The Kaʻū Desert - Footprints Trail
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
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: 1.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Gear: This is a remote and seldom-visited part of the Park, so you’ll need to be more self-sufficient out here. Consider carrying a painter’s mask because the Kaʻū Desert is often more in line of the sulfur dioxide gas coming from Halema’uma’u Crater, just a few miles away. This part of the park is thousands of feet above sea level, so temperatures can be much cooler than coastal destinations. Despite its "desert-like" appearance, it rains quite a bit here, so bring the raingear.
Map: Topographical Map of 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. Attesting to the power of the volcano here are two-hundred year old fossilized human footprints in mud-ash. Their origin isn't entirely clear, but it is surely fascinating to walk among the footprints of the ancient Hawaiians in this desolate place. Read more below about the history of the footprints.
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 here in 1941 with a glass enclosure over the footprints. Carelessly designed, the glass condensed water and eventually damaged the prints. The glass has been removed inside the shelter, but the damage done to those prints is pretty devastating. I can't for the life of me discern any actual prints inside the shelter. 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 200+ year old footprints frozen in time in wet mud-ash, even if they weren’t created by a decimated army. Return the way you came back to the trailhead.