Devastation Trail

Devastation Trail: See the Results of Kilauea Iki’s 1959 Eruption in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Local Expert's Rating:
4.5 / 5
The Bottom Line:

The easy and fully accessible mile-long (round-trip) Devastation Trail is a fascinating amble in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It gets you up close and personal to a landscape once lushly forested and then essentially obliterated by the famous 1959 eruptions of Kilauea Iki. From the stark bleached snags and tree casts to the revegetation slowly but surely taking place, it’s an inspiring walk-in Pele’s volatile neighborhood.

- The Local Expert Team

In 1959, the pit crater called Kilauea Iki—aka “Little Kilauea”—put on quite the show in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Devastation Trail, a short, easy, and fully paved path demonstrate some of the striking results of that little “flare-up.”

Just a mile-long round-trip, the Devastation Trail is wheelchair- and stroller-accessible and involves minimal elevation change. Those attributes alone make it a great choice for the young and old ends of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park visitor spectrum. But the story told along the path is fascinating, and well worth hearing for anybody coming to this amazing place.

In November of 1959, Kilauea Iki began a weeks-long eruptive period that had been foretold by increasing swarms of earthquakes. That eruption event involved many episodes of fountaining lava: geysers of shooting magma that reached as high as 1,900 feet. A lava lake welled up within the crater, with plates of cooled crust bobbing amid bright-glowing molten turbulence. 

When it overwashed the main eruptive vent, the lava lake would choke off the lava fountains and then drain dramatically. That left a crusted “black ledge” around the crater walls in the style of a bathtub ring. The eruption event also produced the dramatic cinder-and-spatter cone called Puu Puai (“gushing hill”), off which congealed volcanic chunks scoured downslope into the rising and falling lava lake. All things considered, this 36-day spectacle ranks among the most remarkable volcanic eruptions of the 20th century.

Volcanic gases, cinders, and other material is blown downwind from the fountaining lava lake of Kilauea Iki in 1959 wreaked havoc on the rainforest to the near southwest. Trees were swamped in volcanic dust and debris; others were scorched to standing-dead status. 

This is the evocative landscape on display along the Devastation Trail. Its passage through sections of the living, tall-canopied forest makes the wide-open barrens all the more striking. White ohia snags stand as ghostly totems to the 1959 turmoil, and tree casts—impressions left by buried and decayed trunks—represent even more mysterious holdovers.

It’s also fascinating to see the ohia saplings as well as shrubs and ferns growing up green and vibrant amid this blasted landscape. After all, volcanic eruptions are part and parcel of the Kilauea volcano, and even as they destroy ecosystems they set the stage for ecological succession. 

While walking the Devastation Trail, keep your eyes peeled for some of the most delicate features of Hawaiian volcanism. Little pellets of volcanic glass are called “Pele’s tears” after the Hawaiian volcano goddess whose spirit resides in Kilauea Caldera. Filamentous threads of volcanic glass, meanwhile, are the unmistakable “Pele’s hair.”

The Devastation Trail is on the super-easy end of the spectrum of Big Island hikes, but it shouldn’t be bypassed: It’s a stirring look at the intersection of geology and ecology that helps define Hawaii.

Insider Tips:
-Parking can either be found in the Devastation Trail parking lot or the Pu’upua’i parking lot.
-You can weave the short, easy, and level Devastation Trail into a longer walkabout: It intersects with the Byron Ledge Trail, which offers fabulous views into the Kilauea Caldera.