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Hiking Hawaii's Most Active Volcano: Kilauea

HIking Through a Hawaiian Volcano Crater

I'm not very adventurous by nature. In fact, caution is my middle name when it comes to going on vacation - especially with respect to cuisine or outdoor activities.

Yet, when we visited the big island of Hawaii recently, we hiked right through the crater of a volcano! I have to admit that it was a little hair-raising, even for someone who enjoys hiking.

Our 4-mile hike took us around the rim of Kilauea Iki, through lava tubes (did I mention I have claustrophobia too), down across the crater floor, across towards the Halemaumau crater, which was spewing steam the entire time. We didn't get to walk as close to the crater rim as we had planned because the sulfur dioxide levels were dangerously high. Portions of the trail were closed off to visitors and warnings were aired on the radio station.

Over several hours we walked through rainforests, past a cinder cone, down 400 feet into the Kilauea Iki crater (which last erupted in 1959), and then climbed back up to the crater's rim. The terrain was steep and rocky at times, and it was hot! All I kept thinking while walking the 1.5 miles across the bottom crater was, "hot lava!"

Yet, hiking in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was cool in every sense of the word. You don't have to follow our trail - there are over 150 miles of trails throughout the park. Bring a backpack, water and sturdy shoes and go exploring in Hawaii.

Let's go on a tour!

All photographs in this hub are the property of Stephanie Hicks. Please contact me for permission to use.

The Halemaumau crater at Kilauea was steaming during our visit to Hawaii

The Halemaumau crater at Kilauea was steaming during our visit to Hawaii

Fast Facts About Kilauea

  • In Hawaiian, "Kilauea" means "spewing" or "much spreading," which makes sense if you've ever watched the lava flowing in to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Kilauea has been erupting continuously since January 3, 1983
  • The famous crater, Halema`uma`u, means "hale" (house) and "ma`uma`u" (a type of fern). It is so named because the legend is that Kamapua`a, a jilted suitor of Pele built a house of ferns over Halema`uma`u to keep Pele from escaping her home and causing eruptions
  • The crater is 6X6 kilometers, with a depth of 165 meters
  • First eruption of Kilauea is estimated at 300,000-600,000 years ago

Kilauea is the Most Active Volcano in Hawaii

If you are planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, you must visit Kilauea. Whether you are staying in Kona or Hilo, its less than 2 hours away via car. For only a $10 entry fee (per vehicle) to the Park, you have nature's mystery and marvel literally at your feet.

For years, when you said "Hawaiian volcano," people thought of Mauna Loa. Yet, Kilauea is a separate volcano that is much younger and more active than its northwestern neighbor. While native people refer only to the summit caldera as Kilauea, geologists include the entire volcano within the appellation.

Since 1952, Kilauea has erupted 34 times. Starting in 1983, the Kilauea volcano has been continuously spewing lava from its cone, running down 11 km (about 22 miles) to the ocean. Its a dramatic sight, especially at night. Its one of the world's most active volcanoes.

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was established in 1916 (43 years before the massive eruption of Kilauea Iki). Visitors to the 230,000 acre park can witness the continuous birth of the island, which is the result of over 70 million years of volcanic activity. The National Park is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

Kilauea Eruption

Cinder cone in the Kiauea Iki crater

Cinder cone in the Kiauea Iki crater

Kilauea Iki's Massive Eruption in 1959

The crater floor across which we hiked was a bubbling lake of molten lava just 50 years ago! In November 1959, Kilauea Iki erupted with impressive force. Fountains of lava reached 1900 feet into the air and, at its peak, the volcano was spewing 2 million tons of lava per hour.

When the lava cooled and hardened, the resulting Ka'u Desert continues to show signs of the recent eruption. Walking 1 mile across the crater floor, steam vents remind you that you are in an active volcano. The Devastation Trail takes you through what used to be a rain forest, but was wiped out by cinder and pumice in 1959. And, off in the distance, steam billows from the mouth of the Halemaumau crater, while lava flows continuously towards the ocean.

Knowing all that... would YOU hike through the bottom of an active volcano crater?

We did!

Map of Kilauea Caldera (image from Wikipedia)

Map of Kilauea Caldera (image from Wikipedia)

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The trail spreads out in front of us in Kilauea Iki

The trail spreads out in front of us in Kilauea Iki

Our Hike Around Kilauea Caldera and through Kilauea Iki's Crater

Our day hike started at the Kilauea Visitor Center. Although there are guided tours and hikes, we picked up a map and planned our own adventure.

Leaving the Center, we hiked south along well-marked trails for about 1 mile until we reached the Thurston Lava Tube. Despite my claustrophobia, we did the 15-minute loop through thick rain forests and into the large, cavernous formation. Whew!

After a quick sip of water, we headed across the street to the trail that takes you down to the Kilauea Iki crater. It is a steep switch back trail (we slipped and slid a few times), and about 1/2 mile to reach the crater floor. If you have bad knees or a bad back - don't even try!

When you get to the bottom, you might have to steel yourself for the 1 mile walk across the crater. I literally had images of the lava engulfing us as we started across the dusty trail. Despite the massive devastation in 1959, signs of life emerge as little ohi’a trees with bright red pom pom flowers dotted the trail (see photos above, right). Still, steam continues to flow from small cracks in the crater's floor.

After about 20 minutes, you wonder when you'll get across. That's when you reach the fallout area of the eruption. The lava is uplifted into jagged formations and you have to start scrambling over a field of lava rocks (see the photo gallery below). Be extra careful here - we lost the trail and found ourselves having to circle back over some pretty big rocks. Its a broken leg or sprained ankle waiting to happen. As you grip the lava rocks, watch the edges. They can be sharp!

After about 40-50 minutes walking across the crater floor, you reach the opposite side. You'll literally be climbing a stair case out of Kilauea Iki's crater, up 1.5 miles to the overlook. Switch backs through the rain forest can be tiring, but the beautiful, lush vegetation stands in stark contrast to the desert crater you just crossed. Several spots along the trail allow you to marvel at the crater below.

The End of the Trail in Kilauea, Hawaii

When we reached the Kilauea Visitor Center again, we had been hiking about 4 hours. We were definitely tired and thirsty and ready for some lunch.

Food service is available at the Visitor Center, as well as a gift shop - everything from maps to sweatshirts to post cards. We chose to go for a drive back towards Kona, where we were staying, to pick up some great road-side Hawaiian fruit for a treat.

Because the sulfur dioxide levels were so high during our visit in 2008, we were not able to return in the evening to watch the lava flow from the Halemaumau crater into the ocean. Roads and trails were closed off to the big show!

Would we return to hike through the Kilauea Iki crater? Most definitely! While a bit nerve-wracking, it is simply awe-inspiring to witness Mother Nature in her creative stage. Since the lava flows started in 1983, more than 550 acres of new land have been added to Hawaii's southeastern shore. The continuing eruption of Kilauea represents the longest rift activity in Hawaiian volcano history.

Its one hot spot you don't want to miss!

Dramatic Eruption Video: Kilauea

You can see the dusty trail across the crater floor at Kilauea Iki in Hawaii

You can see the dusty trail across the crater floor at Kilauea Iki in Hawaii

Bravely taking on the volcano crater in Hawaii

Bravely taking on the volcano crater in Hawaii

Lava Reaches the Ocean

If You Go to Hike Kilauea, Hawaii

  • The drive to Kilauea is about 1.5 - 2 hours from both major cities on Hawaii - Kona on the westside, or Hilo on the east side
  • Wear sturdy, supportive shoes with socks
  • Carry a backpack with sunscreen, water and food
  • A hat is recommended to keep the sun off your face
  • Don't forget the camera! The landscape is breathtaking
  • Bring a cell phone in case of emergency
More steam rising from the crater on the Big Island of Hawaii

More steam rising from the crater on the Big Island of Hawaii

The Awesome Beauty of Kilauea

© 2010 Stephanie Marshall


Igabe Clar from Kigali, Rwanda on October 25, 2017:

Beautifull, You should Come to congo and Rwanda and Hike Nyiragongo Volcano and Bisoke

Hamada on May 29, 2015:

Geez, all them are nothing. All those areas are known for that stuff.If you rlaely want news and a need for people to pay attention, the following would be news: Volcano erupts and explodes from nowhere in the middle of Paris Series of quakes rock sea floor off Florida coast; Tsunami expected within day to pound Miami, Cuba, Bahamas, Carolinas Powerful 7.1 Quake Destroys New York City; Millions Believed Dead in Big Apple I couldn't even do a 4th headline as, to quote Independence Day when the aliens arrive: It's not even a 4 pointer. Go back to sleep. When you get quakes and volcanoes in unusual spots around the world with little or no history of that stuff happening, then you have major news and potentially the End Of The World. Until then, just normal stuff along the plate boundaries and normal volcano stuff from a very active volcano.

Brenda Ford from Hawaii, USA on July 15, 2014:

Had a great tour seeing these images and watching the videos! Thanks a lot for sharing!

stessily on February 23, 2012:

Steph, Volcanoes offer such awesome displays of nature's powers. Your photos and the videos are spectacular! The sizzling sound of hot lava mingling with the Pacific Ocean is amazing.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 11, 2011:

Thanks hafeezrm - I would love to hike Kilimanjaro someday! We do enjoy hiking, and Kilauea Hawaii is an excellent location. Best to you, Steph

hafeezrm from Pakistan on September 11, 2011:

Awesome photos, nice description taking one on a virtual tour of Hawaii. I love hikes like you had. This summer, I touched Kilimanjaro base. I did not go up as it was not only costly, it was quite strenuous. But near the base, I scaled a hill and walked a lot.

Keeping hiking.

SammySammo from Boston, MA on August 14, 2011:

Wow, you have so much good information here with so many videos and pictures. Definitely captures the experience.

fashion on July 18, 2011:

Amazing hub...Island of Hawaii is so attractive.Video was also amazing.You did great work.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on July 15, 2011:

Thank you punacoast! We would love to come back to visit the amazing Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are many more trails to explore... and such amazing beauty. Cheers, Steph

Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on July 14, 2011:

I used to work at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Sometime my coworkers and I would hike the Kilauea Iki trail during our lunch break. It's such an amazing trail. Glad you had a great experience there. Come back soon. Aloha!

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on April 03, 2011:

I really love the big island of Hawaii, and we've also been to Kauai. Would love to get to Maui and Ohau one of these days. Hiking is great - will go back one day soon! :)

Danette Watt from Illinois on April 03, 2011:

My husband, younger son and I went out to HI to visit our older son who is stationed at the Marine base on Ohau. We all flew over to the main island and did a tour around there. Although we didn't do a hike as you did, we did get to see some of the flowing lava and the crater.

Loved Hawaii and would love to go back again and do some actual hiking with my son.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on November 08, 2010:

It is incredible! Nothing like witnessing the continual re-birth of our planet through the miracle of a volcano. Cheers to you, Micky Dee!

Micky Dee on November 08, 2010:

That video was amazing - the pulse of the volcano was like a heart beat. Beautiful hub! God bless you and your family!

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 29, 2010:

Thanks Dallas and NCBler!

NC - have a great time at the volcano! Let me know what you think. I have a friend that was there 2 weeks ago and she got pretty close to the crater (closer than we got because of the fumes). And thanks for the congrats!

NCBIer on October 28, 2010:

Will be there next week and appreciate your advice and information. Thanks for the hub and congrats on the Boston Marathon!

Dallas W Thompson from Bakersfield, CA on October 14, 2010:

Thanks for sharing. I had seen on TV volcanoes erupting, but when I saw Kilauea erupting I was in awe. You must see it to understand it. Great visuals.

Nell Rose from England on October 05, 2010:

Hi, this was amazing, what a great trip! I love the videos they are so spectacular, I actually went up a volcano in Tenerife, and it was about 7000 feet high, but the actual volcano top was 12 thousand feet, and i started to go up in the cable car but then realised that I was on my own! so I can back down, if it had been full up I would have gone. Great pictures, nice one rated up, cheers nell

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 04, 2010:

Thanks so much Money Glitch! I have a friend heading to the big island of Hawaii this week and I was just encouraging her to visit the volcano. It was a lot of fun and I highly encourage you to visit. Cheers, Steph

Money Glitch from Texas on October 04, 2010:

Awesome hub, Stephanie, would love to experience hiking in Hawaii one day. You've done a great job in providing your readers a glimpse of your vacation. Thanks for sharing. Rating up! :)

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 25, 2010:

Thanks to you all! Obviously, we loved this hike in Hawaii (its really my dream vacation to travel to remote places and go hiking....) But seriously, I really suggest going to the Hawaii Volcanoes Park and checking out Kilauea. We loved it!

Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on September 25, 2010:

Stephanie, Congrats,again! I loved this hub and enjoyed the virtual tour.Hope to visit some day!

SteveoMc from Pacific NorthWest on September 25, 2010:

All of a sudden I want to go to Hawaii more than anything. Loved seeing the photos and the clips. Well written great style. This is what travel and adventure writing should do......make you want to pack your bags and catch a steamer!

mtsi1098 on September 25, 2010:

amazing...simply amazing...looks like a great trip...thanks

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on September 24, 2010:

Awesome - and so glad you won today!!

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 24, 2010:

I know - its so incredible! That lava flowing to the ocean is simply unreal. Love Hawaii!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 24, 2010:

The last time I was in Hawaii was aboard a cruise ship and I will long remember the view of the volcano at night from the sea with the red, orange lava running down its sides. What an awesome although frightening sight!

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