One of the most memorable experiences during our recent Hawaii island hopping adventure, was hiking through the crater of an active volcano. And active proved to be quite accurate, since the 2018 Kilauea eruption took place just 2 to 3 weeks after our visit. Hiking the Kilauea Iki trail is an epic experience, one that should rank high up on your Hawaii bucket list.
In this article, you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about this spectacular Big Island hike. We’ve added plenty of pictures of the hike too, mile by mile, so you’ll know exactly what to expect when hiking the Kilauea Iki trail. And it’s not just for adults: The Big Island is the best Hawaiian island for families with a taste for adventure and this experience is no exception. Oh, and did you know that you’ll find some of the most spectacular Airbnbs of Hawaii right next to the park? We can’t wait to tell you all about this awesome place so let’s dive in.
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Where to find the Kilauea Iki trail + current situation
One of the reasons we opted for this island as our third stop while island hopping Hawaii, is that it’s home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve and therefore World Heritage Site is home to not one but two active volcanoes: the Mauna Loa, world’s largest volcano, and the infamous Kilauea, which erupted in the spring of 2018. Volcanoes NP is one of the essential places to visit on the Big Island of Hawaii.
By the way, did you know that this is the youngest of Hawaiian islands? Learn more about its volcanoes our article on the most surprising facts about Hawaii.
We researched the park’s various hikes and decided to go for the The Kilauea Iki trail, a loop trail leading 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. It’s one of the most popular Volcanoes National Park hikes. Our visit to this spectacular US National Park with kids provided us with treasured memories that will last a lifetime. If you’re as intrigued by nature’s wonders, then this sure is one of the best places to visit in the United States.
Facts and figures about the crater and the trail
About the Kilauea Iki crater
This Kilauea Iki (little Kilauea) crater is the side crater to the Kilauea’s main crater. In 1959, it 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.
About the Kilauea Iki trail
- 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).
Where to stay near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
We visited Volcanoes National Park from the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo, which is a 40-minute drive away. If only we had known about the dreamy vacation rentals in Volcano Village, right next to the park. Then again, this makes for the perfect excuse to return and stay at one of these gorgeous accommodations (this one in particular):
Feeling a bit lost? Then have a look at out selection of best places to stay on Big Island or the other exciting things to do in Hilo and beyond, like visiting the majestic Big Island waterfalls or the most spectacular Hawaiian beaches (white sand beaches, black sand beaches and a unique green sand beach). For a sneak peak, check out this web story on where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Hiking the Kilauea Iki trail: What to expect mile by mile (with photos)
You start the Kilauea Iki 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.
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.
This is the most difficult part of the Kilauea Iki trail because of the many large boulders that make the descent pretty challenging. These rocks fell of the cliffs during several powerful earthquakes.
The path is 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 colour to the black lava. This strong tree, native to Hawaii, roots in the lava cracks when windblown seeds mix with water and nutrients.
As the Kilauea Iki 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.
The trail is completely flat, apart from some big cracks. The crater floor is still steaming, several steam vents can be spotted. 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. Spectacular!
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.
You’ll find the Thurston Lava Tube (Nāhuku) right across the road. We loved the entrance to the cave, overgrown by lush vegetation.
What makes this the best Big Island hike
In our opinion, three things make the Kilauea Iki trail the most spectacular Big Island hike:
- The diverse landscape: rainforest vs lava and the naked lava vs the blossoming Ohia tree.
- 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.
- The well-marked path: You can’t get lost so you can take it all in without having to trace your steps.
- The awareness of how vast the universe is and how insignificant a place we hold in it. Or, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”.
Cost & how to reach the Kilauea Iki trail head
- Drive up to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and pay the entrance fee of $30 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 $55.
- Head 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.
How to prepare for the Kilauea Iki Trail
- Form the entrance, before heading to the Kilauea Iki trail head, drive 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.
- The terrain is rocky and steep so make sure to wear sturdy shoes from a trusted brand such as Merrell or Keen. Also, pack an extra pair of clothes and shoes to change when you return to the car.
- Since you’re high above sea level, the weather is pretty unpredictable but generally a bit on the cool side. Make sure that your Hawaii packing list includes a poncho and the right reef-safe sunscreen for Hawaii. Raw Elements, Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen and Kokua Sun Care are all excellent reef-safe choices. Our day started out rainy and foggy but after an hour the sky cleared and the temperatures went up.
- Pack a GoPro with the necessary GoPro travel accessories and some spare batteries.
- A map is not really required since the Kilauea Iki trail path is well-marked. On the crater floor the ahu (stacked rocks) mark the trail. This guide is pretty interesting since it points out some features you might otherwise easily miss.
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.
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.
Spiritual importance of the Kilauea volcano 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. Moving the rocks displaces Pele’s spiritual energy.
Altering the natural setting of the Hawaiian landscape is more than not-done, it’s also a violation of the federal law, punishable by jail-time and a hefty fine. Consider this and be respectful when visiting mount Kilauea.
Have another look at the photo above this paragraph where you can see the offerings on the ground (one of which is a flower).
How to combine the Kilauea Iki trail
There are plenty of options to combine this hike. Our favorites would be:
- Driving the Chain of Craters Road, 18.8 miles long, which is said to be spectacular.
- Having a break at Punaluʻu black sand beach, just half an hour drive from Volcanoes NP. You’ll find some turtles there too.
- Still some energy left? Then how about a hike to the intriguing Papakolea green sand beach?
Is the Kilauea Iki Trail on your Hawaii bucket list?
Have you been to Big Island Hawaii before and hiked the Kilauea Iki trail? What was your experience? Or is there another trail in Volcanoes National Park that you can recommend instead, such as the Crater Rim trail (which has partially been reopenend)? Have you done another volcano hike, anywhere in the world, and can’t wait to share your story? Any of the exciting Maui hikes you can’t wait to tell us about? We look forward to reading all about it in the comments below!