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Mauna Iki TrailMauna Iki Trail

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park 

"Most of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park remains closed due to increased and damaging earthquakes, corrosive volcanic ash, and continuing explosions from Halema‘uma‘u, the summit crater of Kīlauea Volcano." Read More from the National Parks Service.
"The Kingdom of Desolation: As we trotted up the almost imperceptible ascent and neared the volcano, the features of the country changed. We came upon a long dreary desert of black, swollen, twisted, corrugated billows of lava - blank and dismal desolation! Stony hillocks heaved up, all seamed with cracked wrinkles and broken open from center to circumference in a dozen places, as if from an explosion beneath. There had been terrible commotion here once, when these dead waves were seething fire; but now all was motion less and silent - it was a petrified sea! The narrow spaces between the upheavals were partly filled with volcanic sand, and through it we plodded laboriously. The invincible ohia struggled for a footing even in this desert waste, and achieved it - towering above the billows here and there, with trunks flattened like spears of grass in the crevices from which they Sprang. We came at last to torn and ragged deserts of scorched and blistered lava - to plains and patches of dull gray ashes - to the summit of the mountain, and these tokens warned us that we were nearing the palace of the dread goddess Pele, the crater of Kilauea." 
Mark Twain, October 25, 1866

 

Round-Trip Mileage: 10 miles

Elevation Gain: 400 feet

Gear This is a very long hike into a wilderness area in one of the most remote areas of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Bring plenty of extra water and food. The hike ranges from 2500' to 3000' above sea level, so temperatures are much cooler than coastal destinations. Wear boots and don't forget your raingear.

Weather: NOAA forecast for the Kaʻū Desert

Learn about Hazards

Read my Disclaimer

Learn about Leave No Trace Principles

Map: Topographical Map of the Kaʻū Desert

Overview: A desert in Hawai'i? The Kaʻū Desert isn't technically a desert because it receives too much rainfall. The desert-like appearance of Kaʻū is due to the combination of the rain shadow from massive Mauna Loa and acid rain created from the gases erupting from Kīlauea Volcano. The ph of this acid rain can be as low as 3.4 and inhibits most plant growth. The lava here is also very permeable, percolating most rainwater deep into the earth before plants can avail themselves of it. This desert is an amazing and unique landscape on an island full of such landscapes. This hike travels deeply into the Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness area, among the most remote and desolate places on the Big Island. This entire hike is 2500' above sea level with the potential for direct exposure to sulfur dioxide gases pumping out of Halema'uma'u caldera. The chances of encountering another human on this hike is near zero. This particular hike travels to Pu'u Koa'e and the "Twin Pit Craters," which is a reasonable turn-around point for a very long dayhike, but you could theoretically continue along the Mauna Iki Trail until it hits the Hilina Pali Road. Unfortunately, the trail encounters the direct line of sulfur dioxide gas beyond where I end this hike. The National Park closes this trail periodically, or blocks access after a certain point. It's certainly possible to hike here on a "good" gas day, but those with respiratory issues should avoid it. It's also excessively unpleasant to huff volcanic gas for those of us without respiratory issues, so I tend to avoid it entirely. The world's most active volcano is full of surprises, so who knows what the future may hold for this ever-changing National Park. When gas conditions are poor, the entire Kaʻū Desert can be unpleasant. Check current gas conditions at the Hawai'i SO2 Network.

Kaʻū Desert

Getting to the Trailhead: This trailhead is not in the main part of the National Park. The Kaʻū Desert trailhead is actually about fifteen minutes drive west of the Park entrance. Drive Hwy. 11 west of the National Park entrance or east of Naʻālehu and find the highway pullout trailhead parking between mile markers 38 and 39. The trailhead is well-marked. There is a trash can and an emergency telephone at the trailhead but no other services. Plan accordingly to leave no trace.

Colorful lava inside a spatter coneThe Hike: From the parking area, hike the Footprints Trail southeast for a little more than three-quarters of a mile until you reach a small structure housing ancient footprints. (Find out more about the Footprints on our separate page for this popular hike -- The Footprints Trail). The trail is well-defined to the footprints structure, but begins to become more difficult to follow afterward. It is typically marked by ahu (cairns) when it crosses open lava. Hike southeast for a bit more than a mile to Mauna Iki (literally "little mountain"). Mauna Iki erupted in 1919 and 1920, and rises to an elevation of 3032' above sea level. Shortly after passing Mauna Iki, find a T intersection. You want to take the left fork to the northeast on the Kaʻū Desert Trail. The right fork to the south is also the same trail and this long hike is discussed on our page for the Kaʻū Desert Trail. Follow this trail as it passes lots of deep cracks and fascinating lava features. You'll pass a few spatter cones with incredibly colorful lava. Either hike until the National Park closure or continue to the Twin Pit Craters. This landmark is a nice spot to turn around for a long dayhike. Return the way you came.

ʻōhiʻa lehua