How lucky! – Backpacking Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Backpacking

We had spent the week on the island of Maui, my husband and I, exploring the beauty of Haleakala. Now it was off to the Big Island to spend 4 days backpacking along the coast in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!

Late in the week while on Maui, we heard of the erupting volcano in the park and were concerned, but not hindered in our attempt. The Parks Department however was and as we would soon be told, all of the back country was closed to visitors. Even visitors who traveled 4000 miles to experience it. So we hiked the front country, saw the erupting volcano from afar at night and made nice with the Rangers, in hopes that we could change their mind.

This went on for a couple days.

On the third day, we received good news! A portion of the park, far away from the flowing lava, would be opened to back country hikers. We got our permit and we off on a two night/three day hike across the barren, black, hardened lava flow. A different trip than the one we planned, but it didn’t matter. We were out there. How lucky we were for the opportunity!

Now this was no normal hike. The terrain was uneven, unforgiving and after a while I gave up on trying not to stub my toes on the hard lava rock. The cairns were hard to see against the black background and the 15 mile hike that the Ranger warned us about (and we had scoffed – 15 miles would be easy!) seemed never ending. Still we were grateful to be there. It was beautiful; a take-your-breath-away kind of beautiful. And we had it all to ourselves. We made it to camp after nightfall and listened to the waves crashing against the jagged edges of the shore. I slept only a little, simultaneously lulled by the sound of the waves and alerted by them, listening for any change that might signify a coming tsunami. My husband said I was crazy.

Waking in the morning, we were in awe of our surroundings, having not seen our campsite in daylight yet. How lucky we were to be here, in this amazing place! We packed up camp and hiked on. This day our hike would take us up along the ridge line, high above what we had hiked the previous day. The hike went quickly for us and we made it to our second camp only to see a sign that said possibly the worst thing a sign in the desert can say:


With five miles already completed that day, nine miles to get to our car and less than a liter of water between us, we had no choice but to hike out. We had to do so quickly and without really drinking any water during the hottest part of the day, in the Hawaiian desert. How lucky we were that part one of that day’s hike went so quickly so that we had time to still hike out before nightfall and that we were within one day’s hike of our car.

That was the fastest nine miles I have ever hiked in my life. We did it in about 2.5 hours, half the time it would have normally taken me. Thirst will do that to you!

I’m already looking forward to returning to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and completing our originally planned trip. This park is simply amazing!

Oh, and that tsunami that I was worried about hitting the island while we were asleep on her shore? It hit land the day after we were out of the back country and I couldn’t help but think…

How lucky!


  1. You packed quite a bit of excitement into such a short adventure! It’s always a concern to me when I have to go with a Plan B. The planning is usually less detailed than what I’ve done for my initial plan. Did that concern you at all?

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      Having hiked with her husband….I would assume there was little concern about changing plans mid-stream. hehe

    • Brenda Wherry says:

      It makes me nervous, yes. It makes my husband less nervous, so I tend to trust his experience in the backcountry. It has gotten us into a few pickles before, like the one listed above, but so far it makes for a good story. Thanks for reading!

  2. My boyfriend and I are going to the big island in December and are planning to backpack in Volcanoes National park for 2 nights. All of the trip reports I have seen required two cars, one to park at the entry point and another to pick them up. Did you loop back to your car? Which locations did you camp? Thanks!

    • Brenda Wherry says:

      Hello Ashley! How exciting for you and your boyfriend! As you probably read above, our trip route was born out of necessity and a touch of impatience. But it can work if you want a loop trip. We did it in one night, but it was suppose to be two. Here is the trip plan:

      Take Hwy 11 west for about 15 miles from the park entrance and watch for the Ka’u Desert Trail on your left. Take the Mauna Iki trail in about two miles before it splits. Go west. Follow this until you reach the Pepeaio Cabin about 9.5 miles in. Good place to rest and refill water (be sure to check that there is water actually there with the rangers before you begin). Stay here if you like or continue on to the Ka’aha Shelter, which we stayed at right on the coast. It’s about another 5 miles or so. This walk gets long and arduous, as the volcanic rock is really hard to walk through, so be prepared for a long day. We got in after dark, which was also not ideal since the cairns are black rock against black rock. But waking on the coast was lovely. From the shelter, stand with your back to the ocean. You have to climb the switchbacks to get to the top of the ridge line. This will take you to the Hilina Pali Road and overlook. It’s a lovely view from up top. The road was closed to vehicles when we were there due to the volcano erupting, but if it’s open, you could always see about parking here overnight and hiking in from here, in reverse of the route we took. We hiked the next five miles on the road, so it was super easy. This will bring you to the Kulanaokuaiki Campground where we had planned to stay, but there was no water there at the time that we arrived. When you get the campground, there will be signs on the road for the Mauna Iki Trail to Hwy 11. If you take this, as we did, in about another nine miles, you will be back at your car. Our days ended up being around 15 miles or so both days we were out. That is how we made the loop on the Mauna Iki Trail. Bring water, check for additional water at the cabins/shelters from the rangers before you leave and know that the trail when you are near the shore is hard to walk through, so give yourself time. Once above the ridge, on the trail out, it goes pretty quickly. Hope this helps!

      Be safe and Enjoy! It’s really like nothing else.


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