Monday, February 10, 2014

Hike across lava field, through rain forest

Kilauea Iki Trail on the floor of the Kilauea Iki Crater.
Photo courtesy Hawai'i Volcanoes NPS.
Topo map of Kilauea Iki Trail.

Kilauea Iki Trail
heads into crater
formed in 1959

Families can hike to the center of a lava field that still emits steam and boasts hot rocks at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

The 4-mile Kilauea Iki Trail loop is a study in contrast, opening with a walk through a lush green rain rain forest and ending with a path across a desolate black crater. Because of the heat and rugged terrain, it can be a challenging trail for those who aren’t physically fit.

The national park sits on the Big Island of Hawaii. To reach the trailhead, from Hilo take Hawaii Hwy. 11 (aka as Mamalahoa Highway, Hawaii Belt Road, and Volcano Road) south. Once in the park, turn left/west onto Crater Rim Drive then take the next left/southwest. When Crater Rim Drive splits, go left/northeast. Look for the Kilauea Iki parking lot.

The trail goes two ways from the lot. Head right/west. The first 1.4 miles of the trail rambles along the crater edge through a Hawaiian rain forest. Ferns line the forest floor as flowering ohia trees provide shade.

A number of native birds can be heard in the forest canopy. Among the easiest to spot is the apapane, which boasts beautiful red feathers and black beaks. The apapane often can be seen hovering about ohia blossoms, drinking nectar.

Kilauea Iki Crater
Breaks in the forest allow for spectacular views of the stark, moon-like Kilauea Iki Crater below.

Be sure to watch for signs and trail markers. When the trail reaches the Waldron and the Byron ledges on the crater’s northwest side, other paths intersect.

As the trail veers east, it descends about 400 feet over steps and across sharp volcanic rock to the crater floor, passing first by the Pu’u Puai Spatter Cone. It is here that in 1959 this pit crater formed in a spectacular string of events.

In August of that year, a swarm of deep earthquakes hit the region. By October, seismographs showed that the the Kilauea summit – the high point of this volcanic island to the west – was filling with magma. Suddenly lava began to shoot out from Pu’u Puai, which means “gushing hill” in Hawaiian. By Nov. 18, the fountain sometimes towered 1,900 feet high, forming a lava lake about three feet deep within a matter of a couple of days.

Then suddenly, at 7:25 p.m. on Nov. 21, the eruptions ended. Within 40 seconds, the 689-feet high fountain diminished to a few gas bubbles. The lava lake cooled and hardened into basalt, forming ledges as it did.

Steam and hot rocks
Though this eruption occurred more than 50 years ago, the surface is still warm. That’s because rainwater seeping into the basalt cracks turns to steam upon reaching the still hot rocks below the surface. Sometimes steam rises out of the cracks. Surrounding rock can be hot enough to burn skin. Always stay away from the scalding steam and follow the ahu (Hawaiian for rock cairns) when walking across the crater.

Other safety tips: Bring water and rain gear as well as donning a sun hat and sunscreen. The rain forest will be wet while the crater floor is entirely exposed to sunlight with the black basalt absorbing heat. The terrain is rocky, so good hiking boots are recommended.

Upon leaving the crater, the trail makes a steep ascent on switchbacks back to the parking lots. It first passes through the lot for the Thurston Lava Tube, however.

If looking to shorten the hike, cut the rain forest segment by doing the route in reverse. Walking to the Pu’u Puai Spatter Cone and then returning the way you came, as if on an out-and-back trail, is a little more than 2 miles total.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.