One of the reasons we opted for the Big Island as our third stop while island hopping Hawaii, is that it is home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This World Heritage Site and designated International Biosphere Reserve is home to two active volcanoes: he Mauna Loa, world’s largest volcano, and the infamous Kilauea, which erupted in the spring of 2018. 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 and, in our opinion, the most spectacular Big Island hike.
Note that this trail was temporarily closed after the Kilauea eruption in spring 2018 and not yet reopened when this article was last updated (March 2019). You can check Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website anytime to see whether it has been reopened. The Kilauea Iki overlook is accessible at this point.
About the Kilauea Iki crater
This 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.
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:
overlooks would have given us an idea of what to expect further down the trail but the fog decided differently.
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.
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.
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.
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).
How to combine this hike
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.
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.
Current situation at Mount Kilauea
We were lucky enough to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail just a few weeks before the eruption in the spring of 2018. Ever since, the situation is being monitored on a daily basis. All recent information regarding open / closed areas and trails in Volcanoes National Park can be found via https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/conditions.htm“>this link.
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 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? We look forward to reading all about it in the comments below!
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