Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island hike

The Kilauea Iki trail is located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii. A loop trail leads you through the northern rim’s lush rain forest to the floor of the steaming but solidified lava lake of the Kilauea Iki (little Kilauea) crater. In 1959, this crater was the scene of an eruption with lava fountains up to 1,900 ft (or 580 m) high. The walls around the Kilauea Iki crater are nearly vertical because it’s a pit crater: a sunken surface with vertical walls, like an inverted cone.

Viewpoint from the rainforest over the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

It’s one of the most popular Volcanoes National Park hikes and, in our opinion, the most spectacular Big Island hike. Kīlauea Iki is a pit crater that is created by the ground above a void below the earth’s surface giving way and sinking together, usually leaving nearly vertical walls.

Kilauea Iki Trail facts and figures

  • Distance: 4 miles (or 6.4 km).
  • Time: 2 to 3 hours. We’re no experienced hikers and it took us 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete the trail with 2 kids in town (8 and 6 years old at the time).
  • Difficulty: Medium. Some parts are pretty easy but the part where you transition from rain forest to crater lake is pretty steep and rocky.
  • Elevation: The Kilauea Iki Trail begines at 3,874 feet (or 1180 m) above sea level. The decent and ascent go up to 400 feet (or 122 m).

What to expect when hiking this trail

First, let me take you through the varying landscape you come across on the Kilauea Iki Trail:

You start the hike through lush rain forest along the crater rim. Several
overlooks would have given us an idea of what to expect further down the trail but the fog decided differently.
Foggy start of our Kilauea Iki hike, the best Big Island
Foggy start of our Kilauea Iki hike, the best Big Island
The first part of the Kilauea Iki Trail path through the rainforest on the crater rim
The first part of the Kilauea Iki Trail path through the rainforest on the crater rim
Viewpoint over the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Viewpoint over the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park


The path changes and gets more rocky. This is the area where molton rock has spattered after the 1959 eruption. Soon the trail will start descending.
Little girl in red poncho walking the Kilauea Iki Trail in Volcanoes National Park Hawaii


This is the most difficult part of the trail because of the many large boulders that make the descent pretty challenging. These rocks fell of the cliffs during several powerful earthquakes.
Boulders along the Kilauea Iki Trail on Big Island Hawaii
Boulders along the Kilauea Iki Trail on Big Island Hawaii
Signpost to the Kilauea Iki Trail and Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Signpost to the Kilauea Iki Trail and Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii

The path is now marked by stacked rocks. It’s still a bit uncomfortable to walk but you can see that this is the last rough episode. The Lehua blossom on the Ohia trees adds a dash of colour to the black lava lake. It’s a strong tree, native to Hawaii, that roots in the lava cracks when windblown seeds mix with water and nutrients.
Blossoming ohia tree amids black lava in the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanies National Park
Blossoming ohia tree amids black lava in the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanies National Park
Hiking through black lava fields on the Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island hike
Hiking through black lava fields on the Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island hike
Stacked rocks marking the Kilauea Iki Trail through the lava lake
Stacked rocks marking the Kilauea Iki Trail through the lava lake

As the trail becomes flatter, the lava starts to shw some color too. Oxidizing volcanic gases transform the iron-rich lava minerals in different shades. You can tell how proud the girls are for not having given up during the challenging part.
Proud of having reached this point of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Proud of having reached this point of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Happy to have reached the Kilauea crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Happy to have reached the Kilauea crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Proud to have reached this point of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the best Big Island hike
Proud to have reached this point of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the best Big Island hike

The trail is completely flat here, apart from some big cracks. The crater floor is still steaming here, several steam vents can be spotted around the trail. It’s rainwater that comes in touch with the hot rocks below the surface and vaporizes. When you touch the ground you can feel the heat coming through. What a spectacular sensation!
Taking a break on the warm crater floor during a hike of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Taking a break on the warm crater floor during a hike of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Cracks on the Kilauea crater floor on Hawaii Big Island
Cracks on the Kilauea crater floor on Hawaii Big Island
Feeling the steam from a vent during a hike of the Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island hike
Feeling the steam from a vent during a hike of the Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island hike
Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island Hawaii
Steaming vent in the Kilauea crater on Big Island Hawaii
Steaming vent in the Kilauea crater on Big Island Hawaii
Feeling the heath through the Kilauea Iki crater floor in Volcanoes National Park
Feeling the heath through the Kilauea Iki crater floor in Volcanoes National Park
Steaming vent in the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Steaming vent in the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

This is where the ascent to the rainforest begins but it’s also a good location to take a final look over the crater floor. It’s not nearly as rocky here as it is on the opposite side of the crater, where we descended. The trail is actually pretty easy in this part and, well, a bit boring. Or maybe it’s just the realization that the best part is over. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that we couldn’t have handled another challenging episode at this point.
Looking over the crater lake of the Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island Hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Looking over the crater lake of the Kilauea Iki Trail, the best Big Island Hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Final part of the Kilauea Iki Trail on Big Island Hawaii goes through the rainforest
Final part of the Kilauea Iki Trail on Big Island Hawaii goes through the rainforest

You’ll find the Thurston Lava Tube (Nāhuku) ride across the road. It’s well worth the small detour. When you’re ready, take the last half mile (0.8 km) of the trail to the parking lot.Two little girls entering the Thurston Lava Tube in Volcanoes National Park Hawaii

What makes this the best Big Island hike

In our opinion, three things make the Kilauea Iki trail the most spectacular Big Island hike:

  1. The diverse landscape: Rainforest vs lava and the naked lava vs the blossoming Ohia tree.
  2. The spectacle: Seeing the steam coming through the vents and feeling the heat coming from the ground makes you realize how active this volcano still is. You can literally feel the force of nature.
  3. The well-marked path: You can’t get lost so you can take it all in without having to trace your steps.

How to reach the trailhead

Drive up to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and pay the entrance fee of $25 per car. If you plan on visiting the other Hawaiian National Parks (Haleakala National Park and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park) within the year, you could also go for the Tri-Park Pass at $50.

Form the entrance, drive straight down to the Visitors Center. Why make a stop there? Kilauea is an active volcano and the conditions are always subject to change. The same goes for the wind, moving toxic sulfur dioxide and volcanic gases to different areas of the park. So, make sure to check the latest conditions before starting any Kilauea volcano hike.

Head back towards the entrance and make a right on to Crater Rim Drive. You’ll find the Kilauea Iki parking lot about 2 miles (3.2 km) down the road.

You can choose to hike the Kilauea Iki trail in either direction.

It’s very well doable to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on your own. However, if you consider joining a guided tour, here are some excursion options.

How to prepare for this Big island hike

  • Since you’re high above sea level, the weather is pretty unpredictable but generally a bit on the cool side. Bring a raincoat or poncho and some sunscreen too. Our day started out rainy and foggy but after an hour the sky cleared and the temperatures went up.
  • The terrain is rocky and steep so make sure to wear sturdy shoes.
  • A map is not really required since the Kilauea Iki path is well-marked. On the crater floor the aha (stacked rocks) mark the trail. This guide is pretty interesting since it points out some features you might otherwise easily miss.

Two little girl posing during a hike of the Kilauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Best time of day to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail

Temparature-wise, Big Island hikes are usually best taken in the morning. However, since the Kilauea rises high above sea level, you could get away with an afternoon walk too. Doing so, you will also avoid the foggy conditions that are more common in the morning.

If you plan on visiting other sites in Volcanoes National Park too, then it’s actually a good idea to do this hike in the afternoon, have a picknick while enjoying the views and then head to the Jagger museum. At twilight you might see the glowing lava of the erupting Halema’uma’u crater before heading to your hotel.

We started hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail around noon and the fog only cleared around 1PM. It would have taken too long to wait for twilight. Still, we could see some glowing lava in the Halema’uma’u crater. Look closely at this picture and you will see the orange glow in the crater.

Steaming Halema'uma'u crater in Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii Big Island

Spiritual importance in Hawaiian culture

In Hawaiian culture, the Kilauea volcano, and more specific the Halemaʻumaʻu crater, is said to be the  home of Pele, the goddess of fire. Many native Hawaiians still believe that lava is her physical embodiment.

That spiritual belief is still very much alive. We saw a young Hawaiian man patiently waiting in line at the viewpoint next to the Jagger museum’s parking lot. He was holding a kind of box made out of palm leaves. I approached him and asked him, respectfully, if this was an offering to Pele. He confirmed and said it was a food item made from macadamia nut. I could see he was bothered by the other visitors standing on some rocks to be able to take a better picture of the lava. In Hawaiian culture, it’s considered very disrespectful to move rocks, let alone stand on them. Consider this and be respectful when visiting mount Kilauea. Have another look at the previous photo where you can see the offerings on the ground (one of which is a flower).

Hotels near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Volcano Village is a popular holiday village close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and amidst the rain forest. However, most accommodations here are pretty basic and didn’t really appeal to us. And since Hilo is actually just a 40 minute drive away, we chose to keep the Grand Naniloa Hotel as our travel base for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park too. It’s the best hotel around on the island’s east side and it offers gorgeous views over Hilo bay. Click here to check out the TripAdvisor reviews.

Lookout over Hilo bay from our room in the Grand Naniloa Resort

Current situation at Mount Kilauea

We were lucky enough to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail two weeks before the eruption in April 2018. Ever since, the situation is being monitored on a daily basis. All recent information regarding Volcanoes National Park can be found via this link.

Little girl wearing a green jacket and looking out over the Kilauea Iki crater and pointing at the fumes coming from the Halema'uma'u crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Is the Kilauea Iki Trail on your Hawaii bucket list?

Have you been to Big Island Hawaii before and hiked this trail? What was your experience? Or are you about to visit Hawaii and vividly hoping that the National Park will open again soon? Or have you done another volcano hike, anywhere in the world, and can’t wait to share your story? We look forward to reading all about it in the comments below!


Pinning one of these images would be much appreciated!

 


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