About eight miles south of the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park entrance along Highway 11, between mile markers 37 and 38, sits an entry to the Ka‘u Desert Trail. There isn’t a parking lot here; just park your car on the side of the road on the gravel. There are usually one or two other cars there. You don’t have to pay to walk on this trail since the trailhead isn’t through the park entrance. It is just good old free fun.
It’s a short 20-minute hike from this trailhead to the Ka‘u Desert Footprints (also known as the 1790 Footprints). The 1.6-mile round-trip trek across the small section of desert is fascinating, and the history of the footprints makes the experience more evocative. Because of deterioration, the footprints are faint and difficult to see.
The predominant foliage is ‘ohi‘a, which contrasts with the bleak desert surroundings. You pass a wasteland of ‘a‘a and pahoehoe lava flows to arrive at the footprints. A metal fence in a sturdy pavilion surrounds the prints, which look as though they’re cast in cement. Actually they’re formed from pisolites: particles of ash stuck together with moisture, which formed mud that hardened like plaster. The story of these footprints is far more exciting than the prints themselves, which are eroded and not very visible.
In 1790, Kamehameha was waging war with Keoua over control of the Big Island. One of Keoua’s warrior parties of approximately 80 people attempted to cross the desert while Kilauea was erupting. Toxic gases descended upon them, and the warriors and their families were enveloped and suffocated. They literally died in their tracks. (Although romanticism would have it otherwise, the preserved footprints were probably made by a party of people who came well after the eruption or perhaps at some time during a previous eruption.) This unfortunate occurrence was regarded by the Hawaiians as a direct message from the gods proclaiming their support for Kamehameha.