Recreation and Maps

Big Island Hiking and Other Hawaii Activities

Haena Beach (Keaau, Puna)
Pu’u Huluhulu (Saddle Road)
Hiking in Pele’s Realm – The Crater Rim Trail
Kilauea Iki Crater Trail (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park)


Haena Beach

Ha’ena Beach is one of the most scenic and least-visited beaches in lower Puna: a small but beautiful white sand crescent in a coastline mostly dominated by harsh lava cliffs.The little cove is also known as Shipman’s Beach, because the W.H. Shipman Ltd. owns the land directly behind it, and the Shipman family compound dominates the beachfront. In the 1990s, the beach was the subject of a series of demonstrations and confrontations between the W.H. Shipman company and community activists over public access via the one road to the beach, which the company claimed as private property.
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As it turned out, the beach proved to be only the punctuation mark to a marvelous day-hike. The real reason to make this trip is the trail itself: a 3-4 hour journey through the solitude of one of the wildest coasts left in East Hawaii.

The trail follows the right-of way of the Old Puna Government Road – also known as the Old Government Road, the Old Puna Government Beach Road, the old Puna Government Trail, and other variations on the same theme. To reach the trailhead, hikers must first drive the Pahoa Highway (Hwy. 130) to Hawaiian Paradise Park, turn left on Kaloli and follow it nearly to its end, then turn left on Beach Road – another section of the Old Government Road, still in use for vehicular traffic – which soon turns from pavement to gravel.

For those without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, the trail starts at the circular turnaround where the gravel ends, though the actual Old Puna Government Road trailhead – the point beyond which no vehicles are allowed – is a 30 to 45 minute hike beyond this point. Sturdy shoes, sunscreen, plenty of water and perhaps some mosquito repellent are recommended, though local fishermen can often be found trotting down the trail in nothing but shorts and a pair of rubber “slippahs.”

There are actually two jeep trails branching from the turnaround. The makai (Oceanside) route, turns out to be a magnificent hike in itself, via a series of fishermen’s trails through ironwood and hala groves along the tops of the rugged black lava sea cliffs. But the “real” trail is the mauka (mountain side) one, which pretty much goes straight on where the road left off.

To call this stretch of feral wilderness “unspoiled” might depend on one’s definition of “spoiled.” This is not the coastline that ancient Hawaiians knew. From the gravel turnaround until one emerges at Ha’ena, there are no houses and very few people, but there are also few native plants and almost no native birds. This trail is not so much a journey into the past as it is an eerie path into the future: a post-human wilderness, a glimpse of what this island would become if, for some reason people were to disappear.

The jeep trail starts out though a landscape reminiscent of the Mad Max movie: a savannah-like old pahoehoe flow, overgrown with grass and bamboo orchids and dotted with guava saplings, glory bushes, and the rust- and bullet riddled hulks of old cars and appliances. But the latter soon disappear. About the last major human artifact, besides the trail itself, is a wrecked subcompact that lies stranded beside a lava hummock that it was obviously never meant to climb. The only wonder is that the little passenger car somehow managed to make it this far.

Soon the road leaves the savannah behind and plunges into rainforest. Most of the rest of the journey will be spent in the shade of overarching trees. The savannah was a chaos of competing plants, but here, in this older swath of jungle, the new order is starting to short itself out. There are a few ohia trees, but most of the forest overstory is dominated by human-introduced invaders such as guava, ironwood and banyan trees. In low-lying areas, mangroves prop themselves up on the marshy soil by extending multiple legs out from their main trunks.

On the rocky cliff tops, groves of hala (pandanus) – a Polynesian introduction – use the same strategy to anchor themselves against the trade winds. There are almost no tree ferns in this forest, but an abundance of other native and non-native fern species, including sword fern and bracken, have spread in vivid green abundance across the forest floor.

The roar of waves is audible for the entire length of the trail, but the ocean rarely visible through the thick greenery, unless one detours one of the fisherman’s trails that occasionally branch off to the left. It’s probably worthwhile to take one or two of those byways, to enjoy the spectacle of the waves crashing against the black cliffs.

This is also a good coast for whale-watching from December to March. With relatively deep waters just offshore, pods of humpbacks and claves often come in close.

The trailhead for the pedestrian-only segment of Old Government Road is marked by a sign and a couple of concrete-and-steel barrier posts. Beyond that, the pathway shrinks to human dimensions, but continues to go more or less arrow-straight through the forest, with occasional small detours around a big banyan. For most of its length, the trail is in excellent shape, thanks to the efforts of volunteers from the Sierra Club and other organizations, including Hawaii Community College Lecturer Roberta Brashear, whose Environmental Science students have been making regular service trips to the area for several semesters.

Signs of civilization begin to appear: a cleared cliff-top meadow overgrown with tall grass, an old stone wall topped with a NO TRESPASSING sign, a few discarded beverage containers, an increasing number of branch trails down to the coast. On the left, a World War II era concrete bunker looms, with the rusting remains of gun mounts still attached to the walls inside. But the reinforced concrete posts that hold up its slab roof are deteriorating badly. How long that roof will stay up, is anyone’s guess.

A few minutes beyond the bunker, the trail opens out on Ha’ena: a perfect-looking little white-sand cove sheltered by a reef of Pahoehoe. Inland from the cove is the private property of the Shipman homes and a large, off-limits pond that serves as a refuge for nene geese. It’s illegal to approach, feed or harass the nene, though treat-seeking geese have been known to approach and harass humans on occasions.

The cove itself is sandy-bottomed, and most of it is probably less than three feet deep, though there’s some swim-able water out near the lava reef. There’s not much here for snorklers to see, but the sheltered, shallow water would make this a perfect children’s beach, if it were easier for children to reach.

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Pu’u Huluhulu (Saddle Road)

The ancient, tree-covered cinder cone, one of the most distant bastions of Mauna Kea’s inland flank, is surrounded by more recent Mauna Loa lava flows, only a few dozen yards from the intersection of Saddle Road and Mauna Kea Observatory Road, not far from the boundary of the Army’s Pohakuloa Training area.Over the decades, the hill has been scarred by cinder quarrying, littered with beer bottles and field ration wrappers, and trampled by thousands of tourists and residents, who usually stop by only for a quick hike up the steep trail behind the hunter check-in station on the Mauna Kea side of the hill. The reward for their effort is a view that is truly breathtaking – both figuratively and literally, given the strenuousness of the brief climb. Most people then chug right back down, hop in their cars and continue their journey to somewhere else.
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That’s unfortunate, because the real treasure of Pu’u Huluhulu is on the other side of the hill, and it needs to be experienced slowly.

Pu’u Huluhulu is a kipuka, a mall patch of forest isolated by lava flows. Kipuka are islands within an island, tiny worlds unto themselves. Because of their isolation, they become evolutionary engines: the small plant and animal populations within them can mutate with surprising rapidity, adapting to the special conditions of each place. Biologists on the Big Island have found new subspecies of insects, for instance, kipukas that have only been cut off for a few hundred years.

Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu Native Tree Refuge is a special place, even for a kipuka. It contains more than 10,000-year-old vestige of the mighty koa-mamane cloud forest that once ringed Mauna Kea’s upper slopes.

Most of that forest has since disappeared, replaced by cattle range. But Pu’u Huluhulu, moated by a series of lava flows – the most recent was in 1935 – has become a refuge for an amazing diversity of species that have few natural defenses against grazing animals and introduced predators. At least nine native bird species have been known to live in or visit the kipuka. Cinder-quarrying destroyed some of the hill’s vegetation but much of the primitive forest is still largely intact.

For those who wish to explore this miniature world, the best time to arrive is early morning, when the sun shines across the trees, making the birds easy to spot.

There are two ways to access the refuge. One is through the gate behind the hunter’s station. But the better route is from a small unpaved parking lot on Mauna Loa Observatory Road, the one-lane asphalt strip that passes on the Hilo side of the pu’u. Beside the lot is a pedestrian gate through the fence that the Division of Forestry and Wildlife has erected to protect the kipuka from pigs, not deterred even from lava flows. Visitors should be sure to close the gate behind them, and to pick up the trail brochure from the wooden box beside the gate.

Just beyond, a steep path known as the Apapane Trail immediately climbs into a world that is both alien and familiar, even to veteran Big Island hikers. Old friends take on strange new forms in this place. Pukiawe, common as a small, low-growing shrub on the lava flows of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, grows to 15 feet here. Naio, a 60-foot giant at lower altitudes, grows only half that high in this kipuka. A’ali’I, most familiar to national park-goers as a medium-sized shrub with pinkish-red winged seed pods, grows into small trees here.

One of the more common plants on the pu’u’s clinkery Hilo-side slope is the mamane, a small, twisty tree whose yellow flowers resemble a pea plant’s, for good reason: like the pea, the mamane is a legume. Also growing on this slope is a large patch o akala, the native thornless raspberry. The huge berries are delicious – but leave them for the birds who pass the seeds on to start new akala patches in exchange for a tasty meal. In this kipuka birds have priority over humans.

The glory of the kipuka, though is the grove of huge koa trees. There are koa of all ages from tiny seedlings still bearing their kiawe-like “baby leaves” to giant, twisted, mossy “grandmother” trees that look like the work of a hundred generations of bonsai masters. The mature trees have crescent-shaped adult “leaves” that are actually flattened, elongated versions of petioles, the little stems that connect the leaves to branches in most trees.

Flying through the branches are birds that seldom appear in the rangeland north of the Saddle road. Scarlet-and-black ‘apapane fill the air with songs as varied as the plant life beneath them. Somewhat rarer are the I’iwi, which look much like the ‘apapane except for their exaggerated, curved, salmon colored bills. Greenish-gold amakihi, perhaps the most common native bird in the kipuka, flash among the small trees and thrive on a multiple diet of berries, bugs and nectar. Wren-like elpaio perch with their tails hiked straight up the air. Drab little oma’o lurk in the brush, more often seen than heard; their harsh call has been likened, variously, to rusty door hinges, a crow with a sore throat, or, as the trail brochure puts it, “a radio being tuned between stations.”

Although the refuge’s official trail system is only about half a mile long, it’s easy to spend hours there. For one thing, a lot of steep uphill walking slows the pace. And visitors should allow themselves time to get lost. The brochure’s oversimplified map of the seven marked trails doesn’t show many windings, nor does it mark a confusing number of unofficial and former trails. (Wilderness paths, like streams, tend to reroute themselves around major obstacles over time, so be prepared to spend time guessing which branch of the trail goes on, and which ends in a fallen tree.) The result is a genuine, three-dimensional maze – though a fairly benign maze. Besides, it’s not that big a kipuka; no one is lost for long, unless they leave the trail entirely. If that happens, the steep slopes and a’a can be unforgiving.

Despite the area’s small size no one sees all that it has to offer at the single visit. The more often one visits, the more one can come to appreciate the little kipuka’s endless ability to generate special moments in time.

Here is a sampling of Pu’u Huluhulu moments:

  1. Sitting beside an ancient but withered koa that somehow clings to the edge of the summit and over the sheer face of the old cinder quarry, mists are rolling down from Mauna Kea, making the quarry floor below barely visible. Suddenly, silently, a brown form looms out of the mist, less than five feet away: a pueo, a native owl. It wheels and plunges toward the quarry floor again, misses a mouse skittering for cover, then swoops upward again, soaring on the updraft created by the wind on the hill’s face. The owl hangs there, listening, obscured from its prey by mist instead of night. Then it swoops again.
  2. It’s 6:30 a.m., barely dawn, the weather is miserable, a precipitation that the Hawaiian language calls “kauanoe,” rain so fine it feels like a cold touch, but soaks through clothing to the skin beneath.

Out of that rain-fog a faint honking drifts. Then four nene geese appear out of the fog, calling to each other as they wing from one kipuka to another. They fly directly overhead, so low that you can hear the beat of their powerful wings. Then they disappear into the fog again, in the direction of Pohakuloa.

  1. It’s mid-afternoon on an intensely clear day. Hiking on the Koa Trail, on the leeward side of the kipuka, there may be a grandmother koa in another time and a less remote place, the giant trunk would have been carved into a canoe. Here, however, some trail-maintenance crew has chain sawed the fallen trunk into crude seats, so hikers can rest and admire the view of Mauna Loa through the gap that the tree probably created when it fell.

A lace of snow gleams on a giant volcano’s summit. Far below, the tiny ribbon of Mauna Loa Observatory Road laces among the black and brown lava flows.

Making a way up the ‘Apapane Trail, you spot movement among the branches of a mamane tree above you. The late afternoon sun gleams on the feather of two little silver-and-gold birds. The birds seem totally engrossed in each other as they play a game of tag, hopping from branch to branch after each other, their feathers blending beautifully with the golden blossoms and gray branches. Then the endangered species – the palila, which subsists mainly on mamane, opening the seed pods with their parrot-like beaks – flutter off together, into the forest.

According to the current trail brochure, no palila sighting has been recorded in the kipuka in 15 years. “If you spot a palila during your visit,” requests the current trail brochure, “please notify DOFAW (Department of Forestry and Wildlife” by calling 974-4221.”

The brochure defines “Pu’u Huluhulu” as “shaggy Hill.” According to “The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary,” “huluhulu” can mean body hair, eye-lashes, fur or fleece or feathers. “Hulu” can also be translated as “esteemed” or “prized.” Pu’u Huluhulu is a forested hill that looks shaggy. But it is also a place of many birds and feathers and a very special, prized place. For the little hill in the middle of the Saddle, all three meanings seem to fit.

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Hiking in Pele’s Realm – The Crater Rim Trail

Kilauea Caldera, from many of its overlooks, seems to be a vast place. But the entire crater is only about 11 to 12 miles in circumference. Every July, more than a thousand runners from all over the globe converge on the caldera for the annual Kilauea Volcano Wilderness Run, where hardy athletes circumnavigate the caldera in less than two hours, via a 10-mile course that includes sections of the Crater Rim Devastation and Byron’s Ledge Trails and a quarter-mile 35-degree set of switchbacks that some runners affectionately call “The Ladder” or the “Stairway to Heaven.” In addition to the 10-mile lap, there is also a marathon and a 5-mile run-walk.But reasonably fit visitors who don’t have asthma or heart problems can circle the crater at a walk at any time, via the Crater Rim Trail, and still be back in five to eight hours.
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For runners, the caldera offers unique thrills: the unforgiving terrain, with it sulfur fumes, loose cinders, steep switchbacks, and broken-glass-sharp rocks, makes running an extreme sport (some runners lessen the risk by wearing skateboarder-style elbow and kneepads).

But walking around the caldera also has its advantages. For one thing, you can dress more sensibly, in sturdy jeans and more protective shoes – which in this case, probably means a good pair of old-fashioned leather hiking boots. You can wear a broad-brimmed hat against the tropical sun – though you still may have to grab onto it on the windy lava flows – and can carry a backpack with rain gear, instead of just getting soaked. And while the Crater Rim Trail is perhaps a mile and a half longer than the race course, there’s no ladder to climb.

But the main advantage of walking around the caldera is that you have more time to look at some of the island’s most spectacular scenery, and to notice the area’s unique wildlife, from tiny native forest plants to endangered birds. The Crater Rim Trail is like the National Park a microcosm: over the course of its 12-mile length, it passes from the cool of the summit to the windy heat of the Ka’u Desert to the tropical lushness of the rainforest, with volcanic fire pits and steam clouds thrown in for good measure. Steam vents, Halema’uma’u, the Ka’u Desert, the rainforest, Thurston Lava Tube, ash falls, Kilauea Iki, the caldera ledges: each of these features has at least one whole trail devoted to it. But only one trail, the Crater Rim, can encompass them all in one day.

The Crater Rim Trail can be accessed from several different points, including the parking lots of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Thruston Lava Tube and the Kilauea Iki overlook. But probably the simplest starting point is the Visitor Center. It’s wise to pick up a copy of the Halem’uma’u Trail Guide from the rangers there before you set out. The pamphlet gives a pretty good map of all the trails in the summit area, as well as descriptions of some of the plants and geological features along the trail. You should also fill your water bottles there, if you haven’t already (three liters per person are recommended for a full day’s hiking).

It’s probably best to start early in the morning and take the trail counter-clockwise, to avoid the worst of the sun on the ash flats of the Ka’u Desert. From the Visitor’s Center, you can either cross the road and take up the trail behind Volcano House, or else strike out on the Sulphur Bank Trail at the makai end of the parking lot. The yellow-and-white Sulphur Banks are more colorful, but the trail from Volcano House offers spectacular cliff-top views of the caldera.

Either way, you’re going to encounter the first of the day’s hazards: sulfurous fumes from the many steam vents in this fissure-wracked region, known as the Steaming Cliffs.

This is not a great section for those with asthma or heart conditions. But then, neither is much of what follows.

The Sulphur Banks Trail soon crosses Crater Rim Road to join up with the main trail, which skirts along the edge of the cliff overlooking the caldera. Halema’uma’u, the 300-foot-deep, 3000-foot-wide traditional home of Madoame Pele, quickly comes into view. The crater merely steams today. But from 1823 to 1924, it held a roiling lake of hot lava.

The crater’s name offers a ghostly glimpse of an even earlier vista. “Halema’uma’u” probably refers to ama’uma’u tree ferns; it literally means “house of ferns.”

The barren, sulfur-streaked crater, still reeking of poisonous fumes, must have looked far different at some point in the past. Ancient Hawaiians may have first seen it in some dormant phase, when small forest of tree ferns, may have carpeted its now-desolate floor.

If you scan along the inner walls of the Halema’uma’u or watch the air along the cliffs rimming the caldera, you may see one of Hawaii’s more remarkable residents: the white-tailed tropcbirds or koa’e kea. Graceful white seabirds with elegant black wing markings and long streaming tails, koa’e kea travel miles inland to nest on remote cliffs of “high islands” such Hawaii. Apparently impervious to sulfur fumes, they love to hang out in Halema’uma’u and the caldera, where they spend hours soaring and swooping on the updrafts rising from the still-steamy crater floor.

Perched on the high cliff overlooking Halema’uma’u is the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the Thomas A. Jagger Museum, which is well worth a look if you’ve never been inside. Besides a wealth of exhibits explaining the volcano, the museum offers visitors a chance to watch as the dancing needles of the observatory’s seismographs record the dozens of minor earthquakes each day as lava shifts in underground reservoirs and the island settles under its own growing weight. From the museum, the trail descends along with the dwindling cliff, until it crosses the highway and enters the hot, windy lava flats and orange-brown-pink ashlands of the volcano’s Southwest Rift Zone and the Ka’u Desert.

The Rift cuts like a miniature canyon through the patchwork of black-and-grey lava flows, revealing dozens of layers of volcanic history. Layers of ash have hardened into the closest thing that the island possesses to sedimentary rock – sometimes only to be blown apart by later eruptions, leaving huge hunks of striped rock littering the badlands.

The Ka’u Desert isn’t a true desert in terms of rainfall, though it gets nowhere near the precipitation of Kilauea’s windward rainforest – now only a scant two or three miles away. But the rain quickly seeps into porous ash and fissured lava – and fresh coats of lava periodically wipe out the rain-starved survivors. Still, small ferns and miniature ohia trees cling to the fissures.

Scrubby little ‘ohelo bushes appear, often laden with tasty berries that were once sacred to Madame Pele. The park allows visitors to sample the berries but recommends leaving most of them for the native nene geese and other local wildlife.

In the middle of this desolate stretch, the Halema’uma’u Trail branches off on the left, offering a 3.2 mile “shortcut” across the steamy middle of the caldera – although a steep climb waits at the other end.

As the trail veers eastward, the plant life grows in size and numbers, until it begins to resemble a real forest again as the trail passes sough of Keanakakoji Crater. At first, the understory is choked under a layer of ash from the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption: what seems like young trees are actually the crowns of full-grown, half-buried ohias.

But ohia trees are, of course, uniquely adapted to cope with such hazards. Their narrow, corkscrewy profiles and tiny grey-green leaves shed falling ash readily. And the red, beard-like growths that sometimes appear high on their trunks are actually aerial roots, which may serve a dual purpose: they absorb extra moisture and nutrients from the air, supplementing what the tree’s underground roots can get from the fast-draining soil – and may also help the tree to re-root itself if it becomes too deeply buried in ash.

By the time the trail crosses Chain of Craters Road, it’s plunging through full-fledged rain forest. Thanks in part to Park Service efforts to control feral pigs in this area, it’s one of the lushest, healthiest rain forests left on the island.

Hapu’u and ama’uma’u ferns crowd the forest floor; scarlet apapane, grayish ’oma’o, yellow-green amakihi and wrenlike elepaio flit beneath the crowns of large ohia trees. So do common invaders such as the mejiro or Japanese whiteye.

The trail strikes civilization again at Thurston Lava Tube pullout, which sports a parking lot, paved trails and restrooms. In addition to the walk-in lava cave itself, the area is an excellent spot for bird-watching: apapane and other forest birds often flit at eye-level across the gap of the small crater where stairs descend to the lava tube’s entrance.

From Thurston, the trail crosses the road again, then skirts the rim of Kilauea Iki Crater before following Waldron’s Ledge back to Volcano House.

The last segment of the trail is the easiest, traveling along the otherwise abandoned section of earthquake-damaged highway, with apapane singing in the trees all around.

Twelve miles is a fair amount of exercise, whether on the run or at a walk. Unless hikers are in good shape, they’re liable to be a little footsore at the end. But few trails can reward hikers with as much diversity in a few hours as does the Crater Rim Trail.

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Kilauea Iki Crater Trail (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park)

The trail is located in the Volcanoes National Park and is a perfect fit for a one-day park visit. It is 4 miles long and takes approximately 1 ½ – 2 hours and allows hikers to experience a wide range of historic lava flows and volcanic activity while walking through a great variety of different landscapes.The trail begins at the Kīlauea Iki parking lot on Crater Rim Drive. You may go either way from the trailhead. You can either take the Crater Rim Trail to the right around the rim of Kilauea Iki and then down to the crater floor then back up the other side or go left and begin the hike with the descent into the crater. We prefer the first option simply because you can enjoy the beauty of the rim rain forest at the beginning of the hike and the ascent is slightly less arduous.
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Kīlauea Iki Trail starts in the rain forest on the crater’s rim. The trail descends 400 feet through the rain forest, with native birds in the canopy, to the crater floor. Hikers will cross the still-steaming crater floor, past the gaping throat of the vent that built Pu’u Pua’i cinder cone, and return to your starting point via the crater’s rim.

As you stand at the Kilauea Iki Overlook you can see a lightly-etched trail stretching across the crater floor. From your 400 ft high vantage point you might be able to see little specks walking the path: those are people. The views of Pu’u Puai (gushing hill), a cinder cone that formed during the 1959 eruption at Kilauea Iki Crater, are also great from this vantage point. It skirts the rim of the crater, dips down and across the floor and back up to the overlook.

The portion of Crater Rim Trail that runs along the rim is a dense high-elevation jungle populated with flowering ohia trees and graceful ferns. If you are not in a hurry, take a few minutes to gaze overhead and you may catch a glimpse of the apapane. They are one of the most common Hawaii forest birds, but their deep red feathers and black beaks make them a beautiful sight. The apapane love to flit from ohia blossom to ohia blossom drinking its nectar. Gaps in the jungle cover reveal breathtaking views of the black crater floor, a stark contrast to the thriving forest. The trail descends into the crater with a mixture of stairs and steep terrain. Make sure you have applied plenty of sunblock because the sun seems much more intense on the exposed floor.

Once you have reached the bottom a whole new alien landscape envelopes you. What looked like a pebble from the rim is now a massive pile of lava rock. Along the cliffs you can see a high water mark or literally a lava ring in the crater. Although you are walking across solid land, below you molten earth still stirs. If the elements are right, you may even see steam sneaking between the cracks and crevices – reminders that this volcano is still alive and breathing.

The path back up the crater rim will branch off at Thurston Lava Tube parking lot and you can continue on back to the Kilauea Iki overlook. As an extension of the trail, you could walk across the road at the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot and follow the short 20-minute trail to and through the lava tube. If you have a good day to spend and have the stamina, you can also hike to Kilauea Iki from the park visitor center on the Crater Rim Trail or the Byron Ledge Trail. The overlook is located on Crater Rim Drive inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In 1959, the tranquility you experience today, was shattered by the deafening roar of lava blasting skyward in Kīlauea Iki Crater. People could hear the rumble—a sound like thunder and pounding surf combined—long before they could see erupting lava. Pele, the spiritual force of the volcano, had once again made her presence known. Hawaiians observe Pele’s activity and create names that reflect her various moods. When she erupts within a crater, we know her as Kawahineokalua, the woman of the pit. Flowing through the forests, she is Kawahine‘aihonua, eater of the land. Yet we live upon the island that she provides, so she is also Pelehonuamea, creator of new land.

The eruption began when a curtain of lava burst from a half-mile (0.8 km) long fissure, or crack, in the crater wall directly across from you. Within a day, multiple vents along the fissure consolidated into one main vent (an opening through which lava erupts).Over the next five weeks, fountains of lava gushed from the vent in 17 separate episodes. Molten rock flooded the crater, creating a lake of lava that rose halfway up the crater walls, burying the initial fissure.

Downwind from high lava fountains, forests suffered tremendous damage. Trees were stripped of leaves and branches—or completely buried—by falling cinder. Prevailing trade winds blew most of the cinder away from here, sparing this forest from the eruption.

When the lava lake grew higher than the vent, fountains stopped erupting. Molten lava drained back into the vent, dragging pieces of the lake’s crust with it. Lava often poured back into the vent four times faster than it was erupted, generating a noisy whirlpool of red-hot, liquid lava and black slabs of solid rock.

Lush forests survived above the lake’s high lava mark. As the lake partially drained, its surface dropped nearly 50 feet (15 m), leaving behind a crusty lava “bathtub ring” to indicate its highest level.

Each episode of the eruption played out differently. Some went on for days while others lasted only hours. Molten rock sometimes poured from the vent in a rolling boil. At other times lava burst skyward to form towering fountains in a matter of seconds.

Every episode ended with lava draining back into the vent. The rock beneath your feet—slabs of the lake’s crust—stacked up as lava drained from the crater. These brittle layers broke and pulled apart as they slumped into the vent, creating the dangerous cracks and unstable rock layers in front of you. The rocks here weigh less than you might expect because they contain numerous holes left by gas bubbles in the frothy lava.

With no outlet from the crater, lava flooded Kīlauea Iki. During the first episode alone, 68 million tons of lava poured into the crater, creating a lake several hundred feet deep. By the time the eruption ended on December 20, another 18 million tons of lava were added to the crater, increasing the lake depth to over 400 feet (120 m). The enormous weight of this lava lake is 235 times heavier than the Empire State Building.

The lake’s surface quickly cooled to form a thin black crust that readily broke into plates 10–20 feet (3–6 m) across. Cracks between the plates were quickly filled by less dense molten lava rising from beneath the crust. As frothy orange-hot lava oozed over the rigid plates, they were “swallowed” into the lake.

This process of “crustal overturning” moved across the entire lake in a matter of minutes. It occurred many times during the eruption and for almost a week after it ceased. You are walking on a surface created by the final overturn of the lake.

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