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A Walking Guide to the Big Island of Hawaii. Notes from our September 2008 excursions

A land of contrast, sunshine, and rain!

It has to be said, that we were pleasantly surprised at how good some of the hiking trails on Hawaii's Big Island are - and more to the point, we were amazed at how few people seemed to be out-and-about on the trails.

September isn't exactly peak-season on Big Island, but there were still plenty of bus-loads of tourists being ferried in-and-out of the most popular attractions.  But don the walking boots and strike out across the lava fields away from the comfort and convenience of your motor car, and you can experience a quite extraordinary wilderness - and probably not see a soul on your travels!

Ash Eruption from Mount Etna - June 2008

The hiking on Big Island falls roughly into two categories - trails that lie within the Volcanoes National Park boundary, and trails that don't!  It's worth starting your adventures with a visit to the Kilauea Visitor Centre and having a word with the rangers.  For starters, you'll be able to collect your free map of the trails within the park.  But most importantly, the rangers will advise on what areas of the park are safe to walk in.

When we visited, there were two large areas of the park that were no-go areas.  The recently opened vent in Halema'uma'u was both sporadically explosive (although we didn't witness any explosions) and was emitting about 4000 tonnes of suphur dioxide per day, making the main Kilauea Caldeara, Halema'uma'u and the Ka'u desert off-limits.  The area around the base of Pu'u O'o was also experiencing high levels of toxic gases, but it was a series of fractures and land-heaves that made that area a place best avoided.  Worthy of note is that there is a publicised hike starting at Glenwood, out to the base of Pu'u O'o.  This may not be on park land, but at the time of writing, it was not a clever place to go, and to do so could get one in trouble with the Civil Defense department!

Hiking in the Volcanoes National Park:

Much of our hiking was centred around the national park - partly because of the locality (we were staying in Volcano Village) but also because there's a great deal to do.  Given that the park accounts for approximately 1/3 of the open land on the island, I suppose it's not too much of a surprise to find oneself walking within the park!

All of the walks within the park are free, although you do need a "back country permit" to walk on some of the trails, and to camp out over night.  Walking and camping permits are free, and are readily obtained from the visitors' centre.  Camping is allowed in designated areas only - most of which have a water supply (although not always potable) and some form of rudimentary sanitation.  Some of the bigger walks can take 3 or 4 days, and hiking to some of the more remote areas, and back, in day is quite a tall order - so if you're up for a bit of semi-wild camping, you could do worse than take your sleeping bag, a lightweight tent, and suitable nourishment.  The full ascent on Mauna Loa can be done as a hut-to-hut walk.  A sleeping bag, food and a stove are required, but you can leave the tent at home!

In describing the routes through the park, we are at risk of repeating what others have already written - but then, this site is supposed to be a reflection of our first-hand experiences, so here are the walks we did within the park:

Hiking outside the National Park:

At first it would seem as the main challenge here is to find somewhere that's not in the National Park but in fact there are many areas, especially on the North of the Island, where there is great walking to be had outside the park.

Having been somewhat pre-occupied with walks within the park, it's fair to say that this section could be somewhat more complete - but nonetheless, it is at least worth pointing out a few starting points and areas of interest.

Our guides to walks outside of the Volcanoes National Park are being prepared at the moment, and will be posted here shortly.



Walking on Big Island, Hawaii - some general pointers:

At the risk of stating the obvious, some of the hikes become remarkably remote, and you'll find yourself a long, long way from other people, roads, or mobile phone coverage.  Compared to mountainous alpine ascents, Hawaii's terrain all seems rather tame at first, but don't let this lull you into a false sense of security, and do go out prepared.

The easiest thing to underestimate is water.  Take plenty of it.  The park suggests two quarts (2 litres) per person, per day.  This was far more than we needed on most of our walks, but then, we weren't hiking in the peak of summer.  The general environment on the lava fields and high up in the mountains is very arid, and you DO get through a lot of water, especially at altitude.

In many areas there is very little shelter, if any.  This cuts two ways - if the sun is blazing down on you, you'll fry.  Go for the factor 50 - you'll need it.  If the heavens open, expect to get a soaking. 

The effects of the altitude on the tops of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are not to be underestimated.  Both are just a shade under 4200m high - that's comparable to Mont Blanc!  More on this on the specific sections about the walks.

Mosquito repellent is a must if you're hiking through the rain forests on the North/East of the Island - but high up and in the arid lava deserts you're generally OK.  That said, a small bottle of DEET is a worthwhile accessory wherever you're walking.

The only other key point to mention is for those who have little experience of walking on lava fields, which is, very simply, to watch your step! Sounds like an obvious thing to say, but the ground underfoot may not be as stable as it looks.  In particular, the "shield" nature of Kilauea means that the lava tends to crust over, leaving behind "bubbles".  Often, the crust is just a few inches thick, with voids of anything from a couple of inches, to several feet left underneath  If you turn an ankle, or worse, there may not be anyone to get you back to base other than yourself, and your walking compatriates.