The Kīlaeua Iki Trail is one of the standout hikes in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, and it should be a priority for anyone who can manage it. The stunning 4-mile loop begins 400 feet above the Kīlaeua Iki Crater and steadily drops all the way down into the base, then crosses the surface of the lava lake before climbing back out toward the Thurston Lava Tube and returning to the crater overlook and point of origin. Along the way visitors will enjoy sweeping views of the crater and beyond along with more intimate encounters with the dense flora that surrounds the crater and the jagged and fractured lava formations themselves.
The Kīlaeua Iki eruption began on November 14, 1959, emanating from a vent that is easily visible from the overlook. Seventeen successive eruptions occurred over the next five weeks, spilling so much lava into the crater's surface that the original vent became buried. As the debris around the vent shifted and morphed, eruptive pressure at the vent increased, resulting in a lava fountain that became the highest ever recorded in Hawai'i. For reference, the peak 1,900-foot-high burst was roughly twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Lava spewed all around the crater rim, annihilating the surrounding forest. Down in the crater itself, more than 84 million gallons of lava surged up over the course of the 17 eruptions, and the lake depth grew by 400 feet.
Standing in the middle of the crater, it is impossible not to feel completely dwarfed by these terrestrial dynamics. The trail winds around and over enormous rifts caused by the crustal overturning of the lake, and you are forced to carefully step and scamper over the rough terrain like an ant over gravel. That said, the trail is relatively easy to negotiate; you'll just have to go slowly and use caution in some places.
Come prepared with plenty of water and sun protection for this hike, and always check in at the visitor center about the air quality if you have breathing issues. The Kīlaeua Iki Trail is one of the more popular hikes in the park, so arrive early and mid-week to avoid peak crowds. Expect to see plenty of people around the rim and the Thurston Lava Tube, regardless. But don't let that change your experience here; this will likely be an unforgettable hike in your visit to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.