Last Updated on December 17, 2022

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.

Read also: Sandboarding in Hawaii logo icon

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