over the land, it can be impossible to avoid. The key is to get through it as quickly as possible and try not to breathe much in; I’m not suggesting you hold your breath, but that you place a cloth of some sort (handkerchief, shirt) over your mouth to filter the air as much as possible. Breathing the mix for a minute or two won’t permanently damage your lungs, but don’t stick around to test your luck. The LAZE plume produces a strange odor; you can’t smell it as much as you can feel it on the back of your throat (sort of an acidic grainy feel). Don’t get over paranoid about it…look at which way the wind is moving and where the steam is blowing. If it’s not blowing directly at you, then you’re probably ok. Signs are posted, but most people don’t read them. I once spent several hours watching lava flow into the ocean and bury a young beach. As I left, I noticed a group of people who had been standing in the LAZE plume for over an hour (I thought I had seen them earlier, but they were behind a rock and I couldn’t be sure). Anyway, I decided to make a quick trip into the plume to warn them. Breathing through my shirt, I made my way over to find an elderly couple and their young grandchildren (under ten years old). I warned them of the danger and suggested they move, which they promptly did. To this day, I can’t help but wonder how they are doing. With the amount of time they spent in there, and considering the ages, there must have been some very nasty permanent lung damage done…and they had absolutely no idea.

Keep off of the Bench!

Along the coast, where the lava flows are entering the ocean, there is what we call a lava bench. This is an extraordinarily temporary feature which breaks off into the ocean in a violent collapse, killing or severely maiming anyone on it. When you approach the lava flows, you’ll note that where the lava flows into the ocean is a sizeable cliff or steep hill that leads to a lower block of land and a beach, which is called a bench. Some people who are foolish or ignorant will venture onto this area for a better view of the lava, but it is suicidally dangerous. Do not, DO NOT, DO NOT go on to the bench. That section is a piece of fresh land that has been partially dropped into the ocean (and is having extra weight added every second). It is tremendously unstable and everything on the ocean-side of the cliff is close to collapsing in. There can be tremendous heat as well as shattering rock, tsunamis, and acid explosions (we know the latter from a burn victim who was found dead several days later). You may find volcanologists doing a number of things you might consider dangerous, but no volcanologist will ever venture out onto a lava bench…which should be a good enough reason for you not to!

What to bring and wear

During my time at HVO, I saw some tourists so ridiculously unprepared that I still laugh to this day. Going unprepared can ruin a good trip; there are some very simply tips that can help make your visit an unforgettable one.

Always bring lots of water

When you’re hiking under the beating sun across barren black rock, the heat can become oppressive. The best way to combat this is by always bringing an abundance of icy cold water. Be sure to bring several liters of water with you on your hikes to keep from heat exhaustion and dehydration, two common ailments in the park. It’s also a good idea to carry your own snacks to aid in comfort.

Bring comfortable footwear

You will be hiking across glassy black rock along the coastline, and bumpy trails virtually everywhere you go. Never where sandals anywhere (you’d shutter at some of the mangled feet I’ve seen coming off of trails). Always wear comfortable sneakers or boots with ankle support. Sandals will only result in lots of pain.

Wear long pants

This isn’t necessary, but something I always encourage. That way, falling won’t result in some of the horrible cuts and scrapes I’ve seen. I, personally, always wear long pants despite a near perfect walking (I’ve seen too many bloodied legs to take the needless risk).

Bring some sort of First Aid

Some band and disinfectant would be a good idea to bring if you’re hiking along the coast as falls are pretty common.

Plan around the light

If you’re hiking within two hours of sunset, bring some sort of flashlight along. The moon is unreliable as it often rains at night on Kilauea. Hiking across black rock during the dead of night is dangerous with or without the moon if you have no flashlight.

Bring some sort of hat and sunscreen

It took some pretty nasty burns until I finally started adhering to this guideline. The sun at the summit will burn you much more quickly than on the coast, so always wear sun protection. A hat may also help to keep you cooler in addition to protecting your head from the UV rays.

Bring a camera

Don’t get all the way out there to discover you don’t have anything to take pictures with.

Carry your gear in a backpack

Keep your hands free for balance. A backpack will help tremendously.

Carry a map

At other parks you can be reasonably sure that the trail you’re hiking on will make a complete loop back to where you started; not so at Kilauea. Many of the trails are unidirectional lines between features or roads, so you need to know where you’re going or you can end up lost pretty quick.

What trails are best and how to prepare for those

Kilauea has a quite a few trails, most of which are too long to hike during a short visit. Below I’m going to give a quick listing of trails you might want to hike while you’re there.

Single day visit trails

The lava flows

I’m not giving you a trail name because there is none; in fact, trail is a misnomer since, at most, it’s just a series of reflectors for you to follow (even these usually end before long before you reach the flows). This is because the lava flows are dynamic: one week they’ll be miles away, the next the flows are cutting across another section of road (even the map you’re given shows more road than actually exists now). The trail is rough, but manageable for anyone who is in shape. Don’t hurry or you’ll be likely to hurt yourself. Lava flows are typically three miles or so from where you’ve parked along the road. The best time to view the flows is at night, but beware of the poor lighting (and plan accordingly). Remember, lots of water, sun protection, and appropriate clothing; remember these and you’ll have a great time.

Halema’uma’u Trail

There’s a parking lot along Crater Rim Drive and just a short walk to the lookout. It’s a beautiful view and worth the stop. The trail goes on beyond that point, but you’ll see little more than what you got at the overlook so why waste valuable time (since you’re only there one day).

Devastation Trail

This short trail can be started from the Pu’u Pua’i Overlook and is great for getting a feel for how a landscape can change during and after an eruption. It’s a relaxing and enjoyable walk, easy for people of all physical conditions.

Kilauea Iki Trail

This is a rather short trail that loops around and will bring you back to your car. No jaw-dropping sights, but you walk through the center of Kilauea Iki crater across what used to be a lava lake. The scene is beautiful, but getting into and out of the crater along the trail is challenging even for the physically fit; the trail in those parts is hot, humid, and very steep. Bring water.

Napau Trail to Pu’u Huluhulu

Pull into the Mauna Ulu parking lot and walk approximately one mile along the Napau trail (which is pretty tame). You’ll come to a heavily forested cone called Pu’u Huluhulu. There is a trail that winds its way up the side; at the top you’ll have a breath-taking view of Mauna Ulu and, in the distance, Pu’u O’o (the active vent). The Pu’u Huluhulu trail is short, but challenging; it’s steep, hot, and humid…but doable for most people.

Pu’u Loa Trail

This is Kilauea’s best kept secret…although, ironically, no one is trying to keep it that way. It just happens that most people don’t stop or pay attention when they get to the sign. Park in the provided area and hike the short distance to an elevated walkway. This is where the petroglyphs are located and it’s worth the stop. The elevated walkway will keep you from walking on and destroying the petroglyphs, so please don’t leave the trail or wooden planks. The trail is easy, but usually hot so bring water.

Crater Rim Trail

This for those of you “extreme” quick-visitors. The trail is roughly twelve miles around and will probably take the better part of a day. If you’re on a one day visit, I would suggest making this trail an early morning hike as it’s cooler and will leave time to visit all of the other sights. The views are amazing and I recommend the trail to everyone, but be aware that it is long and is better if you’re planning to visit for more than one day.

Two day trip

These are trails that allow you to get more than a quick snapshot of the volcano. These allow you to get a real feel for what’s going on and provide the opportunity to really get to know Kilauea.

Crater Rim Trail

See the section above.

Mauna Iki Trail

This is my favorite trail in the whole park. Beware, however, this trail does not loop around. You can get to it by following the windy and narrow Hilina Pali Road which will take you by the trailhead (keep an eye out for it; it’s near some sizeable bluffs). You begin in a brushy desert environment and cross numerous faults and earth-cracks, so keep your eyes open. You’ll continue for a bit and come to a large bluff, which the trail winds down. You’ll continue onward to Cone Crater and Pu’ukaone, both old vents, which you might want to cautiously climb (it’s mildly dangerous, but an impressive view; I generally advise against it and am not sure of the legality in such a climb). The trail will also take you past Twin Pit Crater which is a pair of amazingly deep pit craters which drop directly into the earth. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. If you elect to go further rather than turn around, you will briefly follow the Ka’u Desert Trail and finish at Highway 11. You’ll pass a rest area that contains footprints preserved in ash, but these have been all but destroyed by weathering. If you decide to hike this trail, I advise that you have a car waiting for you at highway 11 or arrange for someone to pick you up (cell phones will work from the footprints area).

Napau and Naulu Trails

Both of these trails are worthwhile in their own way. Napau trail will bring you by Mauna Ulu, Pu’u Huluhulu, and near steam cracks. Naulu Trail will bring across numerous lava flows, across the old Chain of Craters Road (which was buried during the sixties), and through some relatively dense rainforest/jungle. The trails meet at Makaopuhi Crater, a truly amazing spectacle and one that should not be missed by anyone spending more than a day in the park. Continuing on to Napau Crater, you’ll pass a’a and pahoehoe flows, an old factory for collecting jungle vines, and numerous tree molds. If you’re hiking these trails, you are required by law to register at the visitor’s center so be sure to do that. It is illegal to proceed beyond or into Napau Crater and I strongly advise against it due to the danger. If you can, I would loop around by taking Napau Trail up to the crater, and then Naulu Trail back to the road. You should prepare by having a car ready or be willing to hitchhike. Note: you will pass Kalapana Trail; DO NOT take this trail. It has been cut off by lava flows and will lead you nowhere.

The Caldera Interior Tour

This isn’t an actual trail, but a route I took through a network of trails within the caldera that proved to be the perfect hike. First I’ll give directions, and then explain why the hike is so great.

Begin at the visitor center and go to the Halema’uma’u Trail, and follow it down the caldera wall and across the flows. Continue past the first Byron Ledge Trail (you’ll see a couple of signs) toward the crater, but before you reach it you’ll come across Byron Ledge Trail again (it’ll be poorly marked). Take this trail (after visiting the crater if you haven’t already) to the Devastation Trail to visit Pu’u Pua’i. Backtrack from there and continue along Byron Ledge until you come to Kilauea Iki which you’ll follow through the crater to Crater Rim Trail on the other side. Continuing onward you’ll come to Byron Ledge Trail again; it’s up to you whether you want to go back down into the caldera and then back up to the visitor center (after rejoining Halema’uma’u Trail) or simply follow the Crater Rim Trail the rest of the way back. That last section of Byron Ledge doesn’t offer anything new to see and Crater Rim Trail has some great views along that section (plus, the Byron Ledge descent and then ascent is extra work that you really don’t need if you’re tired at that point). The whole hike is something like 13 miles, but passes very quickly as the trails are generally easy to follow and traverse.

Now, why bother? Well, this will give a great look at every corner of the caldera. Taking Halema’uma’u Trail from the visitor center downward will take you down the massive fault that created the caldera, through some beautiful forest, and across some expansive but relatively flat lava flows. You’ll even cross a rift sporting some nifty spatter cones from a couple decades ago. The only thing I ask is that you absolutely do not leave the trail through here due to moderate danger, cultural concerns, and the fact that HVO has some very uninteresting looking equipment scattered around that no one wants tampered with (you will be prosecuted if caught). There are also some hazardous gas vents near the spatter cones so don’t leave the trail there either. Byron Ledge will lead you to another massive fault that bounds that side of the caldera and up the side, where you’ll proceed along the Devastation Trail and see the sights described in that trail description above. Kilauea Iki is also impressive (see its description as well) and when all are viewed together in a single trip, you gain a wonderful understanding of what happens on a volcano and what can be expected. It really gives a fully three-dimensional perception that can’t be gained from a couple of parking lot stops.

3 or more days visit

These trails should only be attempted if you:

  1. Will be staying in the park for at least three days, preferably longer.
  2. You must be a highly experienced hiker/outdoorsman and be prepared for adverse weather conditions, unexpected injury, overnight camping.
  3. You must check in with the visitor center before embarking
  4. You must be willing to stay strictly on the trails
  5. You must have a map and it is highly suggested that if you attempt these trails, that you also have a gps and cell phone (from which to call in case of emergency).
  6. I highly advise against all of these trails.

Ka’u Desert Trail, Ka’aha Trail, Hilina Pali Trail, Keauhou Trail, Puna Coast Trail

The Ka’u Desert Trail can be started from the Crater Rim Trail not far from the Jaggar Museum. The first stretch will bring you to Mauna Iki Trail and you may find some cones along the side, but nothing amazing. I haven’t taken that trail as it looked extremely uninteresting from what I could see. The lower stretch may be quite a bit more interesting and take you by some very impressive cones, but I haven’t hiked that stretch either. You’ll probably want to stay the night at Pepeiao Cabin, which is disgusting and has an infestation problem from all accounts that I’ve heard. You can continue, the next day, to Hilina Pali Road (there’s nothing interesting along that stretch of trail, as it can be viewed in its entirety from the overlook) or continue onward along the Ka’aha Trail. You’ll encounter the coast, but probably not much else from what I’ve seen. On the plus side, you’re likely to encounter an ocean breeze along this stretch, so it may be enjoyable and comfortable.

Ka’aha Trail becomes Hilina Pali Trail, which may become interesting as you encounter Pu’u’eo Pali (but no guarantees). I believe it’s after passing Keahou Shelter that the trail becomes Puna Coast Trail. You won’t see many, or any, volcanic features of interest, but I have heard that there are a couple of very nice beaches along that route that you can relax at. The trail will end at Chain of Craters Road, across from the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs.

You’ll note that Keauhou Trail is not mentioned above. It’s a trail that will take you across some flow fields to the Puna Coast Trail. I’ve never seen anything that would be of interest along that trail and I’ve never heard anyone say anything good about it.

Now, if you do decide to embark on these trails, do not get off of the path. When I got to HVO, there was a hiker missing. He still hadn’t been found when I left four months later. STAY ON THE TRAILS. The cabin and shelters provide a place to rest or spend the night if you must, and they all have water (though you’ll need purification tablets). Though the water is available, bring at least two day’s water if you’re staying overnight, just to be safe (you’ll go through it fast, I promise). If you don’t know what else you should bring, don’t go.

Mauna Loa Trail, Ainapo Trail, Observatory Trail

With the exception of Ainapo Trail, I’m speaking from first hand experience so pay attention. My generalized advice to everyone out there is to not attempt any of these three trails. The exception is for people who are extremely physically fit and have extensive high-altitude rugged hiking experience. Here is a description of what you will encounter if you opt to take these trails.

You can take the Mauna Loa Trail from the Lookout at the top of Mauna Loa Rd (the trail starts at 6662 ft elevation). The hike starts out easy enough, but after you gain about 1500 additional feet in elevation, the trail starts going through some tough a’a hiking. Tough, but still not brutal; it’s very doable as long as you give yourself enough time (plan on hiking less than 2 mph). You’ll need to spend the night at Red Hill Cabin which rests partly up Pu’u Ula’ula cone. There’s no vegetation at this elevation and you won’t see anymore until you get back down (during my trip, I went some 48 hours without seeing a single plant or animal [insects included]). You’ll have to get up pretty early the next day and get moving; the hike will take you through numerous pahoehoe and a’a flows and will be noticeably more difficult than the previous day. Allow yourself a generous amount of time and pace yourself. It will be difficult to determine where you are at times due to the poor quality map you’ll have and the trail is easy to lose if you aren’t paying attention, so keep focused. You’ll continue moving toward Moku’aweoweo Caldera (translated “fish” caldera due to its shape), past several cones which ought to be obvious. Once you pass Pohaku Hanalei cone, it will be difficult to gauge where you are and how far you’ve got to go. You’ll hike over what seems like dozens of ridges, all of which you’ll expect to be the end of the trail. Don’t get over anxious to arrive or you’ll make a terrible mistake: end up on the wrong trail.

When I made the trip, I was warned about accidentally ending up on the Observatory Trail and moving back down the mountain. I made the mistake of getting turned around, mistaking where I was, and taking an old unmarked trail that I assumed would take me back to where I needed to go (it didn’t and I had to hike across a fault and 500 meters of lava flows to get back). There will be a sign at the junction where you’ll either take the Summit or Cabin Trail (depending on where you want to go at that moment).

As for the Observatory Trail, this is an easy descent (it is steeply sloped), but would be absolutely brutal if you’re trying to go up that way. The best way to proceed on these hikes would be, in my opinion, Mauna Loa Trail to the summit followed by Observatory Trail back down (with someone there to pick you up or a car waiting). You may very well be too exhausted to go back down the way you came.

My personal experience with Mauna Loa Trail is one of agonizing pain (and I had effortlessly hiked 25 miles in a day a week earlier). If you suffer from altitude sickness at all, do not attempt the climb. If you feel a noticeable loss of appetite at Red Hill Cabin, turn back the following day. The high altitude/lack of oxygen put me through hell from Steaming Cone to the Observatory one day later. Do not attempt these trails unless you are highly experienced with rugged high altitude hiking AND are used to hiking uneven barely groomed trails.

As an extra note, there may not be water at the cabins; if there is, you’ll need purification tablets. DO NOT assume that there will be water waiting for you at your destination. You will probably also go through your own water at a shocking rate, so plan accordingly for that as well. The hike offers wonderful views at the summit area and of Mauna Kea, but don’t expect a panoramic view of Kilauea or the Coast once you get above nine-thousand feet.

As for the Ainapo Trail, I met an individual at the summit who had made that climb. What I know is that that trail probably makes Mauna Loa Trail look like a picnic, which is enough to rule that out 100% for me. Very experienced hikers and outdoorsmen may want to tackle that trail, but I’d start with Mauna Loa Trail before you commit.


Your visit to Kilauea will be fun and exciting as long as you plan it well; come prepared and don’t try to do too much during your stay. Be aware of what trails you’re taking, where they will take you, and what you’d like to see during your stay. If you have children or people with you who are not physically fit, do not try to power hike all day; it won’t work. Enjoy the stay at one of America’s most beautiful attractions. Remember to visit the Hilo and Kailua-Kona areas while you’re on the big island and don't take the Saddle Road.