The Ka'u Desert Trail is somewhat of a misnomer. The area is in a rain shadow but does receive some rain. Sulfuric gasses escaping from the volcano mix with water vapor and fall back to the earth in the form of acid rain. This prevents plant growth, leaving a barren landscape.
From the trailhead, just beyond the Jagger Museum and Kilauea Overlook, along the Crater Rim Trail
, the Ka'u Desert Trail sets off towards the southwest. Parts of this trail have been closed in the past due to poisonous fumes venting nearby. Check conditions with the park rangers before heading out and carefully evaluate the air quality as you travel. Cross vast, barren lava fields and pass innumerable cinder cones. Eventually the start of the Mauna Iki Trail
branches off to the east. Soon after, the Footprints Trail
arrives from the west.
Continue heading southwest, crossing fissures and descending through challenging lava flows. Keep an eye out for fluffy, golden lava deposits, shiny black "Pele's tears," and flossy "Pele's hair." Eventually the route turns to the south, then hooks eastward. Near the intersection with the Ka'aha Trail
is the Pepeiao Cabin and backcountry campsites. Here you'll find toilets and a water catchment tank.
Continuing northeast from the junction with the Ka'aha Trail
, ascend a ridgeline with pali (cliff) and coastal views to the southeast. The vegetation here consists of shrubs, a few trees, and grasses that obscure the trail in places. The Ka'u Desert Trail eventually ends at the Hilina Pali Trailhead and parking area.