Pu'u Ohale
Pu'u Koa'e
Kilauea Volcano

Jan 12, 2020

With: Eric Smith

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


With rains continuing over much of the island (and snow falling on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa), we headed to the drier south side of Hawaii and the Ka'u Desert. The desert lies in the rain shadow of Kilauea, the most active volcano on the island for the last four decades or so. Most of the area is covered in lava, the smoother pahoehoe type that makes for fairly easy cross-country. There is also a lot of compacted black sands among the lava fields that give it more of a desert feel. Today's outing visited two of the named cones found in here, making use of both trail and cross-country travel. Afterwards we stopped off at the park headquarters to pay a visit to the Kilauea Crater highpoint. Ingrid had some stuff to do at home today, so it was just Eric and I on today's adventure.

Pu'u Ohale - Pu'u Koa'e

To access these, we drove into Volcanoes National Park and down the main Chain of Craters Rd. About three miles down the road, one comes to the junction with paved Hilina Pali Rd. This road used to continue all the way to the Hilina Pali Overlook, but is now closed at the halfway point at the Kulanaokuaiki Campground. One can still walk the road to the lookout, but our route starts at the campground and heads in a different direction. There was only a single other car here when we arrived around 9:45a and only two when we left around 2p. The campground is pretty minimal with no water, but it does have a nice pit toilet and the dispersed campsites among the lightly vegetated lava feature picnic tables and a cleared pad for a tent. There were also a few endangered nenes (hawaiian geese) waddling about, probably looking for crumbs. Like others we'd seen elsewhere, they had tags on their feet to help biologists keep track of them.

We walked through the campground heading roughly north, our first summit less half a mile away. Pu'u Ohale isn't much more than a low lava mound, disappointing as a summit, but it does sport an HTS (Hawaiian Territorial Survey) survey monument from the 1930s and a newer USGS benchmark. Judging by a few beer bottles looking surprisingly fresh, it seems the summit does see some traffic. The point also marks a corner of the Wilderness boundary into which we would venture as we headed to the next summit, Pu'u Koa'e, about 3mi to the WNW. Our direction of travel was roughly west, expecting to come across the Mauna Iki Trail that connects the campground to Pu'u Koa'e and points further west. We came to find that the trail is not where depicted on the maps or the GPSr, but further west by almost a quarter mile. Not that it mattered much, since the cross-country travel isn't difficult and the trail is little more than a series of cairns marking a route across the lava. About half a mile from Pu'u Koa'e we came across an unexpected find, a pair of deep craters marked as Twin Pit Craters on the topo map when I examined it later. The craters were surprisingly deep and marked only by a simple wooden sign noting the danger. It was clear that lava had flowed over the area since the craters had originally formed, some of it oozing over one edge into the crater. The crater walls were vertical, allowing no way to explore inside without ropes and climbing gear, so we settled on walking the periphery and marveling at the colorful rock layers exposed and the hardy plants growing on the shadier sides of the crater. Closer to Pu'u Koa'e we came across a few small steam vents, their location marked by the slow rise of wispy water vapor clouds. They were warm to the touch but not dangerously hot and when we looked around carefully we could see others in the same area.

Pu'u Koa'e was now a short distance to the west and we left the trail for the cross-country climb to the summit, not much more than 100ft above its surroundings. We climbed up the north side and walked to the crater rim's highpoint around to the south, then discovered a rough trail descending the crater off that side. We descended the south side and returned more directly to the trail before starting the 3mi hike back to the campground.

Kilauea Vocano

Once back at the campground we drove back up towards the Visitor Center for one last stop. Much of the Kilauea Rim Trail has been closed since the summer of 2018 when the crater floor unexpectedly collapsed. There was only minor damage to periphery roads, trails and observation buildings, but geologists deemed the ground too unstable for public entry. We parked at the military camp at the edge of the closure and stealthed our way onto the closed section of trail. Heavy clouds enveloped most of the mountain so our views were very limited. Nevertheless, we found our way to the designated highpoint, marked by another HTS survey monument and a Dept of the Interior benchmark. The crater floor might have been an impressive sight in better conditions, but today it was a complete washout.


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