Puu Oo Trail

Puu Oo Trail -- High Elevation Trail Meandering Across Lava Fields
The Bottom Line:

The Puu Oo Trail is a remote trail located high in the lava fields of Mauna Kea. This is an ideal hike for those looking for a longer, all-day experience well out in some of Hawaii's most unique landscapes. 

- The HawaiianIslands.com Local Expert Team

Hawaii is best known for its beaches and lush tropical rainforests, but those are not the only landscapes to explore across the islands. The Puu Oo Trail on the Big Island of Hawaii offers hikers a chance to see another side of these volcanic lands, while likewise enjoying some miles of old forest groves.  

How to Get There
You will find the trailhead for the Puu oo Trail between the 22 and 23-mile markers of Saddle Road, the main highway that cuts through the center of the Big Island. The entirety of this trail, from its trailhead, is 8.7 miles round-trip. However, to start the trail you have two choices for parking lots. You can either park at the small gravel lot directly in front of the Puu Oo Trailhead sign, or travel down Saddle Road about one mile east where you will see a dirt road leading to the Powerline Trail parking lot. Once you’ve found a spot to park, follow back down the road to the small trail that meanders alongside Saddle Road until connecting back with the Puu Oo Trail. Or you can take Powerline Trail, more on that later, to connect with Puu Oo midway. 

What Trail Conditions to Expect
The Puu Oo Trail itself is not considered arduous, most will find this trail either easy or only moderately difficult. This variance is because the challenges here are not about big inclines or declines (over the entirety of the four miles you walk out and back again, you will cover just under 400 feet of elevation gain), but rather about the unevenness of the trail itself and the unique environment the trail winds through. Again, you aren’t going up and down the trail significantly, but you are starting at an incredibly high elevation with the whole of the trail taking place at over 5,000 feet above sea level. You will want to pack layers to stay comfortable throughout this adventure. Chilly afternoon winds and rainfall are fairly common throughout the year, so for the best experience, consider an early morning hike. 

The longer length of the trail also adds a bit to the difficulty, beginner hikers should expect each to complete between two and three miles every hour; making this a potentially full-day hiking experience if you go all the way out and back again. Of course, there is also the option of simply going as far as you feel the day of and turning right back around!

Experiencing the Trail Itself
What makes the Puu Oo Trail unique is that it once served an important role for local cowboys who used it to drive cattle between the Puu Oo Ranch and the more fertile fields on the slopes of Mauna Kea. The trail begins by heading south across hardened lava rock. These lava rocks were formed from volcanic activity in 1855 and 1881 that sent lava flowing down the slopes of Mauna Kea. Going across these lava fields can feel like you are on another planet as the ground often looks like ocean waves frozen in time. Throughout this part of the trail, you’ll find unique vegetation sprouting out from the lava rocks, creating new life from those old ashes.

Note that the trail through these lava fields is faint and it is easy to misplace your footing if you aren’t looking down. If you find yourself lost or unsure, head back the way you came until you can find where the trail picks up again.

Around four miles, the Puu Oo Trail intersects with the aforementioned Powerline Trail. While commonly referred to as “trail”, this is actually an ATV road and will take you back to the intersection with Saddle Road. About 0.5 miles before this intersection, the Emesine Lava Tube lies just off of the Puu Oo Trail. You will need to obtain a permit to go in, but consider looking for it from the trailhead. 

Past the Powerline Trail intersection, the Puu Oo Trail starts seeing more and more vegetation, as it meanders more into forested pockets of land. These tree-filled areas are ideal for birdwatching and are where you will see species like the endangered akiapola au, akepa, and alawi. 

If you love blooming flora and birding, try and visit in October or November when the ohia trees are blooming and migrating birds are just coming in. 

Insider Tips
-There are a lot of aspects of the Puu Oo Trail that make it less trafficked than others. It’s remote, the high altitude equates to a chilly experience, and there are no waterfalls or plunge pools, or sweeping ocean vistas. As such, you aren’t going to have to contend with crowds here, and, being dog-friendly, it’s one of the best dog hikes on the island. 
-Make sure to visit the Hawaii Birding Trails website to download a guide for all the unique species of indigenous birds that call this part of Hawaii home.