Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

A short, 0.8-mile walk down the Mauna Iki trail from the Kaʻu Desert trailhead on Hwy 11 brings you to a field of scattered footprints preserved in fragile sediment and continually being revealed and reburied by windblown sand. A few are protected under a roof; enjoy these rather than risk destroying others by tromping off the trail.

In 1782, Kamehameha killed his cousin. Kiwalaʻo had just become the new ruler of Hawaiʻi Island, but Kamehameha was having none of it and summarily defeated him at the Battle of Mokuohai. Keoua (Kiwalaʻo's half-brother) wanted to settle the score – which is how he and his army came to be marching through the Kaʻu Desert during a particularly nasty eruption remembered as Keonehelelei (the falling sands).

Despite days of offerings to appease Pele, Kilauea belched a massive cloud of steam, hot sand, suffocating gas, rocks and ash that swept across the Kaʻu Desert on hurricane-force winds. Two-thirds of Keoua's warriors were caught in the sticky wet hell-storm. As they gasped for breath, stumbling to their deaths, their feet left ghostly footprints in the muck. That muck dried, preserving the gory moment for all eternity. Or at least that's how famed geologist Dr Jaggar imagined it.

While hundreds, if not thousands of warriors did die in that blast, new evidence suggests the footprints likely don't belong to them. Pyroclastic surges like that were apparently a regular part of Kilauea's cycle between 1500 and 1790. The footprints – which include those of women and children – are more likely records of normal life persevering in this harsh landscape.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park attractions

1. Kaʻu Desert

2.73 MILES

Although the Kilauea rain shadow keeps this area relatively dry, it's not a true desert; but what rain does fall is highly acidic from the upwind…

2. Twin Pit Crater

3.37 MILES

True to their name, these dual yawning craters are just west of Cone Crater on the Mauna Iki Trail.

3. Cone Crater

3.44 MILES

A prominent, semicollapsed volcanic crater along the Mauna Iki Trail.

4. Hilina Pali Overlook

5.76 MILES

This serenely beautiful overlook looms 1700ft above the coastal flats of Hilina Slump: a semidetached landmass sinking 4in each year, and which may be…

5. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

6.39 MILES

Even among Hawaii's many wonders, this national park stands out. Its two active volcanoes testify to the ongoing birth of the islands: quiet Mauna Loa (13…

6. Jaggar Museum

6.57 MILES

There's plenty packed into this small one-room geology museum including real-time seismographs and tiltmeters recording earthquakes inside the park (and…

7. Kilauea Overlook

6.91 MILES

A pause-worthy panorama that was closed at time of research with an expected reopening date in 2020. It's most remarkable for the 6-ton volcanic bomb…

8. Halemaʻumaʻu Crater

6.93 MILES

The original Halemaʻumaʻu Overlook off Crater Rim Dr was closed in 2008 due to volcanic activity and the very real threat of death. For the next decade,…