One of my favorite hikes in Hawaii is the Kilauea Iki Trail, in the Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Walking across what used to be a lake of molten lava, is a first hand encounter with the raw nature of Hawaii. It’s also one of the free things to do on the Big Island, and ‘free’ is always good!
The trail is next to the main summit caldera of Kilauea, an active volcano that has been causing damages to the Big Island for many years. From 1983 to 2018 the Kilauea erupted almost continuously, destroying properties and even entire towns (like the Puna District in 1990.)
What to expect at the Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is one of the top destinations for a great family vacation. We first discovered this beautiful spot while driving around the Big Island, in search of some exciting things to do. Although quite different than the one we did on the Road to Hana, in Maui, this drive is equally exciting and should be done if you have time.
The Kilauea Iki Trail is located within the park. If you don’t want to do this hike, you can just drive around the Crater Rim Drive. The 11 miles road that encircles the caldera and has access to several scenic stops which can be reach by foot, on short walks.
But if you want to fully appreciate the power of this volcano, you should stop do this amazing hike that takes you inside the caldera of the Kilauea Iki crater.
Kilauea Iki volcano has been dormant since 1959, so it’s safe to visit now. There are several points from where you to see crater from above before you start your descent. From up here you can take some of the most beautiful pictures of Hawaii.
Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail
Kilauea Iki is a loop, so hiking the entire circuit means you’ll have to go down to the bottom of the crater until you reach the former “lava lake” and then head back up. The hike then continues along part of the Crater Rim Trail, which means you’ll be able to enjoy more views of Kilauea Iki from above.
The trail begins at the Overlook, where you can actually see what you are about to experience. This hike is a pretty good workout, with some parts that may be somewhat challenging, depending on your fitness level.
The first part of the hike is mostly level and very pretty. The trail goes through a gorgeous tropical forest and continues down 400 feet with a mixture of stairs and steep terrain. You walk through a canopy of trees and tropical plants, populated with insects and colorful birds.
There are interesting flowers and scenic spots to take pictures all around. Then the trail continues down to the crater floor which was once a lake of lava.
What to Expect on the Kilauea Iki Trail
Even after 50 years, some parts of the surface are still warm to the touch. You’ll notice steam coming out in some places. This is caused by rainwater that seeps into the cracks and creates steam when it gets in contact with the hot rocks below. The steam and some rocks are hot enough to cause serious burns, so you need to be careful.
After reaching the crater, the trail continues for about one mile across the caldera floor, through a very scenic landscape of fumaroles, volcanic rock and volcanic vegetation. In the crater the air is very hot and dry, so you will need some sun protection, but the view is absolutely grandiose.
We expected the crater to be an arid and barren area, but to our amazement we saw a great deal of plants coming out of the hardened, cracked lava.
After crossing the caldera, the trail starts climbing up again. The ascent seems more difficult, although it’s almost entirely shaded by the tropical vegetation. On some uphill sections the road is pretty steep, so you might need to take a break or two.
Once you reach the top, you’ll have to continue walking around to reach your starting point, if you parked your car there. There are several other trails in the area, so if you like hiking the Volcanoes National Park is a real paradise. Most trails are well maintained and easy to follow.
Visiting the Thurston Lava Tube
After you finish hiking the trail, you should visit the Thurston Lava Tube, another unique attraction next to the Kilauea Iki crater. Walking through the lava tube is a short but impressive hike. A real “journey to the center of the earth!” It looks pretty much like walking through a cave.
Lava tube was formed when the lava flows down towards the ocean and the outer crust begins to harden while the inner lava continues to flow. Once the flow stops, the tunnel formation remains. Thurston Lava Tube dates back some 350-500 years.
The first part is lit by electric lights and is high enough in the center to allow upright walking. But after this short corridor, there is another segment that is completely dark and has a very uneven floor.
Tree roots are hanging down from the ceiling and water is dripping through the cracks forming small, slippery pods. This segment is very difficult to walk without a good flashlight.
The entrance to the lava tube is surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and is close to the parking lot away from the Kilauea crater. At the other end of the tube there are stairs leading back to the surface. The Big Island has the longest and highest lava tubes in the world.
Tips for Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail
The loop trail is 2.4 miles and will take approximately 2-3 hours to hike, depending on how fast you walk and how often you stop.
There are two entrances for Kilauea Iki Trail. The main entrance is next to the parking lot on Central Rim Drive, close to the Visitor Center (the upper entrance). The other is next to the Lava Tube (the lower entrance). You can start in either director, but after hiking this trail many times I would advise you to take the upper entrance and return at the Lava Tube.
The upper entrance goes around the crater and has some view points (looking down into the crater), then follows down into the crater. The hike is much steeper here, but you are on your way down so you won’t feel it. On the way up (after you crossed the crater) there are a few parts that are a little steep, but overall the trail is shorter so it will be quick.
The Volcanoes National Park is so spectacular that it will make you forget that you are in the middle of nowhere, facing raw nature. Bring lots of water, snacks, sunscreen and a hat. Also bring sturdy hiking shoes and some rain gear, in case it rains. Bottom line, be prepared for all weather conditions and steep, rocky terrain.
The drive from Kona to the Volcanoes National Park takes about 3.5 hours, but totally worth it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.