If you’re looking for one of the most unique hikes on the Big Island, the Kilauea Iki trail, located in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, might just fit the bill. You’ll hike through a lush rainforest onto a solidified lava lake from a volcanic eruption in 1959. So put on your hiking boots and let’s hit the road- here’s everything you need to know about the Kilauea Iki trail.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission, for which we are extremely grateful, at no extra cost to you.
About the Kilauea Iki Trail
Type of trail:
Like most national parks, you’ll need to leave your furry best friend at home for this one.
Permit or fees?
You don’t need a permit, but you will either need to pay $30 for a one-week pass per vehicle or purchase an America the Beautiful Pass for $80, which gets you into alllll of the U.S. National Parks for FREE for an entire year!
How long does it take to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail?
It usually takes hikers between two to three hours to hike this trail.
History of the Kilauea Iki Trail
So you may be wondering to yourself “How did this very unique trail come to be?” Well, I’m so glad you asked!
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to some of the most active volcanoes on the planet, including Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on the planet, and Kilauea.
In November 14, 1959, the Kilauea Iki crater cracked into a half-mile long fissure and, over the next five weeks and 17 eruptions, spewed out enough lava to fill half of the crater you see today with molten rock. At its most dramatic point, lava exploded 1,900 feet in the air(!!!), the tallest eruption in Hawaii’s history.
By December 20, 1959, the eruptions stopped and the remaining lava slowly cooled to form the hardened lava lake you’ll walk on today. Pretty cool, huh?
So can you still see lava from the Kilauea Iki Trail?
While the Kilauea Iki Trail is perfect for seeing solidified lava, there’s no active lava flows along the trail at the time I’m writing this article. You can check the National Park website for the best places to see active eruptions in the park when you visit.
How to get to the Kilauea Iki Trail
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is nestled in the southeastern side of the Big Island, so regardless if you’re staying in Kona or Hilo, you’re going to need to drive to the trailhead.
Kona to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park:
You’ll drive two hours and ten minutes southeast along the coastline to the trailhead, via Hawai’i Belt Road. If you want to make a whole day of it, there’s plenty of cool stops along the way, like the Green Sand Beach or Punalu’u Beach (i.e., the best place to see turtles on the Big Island!).
Hilo to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park:
You’ll drive about 45 minutes southwest along Hawai’i Belt Road to the trailhead.
Once you pay for the entrance fee, you’ll make your way to the trailhead, which has a couple dozen parking spots in a well-maintained and paved lot.
Which Way Should You Hike the Kilauea Iki Trail?
Since the Kilauea Iki hike is a loop (made of three connected trails), you’ll need to either decide to go clockwise or counterclockwise.
- If you go clockwise, you’ll hike the Connector Trail (down through the rainforest to the crater), the Kilauea Iki Trail (across the crater and up into the rainforest), and finally, the aptly-named Crater Rim trail (along the rim of the crater and back to the parking lot).
- If you go counter-clockwise, you’ll just reverse these steps- hike the Crater Rim Trail down to the Kilauea Iki Trail, and finally, use the Connector Trail to hike back up to the parking lot.
Conventional wisdom seems to be that the best route is counter-clockwise, which first descends down a series of rocky, uneven steps and ascends through a series of switchbacks that climbs through the rainforest, as it may be easier on the knees.
An additional benefit of hiking the trail in this direction is that the National Park has written a helpful guide for the trail, with history and information about the area, which corresponds with numbered trail markers in a counter-clockwise direction.
To be honest, I didn’t read the whole “hike counterclockwise” advice before my husband, Justin, and I headed out on the trail and so we hiked it clockwise. I didn’t really notice or think that climbing up the aforementioned rocky stairs was too bad, but something to keep in mind if you have any kind of mobility issues.
Separately, if you’re interested in following the National Park’s guide, I’d recommend downloading it to your phone ahead of time, given that cell service in the park is spotty at best. Similarly, download an offline trail map on AllTrails, so you can easily follow along and make sure you’re staying on the right trail.
Pssst… you need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline maps, but you can get a 7-day free trial here. If you're wondering whether the app is for you, we wrote a whole post on whether AllTrails Pro is worth it.
What to Expect Along the Kilauea Iki Trail
Below, I’m outlining what you can expect along the Kilauea Iki Trail if you’re hiking it counterclockwise from the parking lot.
The Crater Rim Trail
Head to your right along the Crater Rim trail. As you descend through a lush rainforest, you’ll immediately see why this is consistently ranked one of the best hikes on the Big Island, with giant hāpuʻu leaves (a tree fern) hanging overhead and peekaboo glimpses to your left of the crater below.
Keep an eye out for the beautiful ʻōhiʻa lehua, a gorgeous tree with red blossoms that is one of the first plants to proliferate after a lava flow. They’re SUCH cool trees- they’ve actually evolved to close their stomata–effectively “holding their breath”–when there’s a high amount of sulfur dioxide in the air (like, say, after a volcano erupts!).
As you hike along, you’ll run into a few forks in the road (at 0.5, 0.7, and 0.8 miles, respectively)- for each of these forks, you’ll want to stay to the left and continue along the Crater Rim trail.
The Kilauea Iki Trail
About a mile into the trail, it’ll start veering to the south and you’ll descend the final 150 feet, down into the crater, along the aforementioned rocky steps. Congrats, you’re *officially* on the Kilauea Iki Trail!
As you start hiking across the crater, Pu’u Pua’i will be on your right hand side, an enormous pile of volcanic rubble. Pu’u Pua’i means “gushing hill” and was formed from ash and cinder emitted from the 1959 volcanic eruption.
Continue following the ahu (cairns or small piles of rocks left by other hikers) across the crater, although the path along the lava lake is worn and relatively easy to follow on its own.
Be sure to take time to explore the cracks and vents along the crater floor; there’s actually still a few active steam vents scattered across it, where you can feel the heat emitting from the ground. While we didn’t see any steam during our hike, you can apparently spot them more easily after it rains, given that cool rainwater touches the geothermally-heated rocks underground and vaporizes.
As you climb out of the crater, you’ll follow a series of switchbacks up through the rainforest, gaining about 450 feet of elevation along the way.
The Connector Trail
Once you’re 2.8 miles into the trail, you’ll see a fork to the right that heads to the Thurston Lava Tube, a 600-foot lava tube formed 500 years ago during a volcanic eruption.
The Thurston Lava Tube is one of the best hikes in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Parks and given that you’re already here and the fact that parking in the tiny lot at the lava tube’s trailhead is kind of a nightmare, consider making a detour to explore the tube. Luckily, it’s an easy trail, clocking in at just 0.4 miles and 39 feet of elevation, so it won’t extend your hike too long.
Otherwise, continue towards the left along the Connector Trail, which follows the rim of the volcano for 0.4 miles back to the trailhead parking lot.
Tips for hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail
Wear proper hiking shoes.
You’ll encounter all kinds of terrain along this trail, from slippery and muddy trails to rocky, uneven ground. Be sure to include proper hiking shoes on your Hawaii packing list, like hiking sandals (like these Tevas for women or these Tevas for men) or hiking boots (Justin has a pair of these boots and I have these boots).
Clean your shoes off before starting the hike.
As mentioned above, ʻōhiʻa trees are super cool plants that are endemic to Hawaii and are culturally significant to Native Hawaiians.
Unfortunately, invasive species are threatening dozens of species of Hawaii’s precious endemic plantlife, including a deadly fungus that’s killing the ʻōhiʻa trees. In fact, more than a million ʻōhiʻa trees have been infected and died, due to this fungus (referred to as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death). To prevent spreading invasive species yourself, be sure to clean off any mud or debris from your shoes before hiking in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (or in any area with ʻōhiʻa trees).
Leave what you find.
You know that saying “Take only memories, leave only footprints”? That’s true everywhere, but especially in Hawaii, which is home to some of the world’s most unique geology and biodiversity and has historically been exploited for its incredible natural resources.
You might be tempted to pocket a piece of volcanic rock here to take home as a souvenir, but remember that Pele, the lava goddess, is believed to consider all these rocks as her babies and will curse anyone who dares remove them from Hawaii. And you don’t want, like, a legit lava goddess mad at you, do you? So leave everything just as (or better!) than you found it.
I hope you enjoy the Kilauea Iki trail as much as I did- it was one of the highlights of our Big Island itinerary! Do you have any questions about the hike or the national park? Let me know in the comments below!
Thank you for reading our post! Check out our latest stories here and follow us on Instagram (@UprootedTraveler), YouTube, or on Facebook to see what we’re up to next!