The final stop on Crater Rim Drive is the Thurston Lava Tube. Discovered in 1913, the ancient tube was once flowing with red-hot lava running down the side of the mountain to the sea. Today lava continues to flow through similar tubes in the active Eastern Rift Zone. The lighted Thurston Lava Tube is the only lava tube you should enter within the park. The 1/3 mile long trail passes through a lush jungle of ferns and forest before entering the lava tube. When it was discovered it was full of lava stalactites that have long since been removed by souvenir collectors. The area is also the trailhead to the Kilauea Iki Trail. The Visitor Center, your starting point, is less than two miles away.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has over 150 miles of established trails and hiking in the park is very serious business. Searing heat from the sun, freezing cold conditions on Mauna Loa, and the constant dangers of the lava under your feet make it a challenging environment. Visitors should heed all warning signs and recommendations from park officials and should never leave marked trails. Sturdy hiking boots, long pants and gloves should be worn at all times - falling on volcanic material is like falling on broken glass resulting in very deep cuts. Stay away from cracks, fissures, skylights, shelves, cliffs, fumaroles, steam clouds, and lava. Thin crusts can appear stable but can hide 2,100 degree molten lava just below. Your life can depend on following this advice. During November of 2000 two-day hikers were killed and another severely injured in separate accidents, one occurring close to the Visitor Center.
The Crater Rim Trail is an 11-mile long loop trail that begins at the Kilauea Visitor Center. The trail loosely follows the Crater Rim Drive passing many of the same features outlined above. It's a challenging hike with plenty of elevation change. The trail passes through diverse terrain; from lush rain forest to barren acid soak deserts. Hikers should be in good condition and not have any breathing problems - there are serious sulfur fumes south and east of the Halema'uma'u Crater.
'Iliahi, or the Sandalwood Trail starts at the Volcano House Hotel and goes for 1.5 miles through lush rain forest and a series of steam vents before offering views of the Kilauea Caldera. Visitors are urged to stay on the trail and to stay away from fissures. A visitor was severely injured when they fell into a steam vent causing burns on the lower half of their body.
Halema'uma'u Trail cuts across the heart of the Kilauea Caldera traveling 3.5 miles, one way, to the Halema'uma'u Overlook. The moderately difficult trail descends 400 vertical feet through lush rainforest and then traverses the barren landscape of the Southwest Rift Zone.
One of the most spectacular treks is the Kilauea Iki Trail. Starting at the Thurston Lava Tube Parking lot the trail drops 400 vertical feet, passing through rainforest that is growing through the cinder cone of the 1959 eruption. The trail then crosses the one-mile wide remains of a lava lake before climbing back out of the dormant crater. The four mile long loop is a challenging hike through steep and rocky terrain.
Further to the northwest a wilderness experience awaits on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The 13,677 feet high volcanic peak is a place of extremes. The thin air makes for an incredibly challenging climb with little opportunity to acclimate to altitude before climbing. The summit and surround regions of Mauna Loa resemble more of a montane environment than a lush tropical rainforest. Snow and freezing rain are possible year round and the temperatures will dip below freezing during the evening hours. Combined with the fact that you are on active volcano with fumaroles, cracks, fissures, and lava flows, you should be excellent health with some previous mountaineering experience. Prior registration and free permits are required before you climb Mauna Loa.
Visitors to the park have two choices if they plan to scale Mauna Loa. The Mauna Loa Road is off of Hawaii 11 near the Kilauea Caldera. The narrow road winds it way for 15 miles to the Mauna Loa Lookout Picnic Area at 6,662 feet. If you want to limit your trek on Mauna Loa to an easy hike, be sure to stop at the Kipuka Puaulu trailhead. The one mile long flat loop passes through an upland forest and is surrounded by lava flows.
If you continue to the Mauna Loa Lookout you will find the area is well named providing an excellent view of Mauna Loa to the west. The Picnic Area is also the trailhead to the 18.1-mile long Mauna Loa Trail. It's a grueling trail scrambling over rocks and a'a' (pronounced ah-ah) and pahoehoe (pronounced paw-ho-E-paw-ho-E) lava fields. The first 7.5 miles rises 3,400 vertical feet reaching the Pu'u Ula'ula Cabin. The co-ed cabin has bunks for eight a catch basin for rainwater and a pit toilet. Water from the basin should be treated before drinking.
Although 7.5 miles as the first leg of your trip may not seem like much of a hike, it is another 11.6 miles before reaching the next cabin. The Mauna Loa Trail continues west crossing fresh hardened lava flows from a 1984 eruption. The Dewey Cone is at the end of the first lava flow at 11,405 feet. The trail flattens out a bit (relatively speaking) before arriving at Steaming Cone, resting at 11,787 feet. The trail continues up the side of Mauna Loa briefly exiting the National Park before re-entering at 12, 428 feet Pohaku Hanalei. It's another 1-3/4 miles to the four-way trail junction for the Observatory Trail, Summit Trail and Cabin Trail.
The Summit Trail heads southwest for 2.6 miles on the western side of the Moku'Aweoweo Caldera before reaching the summit cairn of Mauna Loa. The cabin trail heads south 2.1 miles across the desolate peak to the Mauna Loa Cabin. The co-ed cabin has bunks for twelve with a catch basin for rainwater and a pit toilet. Water at the cabin should be treated before drinking. Keep in mind that if you plan to hike from Pu'u Ula'ula to the summit and then to the Mauna Loa Cabin, you're signing up for 16.8 miles!
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