Kaʻū Desert Trail
to the Kamakai'a Hills
Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness Area
"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, upon crossing the Kaʻū desert
Round-Trip Mileage: 10.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 700 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. You need to be very self-sufficient. 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. Bring some warm clothing and rain protection. The entire hike is on unforgiving lava of various kinds, so you will appreciate sturdy boots. Also consider carrying an inexpensive painter's mask because this hike can expose you to dangerous sulfur dioxide gas issuing from the volcano.
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 follows the Kaʻū Desert trail deep into the Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness area, among the most remote and desolate places on the Big Island. Let's be clear: this ain't a casual beach stroll. 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. Respect this beautiful place and prepare yourself both physically and mentally to travel through real wilderness. This particular hike travels to the Kamakai'a Hills, which is a reasonable turn-around point for a very long dayhike, but understand that you can shorten or even lengthen this hike. This trail continues on to some of the most remote parts of the National Park, where you can backpack to a few primitive campsites. Unfortunately, the trail encounters the direct line of sulfur dioxide gas beyond where I end this hike. It's certainly possible to hike beyond 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.
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.
The Hike: From the parking area, hike 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 complicated history of these 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. At the intersection, turn right (south) on the Kaʻū Desert Trail. The left turn is discussed on our page for the Mauna Iki Trail. The trail descends quickly at first, and then very gradually all the way to the Kamakai'a Hills. As you enter the Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness Area, you encounter an otherworldly place where you can feel like you're the only person on the island. There are literally no signs of civilization in any direction, and sweet silence. Some of the lava features on this part of the island are incredibly unique -- new, black lava capped with colors like blue, gold, crimson, and purple. These colors derive from the chemical composition of the rock that became magma. When you're near to the Kamakai'a Hills, you're about five miles from the trailhead. This is the point where I chose to end this hike because of the obvious landmark of the Kamakai'a Hills, but you don't need to stop here. Miles beyond here are some primitive campsites that you can reserve via the National Park, but be aware that sulfur dioxide gas can commonly plague these areas with the current eruption cycle. I personally don't like to expose myself to even low levels of this gas. When you're ready, return the way you came.