Big Island Discovery Hike

Kilauea comes alive on this trek across the lava

By: Dawna L. Robertson

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Kilauea’s Iki Crater is known for its
moonscape-like terrain.
On a recent visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I was convinced that anyone who’d walk a mile in my shoes would be extremely fortunate. It was actually closer to six miles, which made the journey all the more rewarding.

Although I’ve ventured along numerous trails throughout this marvel in the past, I opted for the Kilauea Volcano Discovery Hike with Hawaiian Walkways on this crisp morning.

Staying in nearby Volcano Village, I hooked up with interpretive guide Rob Campbell and a group of eight at the Kilauea Visitor Center. There, we perused exhibits on regional geology, endemic species and early Hawaiian history.

And naturally, we were introduced to Madam Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire whose fury continues to spark the volcanic eruptions creating this wondrous moonscape terrain. The center also charts current lava flows and weather conditions at the park’s two active volcanoes.

Our well-versed guide outfitted us with backpacks, rain ponchos, water bottles, lunch and a sturdy walking stick. Since we’d be negotiating fields of both smooth and jagged lava, Campbell considered the stick a must.

“You can call this a moderate hike or a tough walk,” said Campbell. “So we gear you up appropriately and explain what you’re seeing so it all makes sense.”

Next stop was Thurston Lava Tube, a 400-foot tunnel created 350 to 500 years ago as molten lava thickened to literally cover a flowing lava stream. “That’s the beard of ohia,” said Campbell as we stood beneath aerial roots dangling through the cavern’s ceiling from the endemic trees above.

Upon surfacing from the dark, damp tube, we were enveloped within a beautiful rainforest.

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Hikers encounter numerous steam
vents on the lava.
“The open canopy system here allows sunlight and rain to hit all levels,” Campbell said. “You’ll see endemic ohia lehua trees and hapuu ferns creating the upper and middle canopies, making this different from any other rainforest on Earth.”

What pleasantly punctuated the lush jungle-like setting were the chirps of birds and the wind whispering through the trees. What a great slice of nature, I thought.

With a grasp on both the lay of the land and our trusty walking sticks, we set out for Kilauea Iki Crater.

“The beauty of this trail is that it’s a four-mile loop,” Campbell said. “So we’ll drop and climb 400 feet through this tropical rainforest and across a barren caldera floor covered most recently by a 1959 lava flow.”

At nearly any point in our jaunt, lush rainforest dominated on one hand and the black, buckling caldera canvas on the other. It’s as if two contrasting climate zones had been plucked up and placed side by side to amaze those of us who were surrounded by it. And for added punch, snowcapped Mauna Kea loomed in the distance. The world’s largest mountain measures some 30,000-plus feet from the ocean’s floor with 13,677 feet towering above the Earth’s surface.

Reaching the trail base, we experienced a distinctive change in climate. From the cool wetland above, we were now trudging through an arid zone where vegetation was sparse and the surface was much more rigid. Then as somewhat of a blessing, a persistent mist blew in to cool things off a bit.

Campbell pointed to lava markings call “ahu.” The National Park Service maintains these as trail markings so less experienced hikers don’t lose their way. I knew I’d made a wise choice to cross the crater with a guide, as the “ahu” simply looked like random lava formations to me.

Plodding along in awe, the adventure continued to unfold to one amazing natural wonder after another. Eerie puffs of steam rose from vents as a reminder that the ground beneath us was still cooling off. And in an ultimate display of resiliency, ohia and lehua blossoms poked through cracks and crevices returning vegetation to the devastation from former flows.

Tackling a trip like this with a volcano whiz like Hawaiian Walkways’ Campbell opened my eyes to the magic of the life cycle. I left with a fresh perspective of Madam Pele’s relentless power and how time repairs her wrath with beauty.


Hawaiian Walkways
P.O. Box 1307 Honokaa, HI 96727

2008 RATES

Kilauea Volcano Discovery Hike
$150, adult; $95, child (8-12 years)
Offered Monday through Saturday based on availability. Pick up in Hilo at 9 a.m. Others meet at Kilauea Visitor Center at 10 a.m. Be sure to dress in layers. Close-toed shoes and sunscreen are recommended.

Additional Tours:
Saddle Road Exploration
$135, adult; $95, child

Waipio Waterfall Adventure
$95, adult; $75, child

Kona Cloud Forest Botanical Walk
$95, adult; $75 child
Commission: 15 percent