Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail

Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail

Trees that walk through a rain forest; plants that hold their “breath”; bright red flowers that sprout through rock. It’s all here on the Kilauea Iki Trail, a 4 mile hike that begins 2 miles from the visitors center at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Kilauea volcano erupted violently for 6 weeks in 1959, transforming the surrounding area into a harsh desolate landscape. Dramatic lava fountains pushed 2,000 degree molten rock 1,900 feet into the air. The eruption left behind a cinder cone hundreds of feet high and a lava lake about 2 miles wide. This is a story of exploration – hiking the Kilauea Iki trail created during those 6 weeks more than 50 years ago.

Jay, Becky, and Linda visited the park in 2016 and hiked the Kilauea Iki trail and the surrounding lava tubes left behind the 1959 eruption.

A Smoking Crater

The Kilauea volcano has been continuously erupting since 1983 with varying intensity. It was quiet while we were there. The only visible evidence of activity was the smoke. The crater looks deceivingly close, even though it’s about 2 miles away from the rim road where this photo was taken. 

During the day you’d have no idea that there is molten lava boiling away inside the caldera. If you stay until nightfall (we did) you can see the eerie orange glow, illuminating the smoke.

A Lava Lake

The Kilauea Iki Trail starts with a humid rain forest and all manor of birds and plant life, then descending to an arid, hot, and barren landscape that makes up the floor of the lava lake bed. The park service rates the trail a “moderate to challenging” hike, descending and ascending about 400 feet from the rim to the lake bed and back.

The view from the forest trail is deceiving. The hikers below look like ants, and you have to look pretty close to see them on the moon-like surface.

The whole world changes as you walk down into the basin from the rim. It goes from a cool humid air into a convection oven. The dark lava floor soaks up the sun’s rays and feeds radiates it back on you. It’s hot, dry, windy, and disorienting at first. Once you get your bearings you realize–this is going to be a long walk. The crater looks a lot bigger once you’re inside it.

From above you can see the trail clearly as it traces a line across the 2 miles of lake bed. Once you’re on the ground it all but disappears. You follow your way with “Ahu”, stacked rocks that mark the trail. Without them you would quickly get turned around.

The Cinder Cone

The most spectacular part of the eruption in 1959 was the enormous fountain of lava, shooting hundreds of feet into the air. As you drive around the Big Island, you periodically see large mounds that seem to just pop up out of nowhere. These “cinder cones” are the leftovers from the lava fountains of eruptions past.

The Hilauea Iki cinder cone is still a barren mass of cooled lava. It dominates the landscape, and it’s there with you along your whole journey across the lake.

Plants From Another World

The rain forest portion is pretty comfortable really. You get plenty of shade from the trees. And the trees are seriously weird – like nothing I’ve seen before. 

The Walking Tree

The hāpu‘u has a spiral, twisting seed pod that looks like something out of an old “lost in space” episode. It’s a fern that grows incredibly tall and can live for 50-100 years. Eventually it is so top heavy that it falls–but doesn’t die. Instead it grows new sprouts that in turn grow skyward. Its like the plant “walks” its way through the rain forest.

Drinking from the Air

The hāpu’u Pulu is a soft wool-like fiber that the plant uses to absorb moisture from the air. Since it’s one of the first plants to grow near recent volcanic activity, the soil is basically solid rock. The Pulu helps it get water from the air, and it also helps protect its new growth.

Plant that Holds its Breath

Volcanoes spew poisonous gases in addition to all the lava that flows. The grey “smoke” is a combination of nasty chemicals that will kill animals – and plants–most of them, anyway. The ʻōhiʻa lehua is one of the first plants to grow after the lava cools. They can spring up within a few years and are able to somehow break through the rocky soil to get growing. But they also have a unique ability to close their “stomata”, pores that let the leaves exchange carbon dioxide. When the ʻōhiʻa senses hazardous chemicals, it closes its’ stomata and “holds its breath”. 

Lava Tubes

The Thurston Lava Tube is a few miles from the main trail we’d been walking – but definitely worth the trip. I’d never heard of a lava tube before, or how it was formed. They’re found all over the island and have been there for thousands of years. 

They form when the lava is red-hot and flowing quickly toward the ocean. The top layer of lava cools and serves as an insulator for the main flow. Eventually the top layer cools enough to form a sort of crust. The hot molten lava continues to flow quickly in the space beneath and ends up flowing like water in a hose. When the eruption winds down, the last of the hot lava flow through the “tube”, leaving an empty cave behind. It’s really pretty cool to see and experience.

Early Hawaiians used the lava tubes as shelter. They provide protection from storms, but also are much cooler than the tropical air outside.

You can also imagine that the tubes are fragile. There’s a lot of earthquake activity near volcanoes, and these structures wouldn’t be great shelter from those.


The Kilauea volcano has been in the news lately (May-June 2018) with the violent eruptions taking place over the last few weeks. We offer our thoughts and prayers to those affected and hope they will recover soon.

The Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanoes over millions of years. The “big Island” of Hawai’i is the youngest, formed about 300,000 years ago–and still growing–through new eruptions.


Volcano National Park

This is where our hiking adventure started.
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