Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s most popular trail is entirely open, after tons of rock were hauled by hand to complete repairs.

The Kilauea Iki Trail crosses the floor of Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea) and passes next to the site of a 1959 eruption that saw the tallest lava fountain recorded in the 20th century. The trail was severely damaged by the approximately 60,000 earthquakes that struck the park last year as the lava chamber beneath the summit drained to feed the eruptions in Lower Puna.

About half the Kilauea Iki trail was reopened last April, but the other half was more severely damaged by landslides, collapsed retaining walls and fallen boulders, some of them weighing several tons.

Reconstructing the trail cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which came from park entrance fees and $50,000 in matching funds from the Friends of the Park.

But the financial cost was probably small compared to the sweat equity invested in the project.

Park service workers perform repairs to open the Kilauea Iki trail. Courtesy U.S. National Parks Service

Since there’s no road beyond the parking lots at Kilauea Iki, all the stone and other materials for the reconstruction had to be either found on site or carried down the trail itself. In addition to the park’s own rangers, trail crews from five other national parks came in to help with the effort and they were supplemented with Youth Rangers, a program for summer interns at the park.

Seven tons of coarse gravel and two tons of larger rocks had to be bought down via wheelbarrow from the crater rim, and were supplemented with tons of rock from on-site — including some giant boulders shaken down by the quakes, which had to be broken up with gasoline-powered jackhammers and hand-swung tools.

Because the gradient differed so much, it was easier to transfer the loads to a different wheelbarrow on different parts of the trail than to get one barrow down the slope to the next step in places. To get the pieces of one giant boulder to its final resting place as fill in a different part of the trail took 10 such transitions.

Patrick Murphy, right, acting trail crew head, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and Greg Carlin, left, crew member, remove the sign to officially reopen the Kilauea Iki trail. Alan McNarie/Civil Beat

The trail in its entirety is approximately 4-miles-long and moderately strenuous, dropping about 400 feet from the crater rim to the caldera and then climbing out again.

The scenery is as varied as the altitude: from fairly mature ohia, ohelo and other native trees and shrubs, punctuated by non-native invaders such as strawberry guava and Himalayan raspberries. The raspberries, which thrive on disturbed ground and are readily spread by birds, have already taken up residence in the new construction along the trail, bound to grow into a headache for future park crews to root out.

Once visitors reach the caldera floor, however,  the native plants predominate, though in diminished form: twisted miniature ohia, dwarf ohelo with leaves as red as their berries, aalii with their curious, three-lobed seed pods designed to be dispersed by the wind.

Even though the colossal lava fountains that once graced the pages of National Geographic during the childhoods of the baby boomers have been silent since December 1959, vegetation has been slow to return to the crater floor. Park scientists have learned that this is not so much because of lack of rainfall as lack of nutrients. The lava is rich in minerals that plants need, but it breaks down very slowly, forcing pioneering plants on a fresh lava flow to rely on windblown soil and plant matter for nutrients to establish themselves.

As a result, it’s still easy to envision the violence that shook this landscape.

The lava first reached the surface along the south wall of Kilauea Iki on Nov. 14, 1959. A series of small lava fountains were soon erupting, that had consolidated in a single fissure/fountain/lava pool by the evening of Nov. 15. Volcanic spatter cinder from this single vent began to build into a volcanic cone that was eventually named Puu Puai (Gushing Hill), that dominates the landscape of Kilauea Iki to this day.

Over the next few weeks, the lava rose and fell 17 times, creating the chaotic landscape we see today, with “bathtub rings” marking high-lava marks of various episodes. At its highest point, the lava lake held nearly 40 million cubic yards – enough to fill 12,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Towering over this gigantic lava pool were those spectacular lava fountains, the tallest of which reached 1,247 feet above the crater floor.

But spectacular though the Kilauea Iki event was, it was also brief. By Dec. 21, 1959, all activity in Kilauea Iki had ended, instead, the lava was feeling its way down the Northeast Rift Rift Zone for a flank eruption that would claim the towns of Kapoho and Koae. (Several new subdivisions in the Kapoho area were inundated again during the eruption last summer.)

Large Areas Of Park Still Closed

The reopening of the Kilauea Iki Trail coincided with the first anniversary of the park’s reopening.

But substantial areas of the park still remain closed. They include the Jaggar Museum and the portion of Crater Rim Drive between it and Kilauea Military Camp. The museum will probably remain closed until a new building can be built, as the old one has suffered structural damage and may slide into the expanded crater.

But some of its exhibits have been lent to a new eruption museum in Pahoa. Other areas that remain closed include Crater Rim Trail from Volcano House to Kīlauea Iki, the portion of the Crater Rim Trail beyond Kilauea Military Camp, a portion of the Kau Desert trail, the Iliahi (Sandalwood) Trail, the Byron’s Ledge and Waldron’s Ledge areas, and the Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube). The Hilina Pali Road is open to vehicles only as far as Kulanaokuaiki, and open to hikers and bicyclists beyond that point.

Hikers on the newly reopened Kilauea Iki trail. Janice Wei

What’s open, at this point, is a far longer list, including the Park Headquarters, Volcano House, Volcano Art Center and Kilauea Military Camp, Kulanaokuaiki and Nāmakanipaio campgrounds, all of Mauna Loa Road and the Mauna Loa summit area.

Also open is the Chain of Craters road and a number of popular trails including the Devastation, Steam Vents, and Sulphur Banks Trails, and a portion of the Ka‘ū Desert Trail.  And for the adventurous, most of the backcountry is open.

A complete list of what’s open and what’s still closed in the park is available here.

And of course, there’s the vastly expanded version of Haleamaumau Crater, easily observed from the sidewalk outside Volcano House.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

About the Author