Go Take a Hike, Part Two – Volcanoes!

Wait, it’s Friday already? Planning a blog-a-day during a shortened work week following a long weekend which I was exhausted from anyway while busy every night apartment-hunting was clearly not a solid plan. My “go-take-a-hike” week may become two. Oops.

Growing up I was always fascinated with volcanoes (and still am). So when I went to Hawaii’s Big Island pretty much the only thing on my to-do list (besides eating copious amounts of papaya and pineapples and napping on a beach) was to see a volcano. I one-upped myself by walking across one that was still smoking.

And now that I have your attention, I present to you one of the most awesomest of awesome hikes, the Kilauea Iki Trail in Volcano National Park, Hawaii!

When you think of Hawaii, you likely think first of gorgeous beaches, surfing, and general relaxation. Hawaii’s Big Island does offer all these things (for top-notch beaches and potentially safer surfing I would recommend a different island in the chain), but I chose it out of all the islands for the ridiculous hikes it offers.

No matter what your preference, you won’t be disappointed. You will, however, need a good, sturdy pair of hiking shoes or boots, because walking on hardened lava does a solid job of chewing through footwear!

I’d been in Hawaii for several days, doing smaller hikes to acclimatize myself to the humidity, heat and get over jet lag, before I set out for Volcanoes National Park. I left before sunrise to make the 50 mile drive – while that doesn’t seem that far, roads on the Big Island are epic – winding, bumpy, one-lane wonders. So it took about 3 hours (I also stopped at Punalu’u Bake Shop to pick up some of their legendary macademia nut sweet bread for my hike). The drive to the park, if you’re coming in the direction that I did (south-west from Kona) is pretty but sparsely populated (much like the island itself). I listened to a lot of music and ate a lot of sweet bread to keep extra alert.

I consulted with park staff about which hikes to do and left my name and itinerary for the day with them, as I was on my own. I often read that people shouldn’t hike solo, but nuts to that – I don’t think it’s fair to deprive myself of pretty scenery and exercise simply because I’m on my own. Of course, the flipside to that is that when hiking on your own, you don’t have someone to turn to when you see something beautiful, or, alternatively, you’re too tuckered out to continue and really just want someone to carry you.

At any rate, I wanted to see volcanoes so I decided to do the Kilauea Iki Trail first. It’s a four-mile loop, but considered a moderate-to-difficult hike in the park brochure. “Easy,” I thought when starting out. Except I failed to take into account the fact that I parked miles away from the trailhead as my car’s clearance was way too low to handle the roads. So I put in a solid one hour walk just getting to the TRAIL. So not easy.

At the top of the trail, just east of the main caldera, lies the crater of Kilauea Iki (“Little Kilauea”, although it ain’t little). Here one of Hawaii’s most violent volcanic eruptions occured in 1959, with lava shooting 1,900 ft into the air. This hike is considered one of the best in the park as it gives hikers a pretty stellar view of the site of this eruption. As you descend down, you pass through rain forest that runs around the crater’s rim, and make your way down to the crater floor. It smelled DELICIOUS. Gigantic ferns, tropical flowers, birds chirping, my hair getting larger by the minute. The trail winds down the wall of Kilauea Iki and you arrive at this:

IT’S LIKE WALKING ON THE MOON!

As you walk across the crater floor (which is still steaming in parts!), you’ll pass the gaping throat of the vent that built the Pu’u Pua’i cinder cone, step over dry rocky lava beds and marvel at how quiet and eerie the whole scene is. I sat on the crater floor and just listened to the wind (and occasionally plugged my nose as the sulfur smell is rather stinky).

But then, I had to go back up.

Thankfully there are large rocks everywhere to sit on. It was a long walk back.

Tips:

  • The park is located at 4,000 feet, so be prepared for rain.
  • In addition to rain, also be prepared for any weather conditions you can think of. Layers are your friend. As is a hat. Good socks. Hiking boots with thick soles. Long, lightweight pants (falling on lava is like falling on broken glass. And unless you’re Annie Lennox, no one likes broken glass). And hey, if you don’t end up using that sweater you packed it makes an excellent cushion for sitting on the crater floor!
  • Park near the start of the trail. Don’t rent a convertible for your trip.
  • Check out the helpful Safety Tips on the Volcanoes National Park website!
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