Mauna Loa Summit – Volcano National Park

My co-worker and I embarked on a great 3 day backpacking trip up Mauna Loa in September 2013.


Here was our itinerary:

day 0: have a friend drop us off at the observatory and sleep there (we had some connections on that one)
day 1: hike from the observatory to the actual summit and then over to the cabin
day 2:  hike down from the summit cabin to red hill cabin
day 3: hike down from red hill cabin to Mauna Loa Road and have a friend pick us up

This trip would be a little difficult for others to replicate ( unless you don’t acclimate to elevation I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU ACCLIMATE OVERNIGHT ) Many people who hike the summit spend the night in their cars sleeping the night before going up. If you do plan on using this itinerary you are still required to get a backcountry permit from Volcano National Park. I had to email them telling them why I was unable to visit the office the night before, they gave me a number to call, and had a 30 min phone conversation to get the permit.

Day 1: Hike from observatory – to true summit – to the cabin


Sunrise over Mauna Kea from the observator

Day 1 I would have to say was absolutely the most difficult day. It was also most definitely worth the effort to see the amazing caldera and to be able to say that I hiked to the top of the most massive mountain and largest volcano on earth. We started out from the observatory with our 30 lb packs (we pack pretty light!) and headed up the dirt road to the trail and started following the cairns.


the sign marking the start of the Observatory trail

The first two miles were the most difficult going up, it is the steepest part of the trip.
Tip : Don’t eat bacon for breakfast.


resting from the pain of bacon

It took us about an hour and a half to get up the first two miles of the trail. The terrain is all smooth-ish lava with many little hills rolling like a wave. One you get past this it begins to flatten out more and intersects with a road for about a half a mile. This feels like heaven to walk on after trudging over the varying lava. All too soon your trip along the dirt road will end and you will turn to the right onto a intermittently sandy trail. It feels nice and soft to walk in a first and after a while begins to feel like you are being pulled down. This sandy trail eventually dies off too and you are once again left with only lava. After 3.8 miles of hiking you come to a junction. At the junction you can choose to go right to the summit trail or left towards the cabin.
We decided that since we needed to come back to this junction anyways to go to the cabin we would hide our backpacks and take a small bottle of water to hike up to the true summit.


View of the caldera from the junction, the summit is the highest point in the picture

The hike to the true summit was absolutely gorgeous. After turning right towards the summit trail the view of the caldera pops into view. It is huge!
Most of the hike to the summit is smooth but there are sections that require you to hike though fields of a’a. You’ll know you reached the summit when you see the large cairn. It is about 2.5 miles to the summit from the Junction to the breathtaking view of the caldera. Believe me it is worth it to see such a site!


heading back from the summit was a bit of a blur, I remember having a splitting headache, barely enough water to get back to my backpack, and being tired beyond belief. My co-worker was also very tired so we mutually agreed to take a small nap in one of the shaded pits by the junction. Best nap ever!


This was a cool little pit inside the caldera, you can see the lava that waterfalled over the edge!

after about an hour of resting we heading on over to the cabin trail. Don’t mistake the Mauna Loa trail for the Cabin Trail. The cabin trail will take you down inside the caldera, we weren’t expecting this but it was a nice surprise! It is pretty cool to walk inside. after a nice flat walk you begin turning to the left and hiking back on up to the rim.

It hurts, keep pushing on! Finally you get to the top of the steep hill and keep walking on that lava. Walk until you can’t walk anymore, then walk some more. if you start feeling like you’ve gone so far and have gained so little you’re almost there. you’ll see the cabin in the distance and it will look so close! don’t be deceived you still have a bit more to go. did I mention that this is the longest 2.1 miles ever?


and what a view it is!

Finally you get to the most amazing lue with a view. I was dying to pee and this thing was heaven. you get to overlook the caldera while you do your business 🙂
It is about 200ft from the cabin (don’t worry there is also a beautifully well kept composting toilet right next to the cabin so you don’t need to walk far outside)

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The cabin is also very well kept and sleeps 12. There are sleeping pad and bags for every bed (this was heaven as we would have been no where near prepared for the cold of the night) There is a water tank outside (filter it first) and a huge guest book that was fun to read. The couple before us left a scavenger hunt poem for a prize to find!
All in all we hiked 10.9 miles and gained almost 3000 feet in elevation that day, and what a good day that was.

Some tips to get you through the night:
1. bring hand warmers to put in your socks and in your bag !! it is nomally 20-30 degress at night at the summit.
2. if you can double up on matress pads and sleeping bags if no one else is using them
3. don’t expect to sleep much. sleeping at 13,250 feet is nearly impossible for anyone


Handwarmers are a must!

Day 2: Hike from Summit Cabin to Red Hill Cabin:

Freezing from the cold on very little sleep, we woke up, ate our unsatisfying breakfast, filled our water, and headed out to hike again. It felt amazing to get warm in the sun, until we were drenched in sweat again. we followed the trail down into the caldera again and followed the trail until we got to the red hill cabin sign to turn off. The total distance from the summit cabin to the red hill cabin is 11.2 miles. Needless to say it was nice to be walking down hill for it.

The best parts of the hike included seeing the beautiful Mauna Kea volcano the whole way down, seeing the newer lava flow areas, seeing the many colors a volcano can make, imagining what was happening many years ago with the flows (this was surprisingly easy to do if you look at the pictures), seeing the caves that have huge drops, saying I bet that hill is “the” red hill the whole way down, and the cool cinder cones and steamy landscapes.


hiking towards mauna kea with clear skies


Huge tube!


cinders with red, white, and black colors


very distinct lava flows, cool to imagine what was happening years ago

I wasn’t expecting much of this part of the hike but I absolutely loved it!

It was a long 11.2 miles and even though it was downhill, our feet were aching from the hard lava. I remember at the end saying “why would they put the cabin on a hill? I just hiked 11.2 miles and I gotta climb up a hill now?”


Hill up to Red Hill Cabin

However seeing this magical cabin was a welcome site.  Out of the two cabins we visited, Red Hill Cabin was by far the most fun. It has a huge deck great for basking in the sun or reading a book. There was also another hill behind the cabin you could hike up and see views of volcano. We did this after the sunset and saw the glow from Halema`uma`u and watched the car lights as they drove down Mauna Kea. Red Cabin was a huge highlight in the trip.


There was also alot of graffiti on the walls which was entertaining to us. My favorite was the “Alaskan wall” where everyone from Alaska had signed, I signed too of course. I read a lot of the guest book entries and fell asleep early tired from our trip so far. Again I needed the hand warmers for the cold, although it was not needed as much as the first night. We slept much better this night at 10,035 feet than the night before.


Day 3: Hike from Red Hill Cabin to Mauna Loa Road

We slept in as much as we could this day and took our time getting ready. We only needed to hike 7.5 miles today to meet up with our ride. We were sad to leave Red Hill cabin but the thought of Thai food got us to finally say goodbye.
Hiking down this trail was a bit of a blur. I can only remember bits and pieces at most.I remember the pain in every part of my body, mostly in my legs from going downhill.
I remember there were cool parts of the trail that were stair like but caused more pain in my knees.
I remember seeing the Pu’u O’o, Halema`uma`u, and the ocean entry lava steaming in the distance.

I remember expecting more foliage but only getting small bushes and plants and the occasional tree.

I remember the end was gorgeous but only lasted about 10 minutes.


When we finally got to the forested end I once again ran for the life saving porta potty which was surprisingly more disgusting than any of the other toilets we had the pleasure of being spoiled with along the trails.We waited in the shade of the covered hut, sat down on the bench, watched the steam roll across the sky of Volcano, and waited for our ride to come pick us up.


At last Thai food was ours!1374811_10151895187472247_223385510_n


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