The Kaʻū Desert
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
The Footprints Trail
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: 9.5 miles (from the trailhead to the Twin Pit Craters and back). This can be much, much shorter.
Elevation Gain: 350 feet
Gear: This is a remote and more seldom-visited part of the Park, so you’ll need to be more self-sufficient out here. Depending on how far you intend to go, bring appropriate gear for a hot and dry climate. Consider carrying a painter’s mask because the further south you go along the trails, the more you’ll be in line of the sulfur dioxide gas coming from Halema’uma’u Crater, just a few miles away.
Map: Topographical Map of Kaʻū Desert
Overview: The Kaʻū desert is located on the southwest flanks of Kīlauea Volcano. Not technically a desert because its average rainfall is too great, its desert-like appearance is actually created by a combination of the rain shadow created by Mauna Loa and also acid rain created by the sulfur dioxide gas from Kīlauea. The ph of the acid rain, as low as 3.4, inhibits most plant growth. Adding to these effects is the fact that the lava soil here is extremely permeable, percolating most rainfall down into the water table before it can aid in plant growth. Attesting to the power of the volcano here are two-hundred year old fossilized human footprints in mud-ash. Contact the National Park at (808) 985-6000 for current information on the eruption. Areas of the Kaʻū desert have been closed due to the recent eruption activity.
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 trailhead, hike south along the Footprints Trail for 0.84 mile until you see a small shelter. Along the way, enjoy hiking around the trail marveling at the unique landscape of the Kaʻū Desert. Supposedly, the CCC placed the shelter there in 1941 with a glass enclosure over the footprints. Carelessly designed, the glass condensed water and eventually damaged the prints. Ironically, the best footprints are now scattered in the area around the shelter. The shifting sands expose and cover prints from time to time. As stated in the overview, the footprints are about two-hundred years old. For years, Park Service employees thought that most of the prints were created by the retreating army of Keōua Kuahuʻula, who was battling the famous Kamehameha I for dominance of the island. A large number of his men died asphyxiating in the disastrous 1790 eruption of Kīlauea. The prints were assumed to be theirs until recently when examination of the prints concluded that most of them were not warriors, but women and children. Some are even older than 1790, and the most recent research indicates that almost all the prints are attributable to everyday circumstances. At any rate, it’s exciting to find two-hundred year old footprints frozen in time in wet mud-ash, even if they weren’t created by a decimated army. After footprint-hunting, continue on the Footprints Trail toward Mauna Iki, which erupted in 1919. You eventually transition from sparse vegetation to almost completely bare lava surfaces. To your right, you’ll find a recent a’a flow atop pahoehoe that is interesting to compare and visit. Continuing on the trail, you arrive at Mauna Iki, which means “little mountain.” Past Mauna Iki, you intersect the Kaʻū Desert Trail. You can go right toward the sea or left toward the main area of the park. At this point, you’ve come very close to the gas cloud emanating from Halema’uma’u. Constantly monitor the air quality, and proceed further at your own risk. If you go north, you’ll find an amazing landscape of lava and spatter cones that are all interesting to visit. You’ll quickly find the intersection of the Kaʻū Desert Trail and the Mauna Iki Trail. The Kaʻū Desert Trail is closed at this point due to gases. If you made it this far without getting gassed, you can continue toward the Twin Pit Craters along the Mauna Iki Trail. You’ll be getting directly in the line of the gas from Halema’uma’u at this point. Back to the intersection of the Footprints Trail and the Kaʻū Desert Trail, you can also hike to the south along 1920s lava flows. This long trail is used for backpacking, and will eventually put you in the path of the Halema’uma’u gas, albeit much further away than the Manua Iki trail. Carefully evaluate the air quality as you hike down this trail.