Kilauea Iki: Walking on a Lava Lake

“What a great adventure!”

The older I get, the more I take to heart something a friend once told me: “You can’t do everything.”

That applies especially to my travels. Gone are the days when I would be willing to climb mountains and conquer hardscrabble terrain. I’m not quite at the age where I’m in constant fear of breaking a hip, but I am at the age where a rough hike leaves me feeling as though I had broken one. That’s when exploring ceases to be fun.

A younger me would have loved to have joined Dear Husband on his trek across the hardened lava lake of Kilauea Iki. But that’s a 4 mile hike, with a descent and ascent of 400 feet, which is the equivalent of a 40 story building. Discovering that, the current, more pragmatic me declined, rather than force DH to walk more slowly, listen to me complain, and probably carry me back up the side of the crater like a dead moose. (Okay, I know there are no moose in Hawaii, but you get the idea.)

So I had a delightful evening in our room, reading a good book, which is a luxury I rarely have time for these days. Bliss. Meanwhile, DH went on his incredible adventure.

Naturally, I couldn’t write about an experience that I didn’t have, so I asked him to do so. What follows is written by him, unless it’s in italics. Italics are me butting in on the story. But I truly think he did an excellent job of allowing us all to feel as though we’re tagging along.

Thanks, DH! And enjoy, Dear Reader!


With just 18 hours left in Hawaii before the flight that would take us home, I still wanted to use every opportunity to fully experience my first visit to the Big Island of Hawaii. The Volcanoes National Park had been a fascinating site to explore, and l decided there was enough time and daylight for one more adventure.

One of the many trails at the park gives you an opportunity to walk across a “once-molten lake of lava” in the Kilauea Iki crater. [In Hawaiian, Kilauea means “much spreading” or “spewing” and Iki means “little”. This is because the crater in question is much smaller than the nearby and still-active main caldera of Kilauea. But it’s still 3000 feet across, which is more than 9 football fields. What is “iki” from a volcano’s perspective is still nui (huge) from a human perspective.]

That sounded like the once-in-a-lifetime adventure I was looking for! Since I would be starting just three hours before sunset, I first stopped at the Visitors Center to talk with staff, to make sure I wasn’t heading for trouble. They assured me there was time enough before sunset to begin that hike and I purchased the $2 trail guide for a better understanding of how to achieve my goal and return unharmed.

Although this national park goes down to sea level, the park entrance and many sections are at an elevation of around 4,000 feet, and in Hawaii, that means it’s a rain forest environment. So, along with comfortable shoes, flashlight, water, camera and fully charged phone, I also brought a rain jacket and was glad for that. When I parked at the trailhead to review the guide, it was already 5 pm with the sunset around 7 pm, so I would need to step lively to complete the hike in the remaining hours of daylight. The printed guide recommended following the trail in a counterclockwise route, along the rim of the crater to the far side, and then down the inside of that rim to the floor. After crossing the once molten lake of lava, the trail would bring me back up the 400 feet to where the trail has easy access to the road.

As I began, I watched for the numbered trail markers, where the guide offered details specific to that location. The clouds were settled just a few hundred feet above me, with a light drizzle falling (much like what frequently happens back home in Seattle) and a comfortable 70° temperature. (Which doesn’t happen nearly enough in Seattle.) The trail was certainly wet but not soggy, and I kept my feet dry as I headed through the lush and very wet forest of tall ferns and dripping trees.

Occasionally I’d reach a break in the growth to my left, where I could peer over the steep rim and down onto the lava lake that was my goal. Frequently there were large puddles across the trail, stretching from four to eight feet across, with muddy soil surrounding each one. They were far too big for jumping across and the footing was way too slippery to even consider a leap. The trail was about five feet in width, and fortunately there were usually fallen branches at one side or the other that provided a stepping place and I could reach for small trees to provide a handhold. This method allowed me to take long, careful strides and avoid soaking my comfortable running shoes. Their thick soles provided protection when my steps took me down to the water level.

As I approached the far side of the crater, I met a family of three coming toward me. They were looking rather tired. My path crossed other trails and I was pleased to find them all well marked with destinations and distances, making me wonder if the printed guide was necessary. (But it’s a really cool, detailed guide which gives you a complete description of the 1959 eruption, complete with diagrams, so I highly recommend it. You can download it from the bottom of this page.)

When I reached the far side of the crater, the trail sloped downhill for a short distance and then headed over the rim, where I looked down onto the treetops below. At this point, a steel handrail had been installed, providing both support and a barrier beside the steep drop off. The entry to the floor of the caldera was at the base of this steep trail, built with switchbacks every 100 to 200 feet and with large (and tall) stone steps to lower oneself down the steep hillside. I was glad to be going downhill and recognized why the family that had just climbed these stairs had looked tired!

Near the last of the switchbacks, I heard hikers through the trees heading in my direction. When we met, I stepped aside so they had access to the handrail beside the narrow trail and they told me it was easy to find the trail, and to watch for the rocks stacked in cairns that mark the route. Those were the last people I saw as I reached the lava lake at the bottom of the rim.

The transition from the lush rain forest to the landscape of hardened lava is both jarring and abrupt. There is only a short distance where a few plants have succeeded in taking root in the harsh environment. Beyond the first dozen paces, the occasional plant was all alone and appeared foreign in the environment of sharp stone. And in those first steps, it was quickly evident that the floor is not at all level, but instead made up of jumbled pieces of sharp and porous rock that would inflict great damage to me if I were to fall. Despite an end to the daylight in just 90 minutes, there was incentive to step cautiously and not rush through this place.

The floor was like walking on the waves of a stormy sea, if they had frozen with the peaks and troughs at their extremes, often much deeper or taller than twice my height. Looking into the distance I saw a half dozen stacks of rocks showing the direction I should travel. There was no visible path or footprints from previous hikers on the hard, stone surface. Further along the trail, the large rocks had been reduced to crumbled gravel and the heavily traveled trail became visible.

I was surrounded by an exceedingly strange environment, and I realized that the sounds of the forest were gone; no birds, no rustling of the leaves or sounds of rain dripping from the trees. Instead all was silent. (Personally, I would have shouted hello to test for an echo, but that’s me.) The low clouds kept the rim of the crater hidden in most directions, so it appeared as though the hills surrounding me simply rose up into the clouds. It was truly an otherworldly feeling, alone in an environment that had been molten rock the year my parents got married.

One of the numbered markers referred me to the trail guide, which invited me to look at the perimeter of the lava lake and recognize the “bathtub ring” where the molten lava had once filled this crater. The pool of lava had risen and dropped several times during the eruptions, and it first cooled and hardened at the edges. When the pool dropped, those edges broke off, falling into the center or onto what had been a forest covered hillside. Looking all around, that ring was unmistakable, and, I thought, named appropriately. Apparently prior to the 1959 eruption, this had been an 800-foot-deep crater, not the 400-foot one that I had just descended.

As I continued my walk, the land became jumbled hills of black lava piled even higher than before, making me feel quite insignificant in comparison. At another of the numbered markers, the trail guide explained that this was the location of a cinder-and-spatter cone that came into existence in 1959. During that eruption, a fountain of lava shot 1,900 feet into the air (one of the highest eruptions ever witnessed by man) and all this jumble of rock was the spatters thrown out during that event.  (Here are some historic pictures of the eruption.)

For most of my life, I’ve seen lava rock that was used in BBQ grills, or as landscaping rock in gardens. In those instances, it was from ½-inch to perhaps 2-inches in diameter. In this crater there were crumbs of that size, but they were dwarfed beneath the hills of rock, with chunks the size of my head and up to three feet across. The piles of these abrasive, black boulders surrounded me in a jumble of debris, often mixed with voids or even small caverns. I recognized that these boulders could easily shred my leg if I stepped into a hole, or perhaps even onto an unstable rock.

After passing through the steep hills of spattered lava, I reached an area that had a much more level surface. This portion of the hardened lava lake reminded me of an old asphalt parking lot where sinkholes or landslides had caused the pavement to shift or break. Except that this parking lot covered acres of land and there was no soil visible where the surfaces sank and broke. This surface provided great examples of the dropping pool of lava, where the support beneath cooled stone had disappeared, causing it to sink or drop, often ten, twenty or even forty feet. This was yet another example of the power of nature, where the land is currently motionless but has not always been so. To keep heading toward the next guidepost cairn, I frequently had to step over large cracks that provided and opportunity to peer down several feet into darkness. The path I walked was often meandering, in order to avoid crossing large gaps between slabs that I could easily fall into.

As I neared the halfway point in crossing the lava lake, the surface once again changed, but for the last time. The hills were behind me, and the relatively level surface finally looked like the lava lake I’d heard about. It was more than a quarter mile to each side and more like a half mile ahead of me, to where the trail leads out of the crater. The surface still had a rolling unevenness and the stone floor reminded me of the crust on a loaf of black, pumpernickel bread. The unevenness of this vast acreage was accented by the puddles from the recent rain and the shadows in the low places, contrasting with the higher spots. It also had a mottled look, due to the smallest of rocks and dust having been washed and blown around, leaving other patches of stone bare. An occasional plant stood about 24 inches tall, proud to be surviving and creating yet another eerie contrast as the daylight began fading.

The final few hundred feet of the lake surface was once again broken pavement, sloping up to the bathtub ring from where I could then look back to see some of the trail I’d just traveled. From a distance, it was evident that many people had crossed the same route and I realized I was fortunate to have had the entire caldera to myself for that hour.

Only a few steps away from the lava, I was immediately into the rain forest again, welcomed by a gigantic puddle that I had to skirt as I entered the canopy of trees that covered the trail. Again, it was a well-worn trail, but the path was a gentle uphill slope with an occasional step, built with a log across the trail as the riser to the next level. Sometimes the steps were twenty feet apart, at other times a hundred feet from the previous, repeated over and over, with an occasional switchback that allowed me  to gently climb the hillside.

This was so much more comfortable than the steep bluff I’d walked down at the far end of this crater. And yet there was still an incline, so I stopped for a rest. This gave me the opportunity to listen to the coqui frogs chirping in the forest. (They are an invasive species which traveled to Hawaii from Puerto Rico on house plants in the 1980’s. I happen to love their sound, but it drives some people crazy.) They truly add to the unique sound of this setting, and I took the opportunity to record their voices as they remained hidden from sight.  I continued up the sloping trail, back and forth across the hillside, as the trees hid all views of the vast openness inside the Kilauea Iki crater.

Sunset was almost upon me, and I considered breaking out a flashlight, but then I heard the sound of cars on the road that goes along the edge of the crater. Moments later, when I reached the road, I found several squirt bottles and a sign with instructions to spray and rinse the soles of my shoes, so I wouldn’t track any seeds or plant life from this location to other parts of the national park (and I did so.)

I checked the time, and I realized it was two hours after I’d started and I had covered just over three miles. In reviewing the trail guide, I discovered the route included crossing the road and continuing the hike to explore the Thurston Lava Tube, however we had visited that just a couple days earlier (read about it here), so instead I took a different part of the trail, back through the trees, that led to the parking lot where I had left the rental car. This turned out to be a great opportunity to peer back into the crater and take a photo of where I’d been. From this vantage point, the last half of the trail across the open lake bed was extremely obvious, however it was impossible to recognize the rolling surface. The many puddles along the way are evident and I took several photos during my hike, including one in which this trail is so visible.

The last half mile hike to the car was at dusk and beneath the trees, so I appreciated having the flashlight. At one point, there appeared to be a slope on the opposite side of the trail, and upon closer inspection I found it to be a large hole, with just a few ferns hiding it from sight. That’s not the kind of thing one should stumble into at any time, let alone twelve hours before any other people would be walking the trail!

This impromptu hike turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Hawaii. (And no, I didn’t take that personally, as I was cuddled up with my good book. We were each in a happy place.) I doubt I’ll ever get the chance for another hike across the caldera of a volcano with no other people in sight or earshot.

“What a great adventure,” I texted to Barb, letting her know I was safely to the car and heading back to her.

Read any good books lately? Try mine!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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