Last Updated on May 2, 2023

There is a remarkable desert in Hawaii of volcanic origin that most people do not know about: it’s Kaʻū desert in Big Island.

The US archipelago of Hawaii is mostly known for its pristine beaches and majestic active volcanoes, and it is because of the latter that some areas have become inhospitable to most forms of life effectively turning into a desert.

Offering floors of hardened lava, volcanic rocks and ash, sand, gravel and not much else, the Ka’u Desert is off the beaten track and not a popular tourist destination, but a surprisingly great hiking destination enjoyed mainly by locals.

Kaʻū Desert, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
Kaʻū Desert, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Kaʻū desert

The Kaʻū desert is not a true desert, because annual precipitation is technically higher than 1,000 millimeters (39 inches). But because of volcanic activity, rain combines with sulfur dioxide and other gases, becoming acid rain.

Because acid rain cannot sustain plant growth, and because water that does reach the soil quickly evaporates, there is no vegetation in Kaʻū Desert.

The Ka’u Desert is located on the western flank of Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The area is often closed to the public due to volcanic activity, but otherwise offers a few popular hiking trails.

Footprints found in the Kaʻū Desert, Hawaii
Footprints found in the Kaʻū Desert, Hawaii

The footprint trail

When volcanic activity is low, Kaʻū Desert is a popular hiking destination in Big Island, part of the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Scattered across the trail, it is possible to see some footprints preserved in the hardened lava, which until recently were thought to have been left by the retreating army of Keōua Kuahuʻula after the battle with chief Kamehameha I, who perished on the volcano during the devastating eruption of 1790.

Recent studies indicate that different kinds of people have travelled across the area for hundreds of years, and many of the footprints were likely to be left by women and children.

Ka’u Desert Trail, Hawaii.

Hiking the Trail

If you’re ready to embark on an awe-inspiring hiking adventure in the Kaʻū Desert, the Footprint Trail is a must-see destination. Starting from the trailhead, you’ll venture along a 0.84-mile hike that will take you through some of the most breathtaking landscapes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

As you make your way south along the trail, take your time to soak up the incredible views of the Kaʻū Desert. The trail traverses a rugged terrain composed of hardened lava, volcanic rocks, ash, sand, and gravel, and you’ll be surrounded by stunning vistas of this unique and surreal environment.

Keep an eye out for the small shelter with a glass enclosure that once covered the footprints. Although the enclosure caused some damage to the prints, scattered around the area, you’ll still be able to find some of the best-preserved footprints left behind by the people who once roamed the area.

As you explore the area around the shelter, you’ll be transported back in time to a period when different kinds of people traversed the Kaʻū Desert, leaving their marks on the rugged terrain.

Return the way you came after enjoying this unique and exciting glimpse into the past.

What to Bring

If you are planning to hike the Footprint Trail in Kaʻū Desert, there are some essential items that you should bring with you to ensure that your hiking experience is comfortable and safe. Firstly, it is crucial to have sturdy boots that can handle the rough terrain of the trail. The terrain in the Kaʻū Desert is composed of hardened lava, volcanic rocks, ash, sand, and gravel, which can be quite challenging to traverse without the right footwear.

Additionally, the weather in the area can be unpredictable, so it’s important to pack rain gear to keep yourself dry in case of rain. The last thing you want is to get caught in a downpour without the appropriate gear, which could lead to discomfort or even hypothermia.

Moreover, given the elevation of the trail, you should expect cooler temperatures, so it’s important to dress appropriately for the weather. Make sure to bring clothing that is warm enough to keep you comfortable, but also lightweight enough to allow for movement during the hike.

Read also: Sandboarding in Hawaii logo icon

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