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.
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.
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.
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.
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.