Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail to the Thurston Lava Tube

Kilauea Iki, meaning little Kilauea, is by no means a little hike. This hike will weave in-and-out of a lush rainforest, bring you down to the remnants of a former lava lake, and then lead you to the popular Thurston Lava Tube. Kilauea Iki was the trail that I was most eager to explore during my recent trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I was not disappointed. There are two potential starting points for this hike, either at the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot or the Kilauea Iki parking lot. The trail is a loop, and so you can choose to go either clockwise or counterclockwise. We chose to go counterclockwise by starting at the Kilauea Iki parking lot and ending with the Thurston Lava Tube as our finale.

The view from the Kilauea Iki lookout at the trailhead parking lot. That faint white line on the crater floor is part of the Kilauea Iki trail. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The view from the Kilauea Iki lookout at the trailhead parking lot. That faint white line on the crater floor is part of the Kilauea Iki trail. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

This is where you'll start. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

This is where you’ll start. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 1: Numbered wooden markers indicated stops in the accompanying trail guide (available for purchase for $2. This trail focuses on the aftermath the Kilauea Iki eruption that occurred on November 14, 1959. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 1: Numbered wooden markers indicated stops in the accompanying trail guide (available for purchase for $2. This trail focuses on the aftermath the Kilauea Iki eruption that occurred on November 14, 1959. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 2: This concrete Slab was used as apart of a trolley system that would bring heavy items to and from the crater floor. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 2: This concrete Slab was used as apart of a trolley system that would bring heavy items to and from the crater floor. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 3: This marker highlights the spatter that occurred during the 1959 eruption. Blobs of molten rock up to three feet big projected as far as this point along the trail. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 3: This marker highlights the spatter that occurred during the 1959 eruption. Blobs of molten rock up to three feet big projected as far as this point along the trail. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Kilauea Iki Trail

Almost as soon you begin the hike, the trail will open up to your left, revealing the crater floor of Kilauea Iki. The trail is the result of a dramatic eruption that occurred on the night of November 14, 1959. As you hike along the upper portion of the trail, look down into the crater floor and imagine lava gushing from the vents below over a five week period. As I hiked, I could only imagine what the lava lake below had looked like on that evening in 1959. We would be hiking down there today, and thankfully, there would be no lava spewing at us. As you walk through this upper portion, you will notice a large concrete slab (marker 2). This slab was used as part of a trolley system that would move bulky equipment to and from the crater floor. What powered the trolley system? An old Jeep.

Marker 4: Grab a view of Puu Puai here.

Marker 4: Grab a view of Puu Puai here.

Here's Michelle as she makes her way down into the crater floor below. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Here’s Michelle as she makes her way down into the crater floor below. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

At this point, we're about 0.2 miles from the crater floor. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

At this point, we’re about 0.2 miles from the crater floor. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 5: The National Park Service is helping to preserve and protect the native forest. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 5: The National Park Service is helping to preserve and protect the native forest. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 6: "Prior to 1959, you would be looking into a forest-covered crater 800 feet deep, twice the present depth." Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 6: “Prior to 1959, you would be looking into a forest-covered crater 800 feet deep, twice the present depth.” Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Michelle stops to photograph the barren landscape. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Michelle stops to photograph the barren landscape. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

...while I stood to admire it. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

…while I stood to admire it. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

Along the way, keep an eye out for marker 4. Here you will get a nice view of Puu Puai, Uwealoha, Halemaumau Crater, Muna Loa, and the Jaggar Museum. Shortly after, you will work your way through a few switchbacks that will get you down to the crater floor. Look down at your feet and you’ll notice that you are walking on large, black, rock slabs. This area used to be a lava lake that flooded Kilauea Iki. The ahu, or stacked rocks are important to note when navigating the crater floor. These stacked rocks are trail markers and indicate the correct trail path. You will begin to notice the uneven distribution of ohia trees as you walk through the crater floor. I imagine that before the 1959 eruption, the area was a flourishing ohia forest. When hiking in Oahu, the only place that ohia is prevalent is high above in the Koolau mountains. That said, it was great to see a resurgence of ohia. My only regret is that I’ll not be around long enough to see the area reforested like it was prior to 1959. Reforestation will take many generations. Eventually, you’ll reach the opposite end of the crater floor. Marker 14 indicates the end of the crater floor portion of this hike. Take a few moments to turn around and look at the faint, barren trail that you just hiked through. The image is a stark contrast to the lush forest that you’ll now enter and you climb up to the Thurston Lava Tube.

Marker 7: This rocky ledge is called a "bathtub ring." Scientifically, it is a lava subsidence terrace. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 7: This rocky ledge is called a “bathtub ring.” Scientifically, it is a lava subsidence terrace. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The ahu marks the way. Ahu, or stacked rocks, are used as trail markers on the crater flood. Don't knock them down. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The ahu marks the way. Ahu, or stacked rocks, are used as trail markers on the crater flood. Don’t knock them down. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

See, told you so. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

See, told you so. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

My trail guide. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

My trail guide. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 8: Watch your step! Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 8: Watch your step! Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Coty looking at a different kind of beautiful. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

Coty looking at a different kind of beautiful. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

Marker 9: In front of this marker is the lip of the main vent of Kilauea Iki. Lava erupted from this vent 17 times. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 9: In front of this marker is the lip of the main vent of Kilauea Iki. Lava erupted from this vent 17 times. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

A closer view of the lip of the vent. The actual opening is covered by fallen rocks. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

A closer view of the lip of the vent. The actual opening is covered by fallen rocks. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Lava fields can be disorienting. Follow the stacked rocks! Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Lava fields can be disorienting. Follow the stacked rocks! Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 10: Notice the fractures in the crater floor? These fractures widen or close throughout the cooling process of the lava field. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 10: Notice the fractures in the crater floor? These fractures widen or close throughout the cooling process of the lava field. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 11: Notice the raised terraces or "floating islands." Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 11: Notice the raised terraces or “floating islands.” Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The white marks are remnants of dissolved minerals (i.e. calcium sulfates and silica). Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The white marks are remnants of dissolved minerals (i.e. calcium sulfates and silica). Photo by Coty Gonzales.

More white deposits on the black slabs of lava rock. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

More white deposits on the black slabs of lava rock. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 12: You are walking on a surface created by the final overturn of the former lava lake. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 12: You are walking on a surface created by the final overturn of the former lava lake. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 13: Scientist would drill into the crater floor of Kilauea Iki just 4 months after the eruption ended. These are the remnants of the boreholes. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 13: Scientist would drill into the crater floor of Kilauea Iki just 4 months after the eruption ended. These are the remnants of the boreholes. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Ohia. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Ohia. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 14: This maker indicates the end of the crater floor portion of the hike. Gaze back at where you started. From here, it's an uphill climb to the Thurston Lava Tube. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Marker 14: This maker indicates the end of the crater floor portion of the hike. Gaze back at where you started. From here, it’s an uphill climb to the Thurston Lava Tube. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

If you turn around at Marker 14, and look at where you came from, this is what you'll see. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

If you turn around at Marker 14, and look at where you came from, this is what you’ll see. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku)

The final leg of this hike involves working your way up a series of switchbacks that will eventually lead to Nahuku, or  the Thurston Lava Tube. You’ll notice that the landscape goes from lava rock to lush forest almost instantly. The switchbacks offer a nice workout, though it doesn’t last that long. The elevation gain will be about 400 feet. Once at the top, you will find yourself at the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot. Consider yourself lucky if there are few cars in the parking lot. If you notice a full parking lot or many large tour buses, then that’s a sign that there’s a lot of traffic in the Thurston Lava Tube. I’d suggest that you wait a bit for the crowd to settle, before exploring the tube. The experience is enhanced when it’s just you roaming around inside. I was just a 5th grader the last time that I explored this lava tube. When I was here last in 1991, I remember the walk being much longer than it was this second time around. The walk through Nahuku lasted a paltry 10 minutes, or so. Take your time, because it will be over sooner than you think. It is very like that when I visited in the 5th grade, we continued on to the second section of the lava tube, which has since been closed off. The hike through Kilauea Iki Crater was an awesome experience. How often do I get to hike through a pit crater that sits next to an active volcano? Not very often. Kilauea Iki offers a truly unique opportunity to explore Hawaii’s volcanic past. Explorers: Coty Gonzales and Michelle Sagucio.

Michelle getting ready to enter the lava tube. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Michelle getting ready to enter the lava tube. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Inside looking out. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Inside looking out. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The lights will guide the way. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The lights will guide the way. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Just after this photo was snapped, a drip of water landed on my face. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

Just after this photo was snapped, a drip of water landed on my face. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

Too bad we couldn't continue on to the second section. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Too bad we couldn’t continue on to the second section. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

I don't think that this is an official NPS sticker. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

I don’t think that this is an official NPS sticker. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Kilauea Iki and Thurston Lava Tube Tips:

  • Pick up a Kilauea Iki Trail Guide from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Visitor Center, or from the trail guide distribution box at the trailhead. It’s only $2 and the money earned goes toward the upkeep of the park.
  • Bring a jacket. Weather at Volcanoes National Park is very unpredictable and it can rain at any time.
  • A hat is also a good idea. There is no shade during the crater floor portion of this hike.
  • After the lava tube, retrace your steps back to the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot. At the opposite end of the parking lot will be a short trail that will lead you back to the Kilauea Iki parking lot. It’s about 0.5 mile back to the Kilauea Iki parking lot.
  • Do not collect or disturb natural, cultural, or historical features of the trail.
  • Take only photographs and inspiration, leave only footprints and goodwill.

Directions to Kilauea Iki Trailhead: After entering the main entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, turn left and follow the signs to the Thurston Lava Tube. The Kilauea Iki parking lot and trailhead is located just before the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot.

About Coty

Founder of Exploration: Hawaii. Adventure, Minimalism, Vinyl, Typography, and Coffee + Matcha. A single space after a period, please.