As hiking courses go, the Kilauea Iki Trail is officially rated as moderate, but that refers only to the physical exertion required to complete it. In terms of memorability, it might be better ranked as "unforgettable.'' The scenery along the 3.33-mile course varies from tropical rainforest to desolate igneous terrain.
The trail is located within Hawaii Island's renowned Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Its 3.33-mile course takes hikers right through the heart of a recently active volcano - Kilauea Iki Crater. This is the site of the 1959 Kilauea volcanic eruption, a short-lived event that produced spectacular lava fountains - among the highest and hottest ever recorded in Hawaiian history.
One end of the path originates on the east side of the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot, away from the crater. Signs direct hikers up an easy climb to the right where the walkway proper begins. From here, the route descends, first gradually and then more steeply, en route to the lava tube.
There is a bridge to cross at the mouth of the tube, which leads to a nearly flat lava floor. The interior is lit to allow viewing of how the molten magma smoothed the tube's otherwise rugged walls. Tree roots hang down from the ceiling above, while dripping water seeps through cracks in the rock.
From the tube, hikers can access the crater floor. The trail is not well marked here, but it can be made out as a line of slightly lighter black soil extending to the far side of the crater. Steam rises from tiny cracks in the lava alongside the route. In some places, the solidified lava has been uplifted and in parts it has formed a rolling field of lava rocks. Stacks of these rocks have been used as trail markers called "cairns'' or "ahu.''
From the floor, the trail rises 460 feet to the rim. The path circles both the Kilauea caldera and pit by following along the crater rim. The trail does not, however, lead to Halemaumau, which is historically the most active part of the caldera where noxious fumes are common.
The trail does, however, allow viewing of the complete volcanic environs. Various plants have been labeled along the way, such as uluhe fern, ginger, tree ferns, and ohia. Native Hawaiian birds can be heard singing in the trees nearby, and it is not uncommon to see a Kalij pheasant or two along the trail.
Many have said that the most difficult part of the hike is to keep moving. There are so many scenic views and off-trail sites to explore, the circuit can easily take more than two and a half hours, compared to the hour and 40 minutes that most guides give as a reference.
Rangers can be found on duty at the Kilauea Visitor Center, which is located at Crater Rim Drive, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii 96785. They can provide assistance for hikers, along with trail information, maps, and permits. The center is open from 7:45am to 5pm daily. The entry fee is $10.