Round-Trip Mileage: 10 miles

Elevation Gain: 400’

A desert in Hawai'i? The Kaʻū Desert isn't technically a desert because it receives too much rainfall. The desert-like appearance of Kaʻū is due to the combination of the rain shadow from massive Mauna Loa and acid rain created from the gases erupting from Kīlauea Volcano. The ph of this acid rain can be as low as 3.4 and inhibits most plant growth. The lava here is also very permeable, percolating most rainwater deep into the earth before plants can avail themselves of it. This desert is an amazing and unique landscape on an island full of such landscapes. This hike travels deeply into the Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness area, among the most remote and desolate places on the Big Island. This particular hike travels to Pu'u Koa'e and the "Twin Pit Craters," which is a reasonable turn-around point for a very long dayhike, but you could continue along the Mauna Iki Trail until it hits the Hilina Pali Road as described here.

Trailhead: This trailhead is not in the main part of the National Park. The Kaʻū Desert trailhead is actually about fifteen minutes drive west of the Park entrance. Drive Hwy. 11 west of the National Park entrance or east of Naʻālehu and find the highway pullout trailhead parking between mile markers 38 and 39. The trailhead is well-marked. There is a trash can and an emergency telephone at the trailhead but no other services. Plan accordingly to leave no trace.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park Overview


Gear: This is a very long hike into a wilderness area in one of the most remote areas of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Bring plenty of extra water and food. The hike ranges from 2500' to 3000' above sea level, so temperatures are much cooler than coastal destinations. Wear boots and don't forget your raingear.


Hike: From the parking area, hike the Footprints Trail southeast for a little more than three-quarters of a mile until you reach a small structure housing ancient footprints. (Find out more about the Footprints on our separate page for this popular hike -- The Footprints Trail). The trail is well-defined to the footprints structure, but begins to become more difficult to follow afterward. It is typically marked by ahu (cairns) when it crosses open lava. Hike southeast for a bit more than a mile to Mauna Iki (literally "little mountain"). Mauna Iki erupted in 1919 and 1920, and rises to an elevation of 3032' above sea level. Shortly after passing Mauna Iki, find a T intersection. You want to take the left fork to the northeast on the Kaʻū Desert Trail. The right fork to the south is also the same trail and this long hike is discussed on our page for the Kaʻū Desert Trail. Follow this trail as it passes lots of deep cracks and fascinating lava features. You'll pass a few spatter cones with incredibly colorful lava. Eventually find the intersection with the Mauna Iki Trail. (The Kaʻū Desert Trail is currently closed at this intersection, so you can only hike the Mauna Iki Trail at this time). Follow the Mauna Iki Trail through sand and ash as it passes looming Pu’u Koa’e. Hike slightly downhill past the Pu’u toward the Twin Pit Craters. These craters house white-tailed tropicbirds who nest in the walls. Stay away from the eroding edges of these craters. This is the turn-around for the hike described here, but you can continue to the Hilina Pali Road along the trail for several more miles to the Hilina Pali Road as described here.

Twin Pit Craters

Twin Pit Craters