There is so much to explore on Hawaii Island. With over 4,000 square miles of land, the “Big Island” is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes, waterfalls, and snorkeling on the planet! We also have 5 volcanoes which have shaped, and are continuing to shape, this amazing island: Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. Kohala nows rests dormant, but the other 4 are still quite active. People travel from all over the world to view the lava lake at Halema’uma’u Crater, located in Kilauea at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The 2 most prominent mountains on the Big Island are Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Lots of visitors travel to the summit of Mauna Kea for the most magnificent stargazing, and it is also recognized as the world’s tallest mountain (when measuring from the bottom of the ocean where it actually begins) standing at over 30,000 feet.
Mauna Loa is a very close 2nd. This volcano is not as commonly explored. The terrain is some of the most incredible lava flows you’ll ever see! Blue, green, purple, red, brown, black…some fragments are even multicolored, giving a rainbow effect. There is no public access road beyond the 11,000 ft. elevation where the Mauna Loa observatory sits when entering via Saddle Road. This observatory is not open to the public like some of those atop Mauna Kea. The only way to see this beauty is to park outside of the observatory gate and trek! Remember to allow your body to acclimate accordingly as this hike can be tough! Definitely not a “beginner” hike. I would highly recommend checking in with the Park Rangers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park before starting this hike, even if you’re not planning on sleeping in the cabin on the crater rim. If sleeping on top of the world’s largest active volcano sounds like something you’d like to do, you must get a back country permit from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park prior to your visit as there are only 12 bunks available.
Throughout the years, Mauna Loa has had many different types of lava flows resulting in some unstable terrain. Remember safety first! It’s best to make sure you have a checklist because once you start this 6 mile journey up to the cabin there will be no facilities and cell phone reception is spotty. Some must haves include: water (LOTS of water), food (freeze dried will keep the pack lighter), first aid kit, sunscreen, emergency blanket, trekking poles, and a warm jacket. Temperatures can reach near freezing, even in the summer months! Once you reach the cabin, there are bunks with a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and pillows. Now, these aren’t in the greatest condition, but I promise that they are very well received and welcomed after a long day of hiking.
So, let’s talk about the actual hike. After parking, you’ll soon see the trail head marking the Observatory Trail. It’s 3.8 miles to the junction. To trek to the actual summit, you would continue to the right at the junction another 2.1 miles. We went to the cabin, which is 2.2 miles to the left. Remember, this hike starts off at 11,000 ft elevation! The cabin sits at 13,250 ft elevation and the summit of Mauna Loa is at 13,679 ft. I feel it necessary to repeat that THIS IS NOT A BEGINNER HIKE! Extreme caution should be used when hiking at these elevations as altitude sickness can occur and is a very serious condition, sometimes even resulting in death. Allowing your body to properly acclimate prior to starting will make for a safer and more enjoyable hike.
Walking along the barren landscape of Mauna Loa – Unbelievable!
The trail is marked with ahus. These ahus are large piles of rocks, not easily missed as you make your way up the mountain. Please take a moment to locate the next ahu before continuing on, as visibility can get bad depending on the weather. What else is there to see? Well, quite honestly, mostly lava…you’re basically trekking up through lava fields at such a high elevation that not much else can survive. We did come across and interesting ladybug, which was yellow with black dots as opposed to the more common red ladybugs that most of us are familiar with. The higher up the mountain you get, the better chance of seeing snow also! Even in the middle of June, we saw quite a few patches of snow along the trail and also in Moku’aweoweo Caldera, which rests atop Mauna Loa. Our biggest moment of joy was finally reaching the cabin! What a relief! We had about 45 minutes until the sun was set, and being out in the cold without shelter is not a place we wanted to be.
The cabin was very cozy. You can feel such an amazing energy there, of all the hikers that have made it! There is a small “kitchen” area when you first enter, and if you’re lucky, previous travelers have left some canned goods behind for an extra treat if you’re freeze dried food isn’t cutting it. In the main part of the cabin there are 12 bunks, a decent sized table and chairs, and a little window looking out to the crater rim. Simple, but enough to keep us happy. Stargazing is beyond amazing up there, but it’s freezing cold so that only lasted about 5 minutes. Waking up the all the colors in the sky as the sun rose the next morning was truly one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever experienced! After we let the temp warm up a bit (to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit) we headed back down to our car at the observatory and headed home. An experience not to be forgotten and one that I hope to do again one day!