The Kaʻū Desert is a harsh landscape where volcanic eruptions and ashfall from events in Halemaʻumau crater have created a desolate, moon-like environment.
In 1790, a dramatic explosion occured at the summit of Kīlauea. The eruption involved a torrent of hot gas, ash, and sand that rained down on the Kaʻū Desert. Caught in the middle of this deadly, suffocating storm were groups of Native Hawaiians travelling through the region on long-used trails. In the newly fallen layer of ash, these groups left behind footprints that we can still see today— a reminder that Hawaiians have beared witness to the geological drama of this island for centuries.
A shelter with an exhibit about these footprints is accessible via an easy walk aboue half a mile (.8 km) from the Kaʻū Desert Trailhead on Highway 11.
Between Maunaiki and the trailhead on Hilina Pali Road are two dramatic cinder cones and deep pit craters. In this area, look for mats of Pele's hair, thin golden-colored fibers of volcanic material.
Trailheads: There are two trailheads to this area— the Kaʻū Desert Trailhead on Highway 11 (a short distance to the Footprints shelter), and the Maunaiki Trailhead on Hilina Pali Road. View the park map for more information.
Difficulty: Easy walk between the Kaʻū Desert Trailhead on Highway 11 and the Footprints shelter, moderate between Maunaiki and the Maunaiki Trailhead on Hilina Pali Road.
Distance: 1.8 mi (2.9 km) from the Kaʻu Desert Trailhead to Maunaiki, 7.0 mi (11.3 km) from Maunaiki to the trailhead on Hilina Pali Road.
Bring water, food, hat, sun protection and rain gear.
Note: in the wake of the 2018 summit collapse, there is a large amount of ash and dust in the Kaʻū Desert that can become airborne. Carrying eye protection and a dust mask is recommended.
The trail is extremely uneven in many places between Maunaiki and the trailhead on Hilina Pali Road. It involves hiking through fields of broken, jagged lava. The trail is marked with ahu (stacked rocks) and requires close attention. There is no water and for most of the trail there is no opportunity for shade.