September 30, 2013
Southwest of the Kilauea volcano lies the Kaʻū desert. Access to this place is very limited. There are no roads across this desert, but only a few hiking trails. I searched the web and found very little information about this place. Even the Big Island Blue Book (the Blue Book) does not say much about it. Most of the information, I found was related to the 13 miles trail to flowing lava, but we did not feel fit enough for this enterprise.
Kaʻū desert exists because of a rain shadow effect from Kilauea volcano. The incoming warm and moist air from the Pacific ocean is drawn by the winds prevailing in this region towards the top of the Kilauea volcano, where it condenses and precipitates on the rain forest only 6 km away from the desert. The air, with no moisture left, falls behind the mountain creating a dry area.
Technically Ka’u is not a true desert, because it actually receives more than 1000 mm of rainfall per year, which is more than 250 mm as it defined for the true desert. But the rain that falls in Ka’u is often acidic, since it originated from volcano clouds. Acid rain, combined with the heat, lack of nutrients and barren soil, makes most of the Ka’u desert a lifeless place. Plants are scarce; although those occasional trees that we met were very sturdy and might be hundreds of years old.
We made a 12 km (7.5 miles) round trip hike deep into the Ka’u desert, which took us ~ 4 hours. We started on the trail head that leads to the footprints trail. It is located ~ 15 km from the Volcano park entrance west on Hwy. 11. To reach the trail head, from the Volcano park entrance, go west on Hwy. 11 and park at the marked trail head on the south side of the road between mile markers 38 and 39.
The footprints trail, takes its name from the ancient (~250 years old) footprints preserved in the surface rock ~ 2km down the trail. These footprints belong to the local people, who tried to run away from the 1790 eruption – one of the most devastating eruptions in the Big Island recent history. First it was believe d that footprints were left by a group of Hawaiian warriors lead by the local chief Keōua’s who was in a state of war with Kamehameha I. The were marching through the desert to make an unexpected attach when the eruption began. More than 80 warriors died from breathing the ash, and these footprints were supposedly made by them as they fled.
However, the most recent research used modern forensic techniques to determine that many of the footprints were actually left by women and children – not by warriors. Civilians were in the area performing some domestic activities and/or everyday circumstances. They left the footprints while escaping the sudden eruption. I wonder if the area was more hospitable then, and if people could actually live there 250 years ago? The fine volcanic ash was quickly transformed into a thick mud by an acid rain triggered in the eruption. Footprints left in the mud then solidified in the tropical sun. And that preserved them for centuries in the arid desert. A very sad story.
The footprints were discovered accidentally by geologist Ruy H. Finch in the hardened ash of the Kaʻū Desert in 1919. In 1941 the Civilian Conservation Corps built a trail and shelter to preserve at least some of the footprints. That is how the footprint trail was created.
It was a gloomy, rainy day on the Hilo side. It was perfect conditions for a desert trail though. We proceed on the footprints trail and visited the shelter with some footprints preserved in the glass box.
Then we hiked about a mile and arrived at Mauna Iki, which means “little mountain.” We turned right and proceed on the Kaʻū Desert trail toward the sea.
Halema’uma’u gas cloud
At the intersection of the Mauna Iki and Kaʻū Desert trail one can go either right toward the sea or left toward the main area of the park. This intersection is very close to the gas cloud emanating from Halema’uma’u, and often it is the point where one must turn back due to gas.
We asked park rangers which way is safer to go, and based on the local weather conditions, they suggested that we go right towards the sea. Actually, they suggested that we rather did not go anywhere, but since we insisted, they said that the sea trail is more safe.
1920s lava flows
We hiked several miles south along 1920s lava flows. On this long trail one can hike much further before one meets Halema’uma’u gas. But still, if you go on this trail, please carefully evaluate the air quality, and turn back as soon as you smell the gas.
As we passed the footprints trail and proceed further, vegetation became more scarce.
Soon we came upon a long vista of black, swollen, and twisted lava. It gave me an absolutely unearthly impression, as if I have been on another planet, or in Purgatory. The feeling of desolation was so strong it gave me chills, and yet one can see a rain forest only few km away. It was very quiet also. And that quietness made this place look even more out of this world. There had been terrible uproar and chaos here once, when lava was active. And one can see it. But now it all was cold and motionless, lifeless and silent, no birds, no animals, not a whisper.
We took a rest at the intersection of Mauna Iki and Kaʻū Desert trail and sit near the deep crack. The ground was very warm and it smelled with serum.
We found Pele hairs and Pele eye-water drops. We never seen them before except in the Volcano museum. And we found a lava hill that looks like a sleeping dragon, may be it was one.
We stopped near the lava bulb not very far from 2 cinder cones and turned back. The whole hike was ~ 12 km and it took us ~ 3 hours of hiking including side trips and taking pictures.