With just under 5 miles to go, by the time you read this my last remaining goal of 2022 will be officially checked off. Oddly thanks to Covid, I was able push through the remaining miles and again break the 1200 mile ribbon – there were around 64 miles still to run at end of November. Over the years, I’ve found that running can help ward off sickness or minimally break down whatever heathens make it through my defenses. Feeling under the weather or exposed to the possibility equals 7-9 miles per day – less and don’t sweat enough to purge the sickies, more than 9 miles the immune defense get redirected to muscle recovery instead. I am definitely NOT advocating this approach for others, simply noting it as beneficial to my goal. As I celebrate the accomplishment, going to let Brad take you for a few miles on a hike. Put on your surest footing gear (not Crocs ha), this trek covers some dangerous terrain.
Take it away Brad…
Concrete. Asphalt. Crushed gravel. Grass. Granite. Dirt. Leaves. Shredded tire chips. Wood chips. Mulch. All good hiking surfaces. What about hardened basalt? You know, cooled lava.
I know. I know. This site is called Wildlife Intrigued. I have to admit, I’m not going to describe or show any photos of wildlife in this article (unless you count tourists). But I thought it was interesting and would capture your attention and maybe, just maybe, entice you to visit Volcanoes National Park sometime.
Jan and I were able to reprise a hike we first completed in 2010. As you’ve seen by now in a few of the past posts, we visited Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. And as the name implies, there are volcanoes involved. Even though Kilauea volcano is currently erupting, there is no molten lava in the Kilauea Iki crater. Actually, there’s no molten lava within two miles of where we were hiking. This particular crater last erupted in spectacular fashion in 1959. (See this site for iconic photos of the drive-in eruption of Kilauea Iki.)
Despite having arrived early in the morning, the parking lot was nearly full. I think we found the last available space in the small lot.
Hit the jump to continue the hike.
Kilauea Iki is a much smaller (Iki means “little”) version of the Kilauea caldera. If you look carefully, you can see bits of the much larger Kilauea caldera in the background through the gap in the crater rim. Also visible, along with the noxious gas plume, is the Halema’uma’u crater at the top left as it appeared in 2010. We took this photo from the railing on the crater’s edge at the beginning of the trail. To give you an idea of scale, there is a person standing on the trail in the above photo. Can you find them? (HINT: Look for the white scaley stuff just left of the middle. You see that tiny black stick standing up? That’s a person on the trail.)
This trail is NOT accessible for those with mobility difficulties (though we did see one family struggling to get grandma and grandpa through the trail along the rim). The National Park Service (NPS) says the hike is a 4-mile loop. Before the serious hikers cast shade on the 2-3 hour time allotted for a 4-mile hike, you need to know that halfway through the hike the trail descends 400 feet down a nearly vertical (60+ degrees) wall. Obviously, that means we had to hike 400 feet back UP a similar incline; zig-zagging through switchbacks all the way up the crater wall back to the parking lot. The trail is rated moderate to difficult overall. The first mile or so is a very pleasant trail through the rainforest.
There are lookouts along the crater rim so we could gauge our progress. Partway into the hike we took time to catch this photo. At this point I was starting to get a handle on the scale of what we were hiking around. It’s hard to tell from here, but we are still about 400 feet above the crater floor. From this height, the trail across the crater floor is easily visible, but it is still hard to see individual people on the trail.
We can easily see the bathtub ring below the tree line and above the crater floor. In 1959 a vigorous eruption created a lava lake that covered the entire floor of the crater. When the eruption ended the 400-foot deep lava lake partially drained leaving a “bathtub ring” as the surface lava cooled and shrunk a bit. The “ring” in the photos starts below the tree line and is more than 50 feet high from the edge of the crater floor. Even today the crater floor continues to subside about ¾” per year as the lava beneath the floor slowly cools and contracts. So, that means in the 20 years we’ve been visiting, the crater floor is 12-15 feet lower than when we first hiked the crater. No wonder it was harder to climb out this last time ha.
I like to check out the flora along the path to help visually distract myself from always looking towards the crater (those with an aversion to heights may want to reconsider the lookouts or the hike in general). The trail on the rim of the crater makes for a very pleasant hike.
By now we had been lulled into a false sense of security. We’ve been hiking on a relatively easy trail meandering through a tropical rainforest. We started to wonder a little bit: was the trail guide wrong about the difficulty? After all, we’ve hiked a mile around the rim to the break in the crater wall and not really broken a sweat. How bad can it be? (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) We were about to find out. We came to a fork in the trail and had the choice to turn right and onto the larger Kilauea caldera hike (7-miles total) or hang a left and descend into Kilauea Iki. We took a left and began the descent. Just after the turn, the nice trail stopped and we found ourselves hiking/climbing down the nearly vertical crater wall which is full of eruption debris. No more rainforest.
It’s not quite a double black diamond trail (reference to skiing) but sure felt like it at times. The National Park Service (NPS) put in handrails, which is a good thing as some of the “steps” are over 24 inches tall. My knees are beginning to remind me how steep the slope is and the distance between the steps. It’s also good to note that Crocs or flip-flops are craptastic (did I meet the bonus requirement Brian?) footwear choices for hiking over lava (we did see “hikers” wearing both.) I like wearing full hiking boots that support my ankles and help protect from lava scrapes on the trails. Hardened lava can be as sharp as glass; just ask my shins, knees, and hands. The lava can nearly shred most flip-flops or Crocs by trails end, not to mention exposed toes and ankles.
As we near the bottom of the descent, we are hiking through the bathtub ring.
Partially cooled (remember “cooled” means it’s still 1800 degrees Fahrenheit or so) lava can create some wondrous formations.
When this curl formed the lava was not quite liquid, nor was it completely hardened; it was just right. (Does it bring to mind porridge and bears?) I imagine the lava was sort of like very warm modelling clay. We took the time to stop and take a photo of the “skin” of the cooled lava.
We picked our way through the remaining eruption debris and made it to the crater floor. We were rewarded with this view.
Although you can’t really tell from the photo, we are looking at the starting point on the far end of the crater, at the top left.
The crater floor crossing is a bit over one mile long. The mound on the right side in the photo is where the lava fountain was in 1959. Lava fountains reached over 1,900 feet into the sky at the most vigorous part of the eruption. The mound was created tiny bits of lava falling from the fountain. Just over the top of the mound is an area known as Devastation Trail, which is also worth a hike and much easier than the crater floor. (By the way, the closest parking lot for viewing the current active lava lake is at Devastation Trail.)
The eruption left a very sharp transition between volcanic wasteland and forest. Literally within a few feet on the trail we left the shelter of the trees and end up in nothing but lava bits on a giant moonscape. The crater floor is almost devoid of life, at least obvious life. The only things brave enough, and usually one of the first to grow after an eruption are the ‘ohi’a trees.
The crater floor is subsiding as the lava continues to cool beneath. But we didn’t worry about falling through into molten lava, at least not in this crater. The floor is a couple hundred feet of hardened lava. In 1988, a drilling project found that while the floor may seem warm, the first molten material they hit was around 300 feet below the crater floor surface. We saw steam vents all along the hike and were careful not to get too close. You need to be mindful of them if you wander off the faint trail.
I noticed that the floor of the crater seems much warmer than the rim. I don’t think the still-cooling lava (300 feet beneath) has anything to do with it. I think it’s mostly because there’s nary a breeze down there and the black lava soaks up the sunshine making everything feel warmer.
While we were walking along the crater floor, the trail is not nearly as obvious as it is in some of the photos. There are small piles of rocks, or cairns along the way. The Hawaiian’s call these “ahu”. There are also numbered markers embedded in the trails; we could listen to the audio tour on a smart device if we wanted to. The floor of the crater is far from flat. The lava has formed humps and cracks, and undulates the entire distance. Once we navigated the crater floor and begin to climb out the opposite end of the crater, across the bath tub ring, we turned around to savor the view for a moment.
Though we had just crossed the entire crater floor, dodging steam vents and lava obstacles, we still had to climb 400 feet back up and out of the crater. The half-mile long path on this side is much easier to climb up than the one we took down. That’s the way we recommend exploring Kilauea Iki crater. Starting at the parking lot, take the trail counter clockwise to the easier route along the rim. Then climb down through the lava boulders, hike across the crater floor and then climb back up the zig zags through the rainforest. Easy peasy. You might even be able to spot a new fern frond unravelling like we did.
Back at the parking lot, we took another moment to see where we had been. The hike took about 2 ½ hours, allowing time for photos along the way. We weren’t at a hurried pace, nor did we dawdle.
I time warped this article just a bit by sneaking in the 2022 version of this photo with the Halema’uma’u changes in the background.
Thanks for reading. If you want to see more photos of our Hawaiian vacations, please visit here.
Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proof reading and editing. Thanks to Jan for some of photos in this article.
Sources (Bri note, clearly Brad is buttering up our legal team with source callouts ha)
1959 Kiluaeu Iki eruption, USGS
Accessed October 15, 2022
National Park Service 2013 Kilauea Iki Trail guide
Accessed October 15, 2022