Trails on the Big Island wind through fields of coastal lava rock, deserts, rainforests, and mountain tundra, sometimes covered with snow. It’s important to wear sturdy shoes, sunscreen, and a hat, and take plenty of water; for longer hikes, particularly in remote areas, it may also be essential to bring food, a flashlight, and a trail map—not one that requires a cellphone signal to access (coverage may be nonexistent). Hunting may be permitted in rural, upcountry, or remote areas, so stay on the trails and wear bright clothing.The island has 16 trails in the state’s Na Ala Hele Trail & Access System (www.hawaiitrails.org; 808/974-4382), highlights of which are included below; see the website for more information. For an even greater number of trails on a variety of public lands, see the detailed descriptions on www.bigislandhikes.com.
Kona & Kohala Coasts
The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail (www.nps.gov/alka; 808/326-6012, ext. 101) is the designation for an ancient, 175-mile series of paths through coastal lava rock, from Upolu Point in North Kohala along the island’s west coast to Ka Lae (South Point) and east to Puna’s Wahaula Heiau, an extensive temple complex. Some were created as long-distance trails, others for fishing and gathering, while a few were reserved for royal or chiefly use. There’s unofficial access through the four national park sites—Puukohola Heiau, Kaloko-Honokohau, Puuhonua O Honaunau, and Hawaii Volcanoes —but it’s easy, free, and fun to walk a portion of the 15.4-mile stretch between Kawaihae and Anaehoomalu Bay, part of the state’s Na Ala Hele trails system (www.hawaiitrails.org; 808/974-4382). Signs mark only the 8-mile portion of Ala Kahakai between the northern terminus of Ohaiula Beach at Spencer Park through Puako to Holoholokai Beach Park, near the petroglyph field on the Mauna Lani Resort, but it’s fairly simple to follow farther south by hugging the shoreline, past resort hotels and multimillion-dollar homes, anchialine ponds, and jagged lava formations.
For those not satisfied with the view from the Pololu Valley Lookout, the steep, 1-mile Pololu Valley Trail will lead you just behind the black-sand beach (beware of high surf and riptides). In addition to a 420-foot elevation change, the trail’s challenges can include slippery mud and tricky footing over ancient cobblestones. As with all windward areas, be prepared for pesky mosquitos and/or cool mist.
If you’re willing to venture on Saddle Road (Hwy. 200), which some rental-car companies still forbid, the Puu Huluhulu Trail is an easy, .6-mile hike that gradually loops around both crests of this forested cinder cone, with panoramic views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa between the trees. There’s a parking lot in front of the hunter check-in station at the junction of the Mauna Loa observatory access road and Saddle Road.
The Hamakua Coast
The 25% grade on the 1-mile “hike” down the road to Waipio Valley is a killer on the knees, and no picnic coming back up, but that’s just the start of the epic, 18-mile round-trip adventure involving the Muliwai Trail, a very strenuous hike to primeval, waterfall-laced Waimanu Valley. This trail is the island’s closest rival to Kauai’s Kalalau Trail, and so is only worth attempting by very physically fit and well-prepared hikers. Once in Waipio Valley, you must follow the beach to Wailoa Stream, ford it, and cross the dunes to the west side of the valley. There the zigzag Muliwai Trail officially begins, carving its way some 1,300 feet up the cliff; the reward at the third switchback is a wonderful view of Hiilawe Falls. Ahead lie 5 miles of 12 smaller, tree-covered gulches to cross before your first view of pristine Waimanu Valley, which has nine campsites and two outhouses, but no drinking water. The trail is eroded in places and slippery when wet—which is often, due to the 100-plus inches of rain, which can also flood streams. This explains why the vast majority of those who see Waimanu Valley do so via helicopter.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This magnificent national treasure and Hawaiian cultural icon has more than 150 miles of trails, including many day hikes, most of which are well maintained and well marked; a few are paved or have boardwalks, permitting strollers and wheelchairs. Warning: If you have heart or respiratory problems or if you’re pregnant, don’t attempt any hike in the park; the fumes will bother you. Also: Stacked rocks known as ahu mark trails crossing lava; please do not disturb or create your own.
Plan ahead by downloading maps and brochures on the park website (www.nps.gov/havo), which also lists areas closed due to current eruptions. Always check conditions with the rangers at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where you can pick up detailed trail guides. Note: All overnight backcountry hiking or camping requires a $10 permit, available only the day of or the day before your hike, from the park’s Backcountry Office (808/985-6178).
Here are some of the more accessible highlights for hikers, all demonstrating the power of Pele:
Kilauea Iki Trail
The 4-mile loop trail begins 2 miles from the visitor center on Crater Rim Road, descends through a forest of ferns into still-fuming Kilauea Iki Crater, and then crosses the crater floor past the vent where a 1959 lava blast shot a fountain of fire 1,900 feet into the air for 36 days. Allow 2 hours for this fair-to-moderate hike, and look for white-tailed tropicbirds and Hawaiian hawks above you.
Up on the rim of Kilauea Iki Crater, you can see what an erupting volcano did to a once-flourishing ohia forest. The scorched earth with its ghostly tree skeletons stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the lush forest. Everyone can take this 1-mile round-trip hike on a paved path across the eerie bed of black cinders. The trailhead is on Crater Rim Road at Puu Puai Overlook.
Kipuka Puaulu (Bird Park) Trail
This easy 1.2-mile round-trip hike lets you see native Hawaiian flora and fauna in a little oasis of living nature in a field of lava, known as a kīpuka. For some reason, the once red-hot lava skirted this mini-forest and let it survive. Go early in the morning or in the evening (or, even better, just after a rain) to see native birds like the ‘apapane (a small, bright-red bird with black wings and tail) and the ‘‘iwi (larger and orange-vermilion colored, with a curved salmon-hued bill). Native trees along the trail include giant ohia, koa, soapberry, kolea, and mamane.
This moderate 3-mile round-trip to the summit of a cinder cone (which shares its name with the one on Saddle Road, described above) crosses lava flows from 1973 and 1974, lava tree molds, and kīpuka. At the top is a panoramic vista of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, the coastline, and the often steaming vent of Puu Oo. The trailhead is in the Mauna Ulu parking area on Chain of Craters Road, 8 miles from the visitor center. (Sulfur fumes can be stronger here than on other trails.)
At the end of Chain of Craters Road, a 1.25 mile stretch of pavement leads to the 8-mile emergency access gravel road to Kalapana, overrun midway by a 2016 lava flow; the first few miles have interpretive signs but if the flow is still active, flumes may deter you from hiking. For avid trekkers, several long, steep, unshaded hikes lead to the beaches and rocky bays on the park’s remote shoreline; they’re all considered overnight backcountry hikes and thus require a permit. Only hiking diehards should consider attempting the Mauna Loa Trail, perhaps the most challenging hike in all of Hawaii. Many hikers have had to be rescued over the years due to high-altitude sickness or exposure after becoming lost in snowy or foggy conditions.
From the trailhead at the end of scenic but narrow Mauna Loa Road, about an hour’s drive from the visitor center, it’s a 7.5-mile trek to the Puu Ulaula (“Red Hill”) cabin at 10,035 feet, and then 12 more miles up to the primitive Mauna Loa summit cabin at 13,250 feet, where the climate is subarctic and overnight temperatures are below freezing year-round. In addition to backcountry permits (see above), this 4-day round-trip requires special gear, great physical condition, and careful planning.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.