Updated: Mar 17, 2020
Kilauea iki has to top my list of favorite places to hike. Maybe it’s because I saw it erupt when I was a young boy and the sight of a 1500-foot lava fountain and thunderous roar from the throat of the volcano reached into my soul. Maybe it’s such a spiritual place, a home to Pele, the goddess of fire. Or it’s the quiet isolation of walking through dense forest with magnificent views from the edge of the crater. Its an easy hike walking through the Ohia forest surrounded by birdsong and winds whispering in the canopy. Throughout my life this has always been on my list of things to do whenever I visit the Volcano village area.
The trailhead is easy to find as you drive along the Chain of Craters road in the Hawai’i Volcanoes national park. The parking area is also walking distance from the Thurston lava tube, but you may be sharing that walk with a busload of visitors as it is one of the main tour stops in the park. There are two choices, left down a switchback trail onto the floor of the crater or right along the rim and down a gentle slope to the crater floor. Over the years I have developed a fondness for taking the rim trail. Maybe it just helps set the mood as you slowly descend through the forest and see the crater in its entirety before you reach the floor. Either way, take it slow, enjoy the walk. Look for native birds in the canopy, smell the ginger in bloom, stop and enjoy the view.
As you near the floor of the crater you will come to a crossroads. The more adventurous and fitter hiker may take the route that leads back to Volcano House along the Byron ledge but today we are walking into Kilauea Iki. You climb down a narrow path and into a scene of stark contrast. There is the black lava and rocky outcrops of stone and cinder that is the floor of the crater.
But there are also the incredible delicate blossoms of the Lehua flower blooming from young Ohia trees that are the first flora to grow from lava flows in Hawai’i. I have been to that spot when there is fog and mist creating a truly primordial experience. It’s as if you are standing at the start of the world, a few trees growing from the lava landscape, bringing life to a heretofore lifeless existence.
The trail is easy to follow, worn from a half century of exploration leading you to the heart of the crater. There you stand insignificantly small before the throat of the volcano.
Imagine the scene, a lake of molten rock hundreds of feet deep being fed from this vent. Then, a large boulder blocks the opening, much like your thumb on a hose. Only this blockage creates a fountain that reaches up to 1500 feet in the air, with a roar like a thousand jet engines. The lava fountain sprays lava droplets high into the air, light enough to float on the wind forming a massive cinder cone and covering the forest behind the volcano.
Now the vent is quiet, filled with rocks from the eroding cliffs behind, much of it reddish in color from the oxidation of the iron that makes up a sizeable percentage of Hawaiian lava minerals. Now is the time for a selfie and a moment to appreciate the awesome spectacle that is an erupting volcano. Then turn and see the final result of the eruption that was Kilauea Iki.
You look and see the lava lake all around you, steam still issuing from many spots as the lava is still cooling deep under the surface. There are scattered Ohia trees, growing in cracks, drawing water and nutrients from the rocky landscape. As you walk along you see yellow sulfur deposits near some of the steam vents and the smell tickles your nose. The steep cliffs that once were barren surrounding a boiling lava lake are now covered with Ohia forest filled with ferns.
It takes some time to walk across the floor of the crater. While the walk is relatively smooth Pahoehoe lava, this is a large crater, giving you some idea of the size of the pocket of Magma that lay below you before it erupted to the surface. You had worn layers since the morning had started cool and foggy, or rainy. But now the weather has cleared and you are getting hotter as the sun rises higher and the clouds disappear. The sun heats the barren rock around you and the morning chill is gone. Time to stop again and take in the panoramic beauty that surrounds you.
After a time, you reach the edge of the crater and begin to climb back to the parking area. Don’t forget to stop and take in the view back along the route you had taken, there are a number of turns and an occasional bench with an overlook. Then you get back to the parking lot and grab a snack and drink before crossing the road to the Thurston Lava Tube. Then back in the car to Devastation trail, a boardwalk across the cinder desert behind Kilauea Iki. The day is only just beginning!
There are nine national parks and historic sites in the state of Hawai’i, the island of Hawai’i alone has five! If you are excited about exploring, being awed by the natural world or just want to have an adventure, then this is the place for you! We have placed a number of links to our travel partners to help you get started. It doesn’t cost you any more to use them, but we get a small percentage that helps us continue to share our adventures with you. If you are excited about these experiences as we are, please click on the links we provided and get started. Aloha!