Located in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, the Ka’ū Desert is a remote area along the Southwest rift zone with little foot traffic, lots of mesmerizing landscape, and some mysterious footprints. Although its status as a desert is often debated, the lack of rainfall (only about 150 mm annually) makes it a true desert according to the American Geophysical Union.
Over the years, ashfall from Halema’umau crater and continual exposure to outgassing from the Kīlauea Volcano have resulted in the rugged, dry climate that makes the Kaʻū Desert’s landscape resemble the surface of the moon.
A footprint in the ash of the Kaʻū Desert. Photo credit: NPS Photo
The Ka’ū Desert offers an outdoor experience that is both barren and intriguing. What we find the most fascinating are the footprints fossilized in the desert’s hardened ash. Some speculate that the footprints are all that remain of Native Hawaiian warriors on their way home to Keoua from Hilo. Unfortunately, they were in the path of a lethal blast of hot ash and rocks that exploded from the Kīlauea caldera in 1790.
If you’re staying in Volcano Village, you can easily (and safely) see these footprints by hiking from the well-marked Ka’ū Desert trailhead. Find the trailhead parking on Highway 11 between mile markers 38 and 39. From the trailhead, take an easy 0.8-mile walk down the Maunaiki trail to a field dotted with ancient footprints.
Preserved in delicate sediment, the footprints are constantly being uncovered and then reburied once more by windblown sand. Rather than wandering off the trail and potentially destroying these already fragile fossils, see the footprints from the trail or from under the roof of a small structure sheltering a few of the footprints.
If you’re up for a more challenging hike, head southeast from the shelter for just over a mile to Maunaiki, which last erupted in 1919. As you travel for 2 miles across the Ka’ū Desert to Maunaiki’s desolate summit, the desert and Paficic Ocean will seem to mingle on the horizon.
Just beyond Maunaiki’s summit, you’ll reach an intersection. Here, you have two options:
- Turn right (south) on the Ka’ū Desert Trail
- Turn left (north) for the Maunaiki Trail
The Kaʻū Desert Trail – Hike to the Kamakai’a Hills
This is a 10.5 mile hike, round trip, with 700 feet of elevation gain.
After turning right, take the Ka’u Desert Trail for a little over five miles, all the way down to the Kamakai’a Hills. Enjoy the peaceful solitude of the Hawai’i Volcanoes Wilderness Area, where you’ll see twisted black lava accented with scarlet, gold, blue, and violet before heading back from the Kamakai’a Hills.
The Maunaiki Trail – Hike to the Twin Pit Craters
This is a 10 mile hike, round trip, with 400 feet of elevation gain.
After turning left, head northeast on the Kaʻū Desert Trail and take some time to drink in the sight of deep fissures and even a few spatter cones. Spatter cones form when blobs of lava are expelled into the air from a volcanic eruption, leaving a colorful mound of lava rock resembling a creature from a sci-fi movie.
Continue on until you reach the intersection with the Maunaiki Trail and which follow this trail passed ash, sand, and Pu’u Koa’e (a pu’u can be a small hill or a tall mountain). Hike slightly downhill past the pu’u toward the Twin Pit Craters. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the koa’e, a white-tailed tropicbird who nests in the walls here. Just be sure to stay away from the crater’s dangerous eroding edges.
Here, you can turn around or continue for another mile or two toward Hilina Pali Road to see Pele’s hair.
Hilina Pali – Hike to Pele’s Hair
The trail between Maunaiki and the Hilina Pali Overlook is very uneven and involves hiking through fields of jagged lava rock, and passing deep pit craters and two striking cinder cones on your way. With little to no shade, the trail is marked by ahu (stacked rocks) which you’ll need to keep an eye out for so you don’t get off the trail.
You won’t find any water here, but we know you remembered to bring your own (right?)! You will, however, likely find thin strands of Pele’s hair. Experts say that these long, golden threads are fibers of volcanic glass. If you ask us, they’re proof that Pele was here!
A cone along the Maunaiki Trail. Photo credit: NPS Photo/A. LaValle
If you’re setting off for the Twin Pit Craters or searching for Pele’s hair, pack some extra food and water. And unless you’re Pele, leave no trace of your visit by packing out all leftover food and trash.
A Few Tips from Tutu: Make sure you wear a hat and sunscreen, and footwear appropriate for hiking in the Kaʻū Desert. And even though this is a desert, we do get some precipitation, so bring your rain jacket.
Lodging Near the Kaʻū Desert
If you’re staying in Volcano, HI, then it’s easy to get to the Kaʻū Desert! Our Volcano Heritage Cottages are conveniently located in the heart of Volcano Villages and only 11 miles from the Footprints Trail.
Book a stay at one of our cottages in Volcano today and get ready to experience the diversity and beauty of Hawai’i Island!