Kaʻū Desert Trail
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Round-Trip Mileage: 10.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
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 follows the Kaʻū Desert trail deep into the Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness area, among the most remote and desolate places on the Big Island. This entire hike is 2500' above sea level with the potential for direct exposure to sulfur dioxide gases pumping out of Halema'uma'u caldera. The chances of encountering another human on this hike is nearly zero. This particular hike travels to the Kamakai'a Hills, which is a reasonable turn-around point for a very long dayhike, but understand that you can shorten or even lengthen this hike.
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.
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 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 complicated history of these 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. At the intersection, turn right (south) on the Kaʻū Desert Trail. The left turn is discussed on our page for the Mauna Iki Trail. The trail descends quickly at first, and then very gradually all the way to the Kamakai'a Hills. As you enter the Hawai'i Volcanoes Wilderness Area, you encounter an otherworldly place where you can feel like you're the only person on the island. There are literally no signs of civilization in any direction and sweet silence. Some of the lava features on this part of the island are incredibly unique -- new, black lava capped with colors like blue, Golden-capped Lavagold, crimson, and purple. These colors derive from the chemical composition of the rock that became magma. When you're near to the Kamakai'a Hills, you're about five miles from the trailhead. This is the point where I chose to end this hike because of the obvious landmark of the Kamakai'a Hills, but you don't need to stop here. When you're ready, return the way you came.