Hike Journal: Mauna Loa, August 2019

A mountain peak shows through clouds at sunset
Sunset over Hualalai from Mauna Loa

B. Haney

A paved road through lava fields at sunset
Road to Mauna Loa Observatory

B. Haney

Mauna Loa Observatory Trail
August 26, 2019

By Brian Haney, Charlie Buscemi and Marc Romano

The idea of hiking to the top of Mauna Loa started when we were driving back from Hilo one day in May. I had seen the trail on the National Park map several times, but had never considered hiking it. When I mentioned it to my partner, Charlie, he said he would consider it, but wanted to do some research. We are both engineers, so we tend to do lots of planning. When we mentioned it to our friend, Marc, he said that he was on board immediately!

Our first phone call with the backcountry ranger at the National Park really gave us some things to think about. This included the cold weather, altitude sickness, limited drinking water and lack of cell phone service.

We had done some long distance hiking and at some fairly high altitudes (11,000 feet or so), but this would be the hardest hike we would ever attempt. We got a prescription for Diomox for altitude sickness, but were told not to take it with aspirin. We bought Motrin for headaches. We also invested in some sleeping bags, emergency blankets, water purification cups and other gear, and then we watched the weather forecast.

We were not leaving the island until September, so there was no rush. We were planning on sleeping at the observatory parking lot the night before the hike to acclimate and do some stargazing, so we wanted to get two clear nights with a relatively small moon. All through June and July, the nights with the smallest moons had thunderstorms and even snow. Finally at the end of August, we got our chance.

Getting to the observatory was an amazing adventure in itself. The observatory parking lot is at 10,900 feet. The one lane road had a surprising number of cars on it, since the ranger told us we were the only ones staying at the cabin. We surmised that a fair number of tourists were driving up to the Mauna Loa Observatory to get a view, since the road to Mauna Kea had been closed for several months by protestors.

We got there just before sunset to set up our telescope. The parking lot is very small, but we got the last available parking spot. Most everyone was just there for the sunset, so the lot cleared out after dark. It was a beautiful sunset with Hualalai poking out of the clouds below us. The cold weather set in fast though. We brought an air mattress for the back of our Ford Expedition, but we were not able to get much sleep that night.

Shirtless man standing in lava fields
Marc Starting the Hike

B. Haney

We were up at dawn the next morning, since the ranger warned us that it could take up to 8 hours to reach the cabin. We needed to find it before the sun went down. We started hiking on the 4WD road, but were up on the lava bed pretty quickly. Marc decided that it was too warm already. Since Marc is 25 and we are in our mid-50’s, he was setting the pace for the entire hike. It was probably a good thing, since we needed a pace setter.

The 4WD road snakes back and forth twice like a switchback trail, while the hiking trail cuts across the 4WD road. The “road” is not what most would consider a road, though, and the hiking trail is incredibly steep and treacherous in many spots. Marc made it look easy, but Charlie and I needed a break every 15 minutes or so, and even more at higher altitude.
A hiker on a rocky trail through a lava field
The First Lava Bed

B. Haney

The 4WD road snakes back and forth twice like a switchback trail, while the hiking trail cuts across the 4WD road. The “road” is not what most would consider a road, though, and the hiking trail is incredibly steep and treacherous in many spots. Marc made it look easy, but Charlie and I needed a break every 15 minutes or so, and even more at higher altitude.

After two lava beds and a short walk on the 4WD road, we came to the flattest part of the trail, which was covered by iridescent pumice stones and ash. After several hours of hiking on hard jagged lava rock, it felt like we were walking on air. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. The colors of the pumice stones were amazing here and we took some time checking out the most brightly-colored ones.
Three hikers posing in front of a volcanic crater
Made It To The Crater

B. Haney

Finally, we made it to the edge of the crater! We met some Italian day hikers here that took this photo. We only saw a handful of day hikers on the entire trip, but none of them went to the cabin which is past this point. The cabin is located on the ridge just behind Marc’s left shoulder in the picture below. This is where the trail splits. We are taking the left fork which goes to the cabin. The right fork goes up to the summit. There had been some cell phone service up to this point, but it stopped at when we descended into the crater.
A volcanic crater on a sunny day
Lua Pōholo

M. Romano

The last 2.1 miles to the cabin were very grueling, since the trail goes down into the crater and then rises again after that. We had not counted on this extra elevation change when we planned the hike.

The crater was pleasantly smooth at first, but the trail from the North Pit to the cabin was uphill and very rough. The North Pit appeared to be almost bottomless. It looked there was a frozen lava waterfall on one side of it.
Three men standing in front of a small cabin
The Cabin

M. Romano

Once got up on the ridge, we got our first site of the cabin in the distance. It was a welcome sight. We lost sight of the cabin a few times after that, which made us wonder if we had imagined it the first time.

The cairns were also a little hard to find on this part of the hike, since there were lava formations that looked like cairns. For a few minutes at one point we weren’t certain we were still on the right trail. This was the one part of the hike where I was a little scared. We checked our downloaded AllTrails.com map, which confirmed that we were still on the cabin trail. That made me feel a little better.
The cabin was really rustic and reminded me of my old Boy Scout days. The water tank was full and we found a deck of playing cards. We tried to play 500 rummy, but there was some evidence of “cognitive impairment.” It felt like we had a few beers, but we hadn’t. It was all oxygen deprivation.

The view of the crater from the cabin is awesome and a little scary (Mauna Kea is in the background).
A large volcanic crater with a mountain visible in the distance
The Crater From The Cabin

M. Romano

Night sky photo of the Milky Way
The Milky Way

M. Romano

Marc captured some great photos for us. The sight of the Milky Way Galaxy over the crater rim was a highlight of the trip.

The night in the cabin was very cold. Our sleeping bags were supposed to be good down to 20 degrees, but we put some of the extra sleeping bags that were left in the cabin on top of us. We slept forever that night, so we were up for sunrise the next morning.
Sunrise over the silhouette of a cabin
Sunrise Over The Cabin

M. Romano

Frost across the floor of a volcanic crater
Morning Frost on the Crater from the Cabin

M. Romano

The crater floor was covered in frost in morning in late August. Steam rising from vents in the crater floor would turn to ice crystals and then fall back down. Otherworldly is about the only way to describe it.

The next morning we started early. We were excited to get back to the land of oxygen. Ice crystals clung to the prismatically colored lava rocks on the way down. Maybe the lack of oxygen made it extra surreal, but it was really something that you will not see every day.

While it took less time to go down that it did to go up, it was still exhausting. Even the part coming back across the crater floor seemed difficult.

Two hikers posing in a lava field
Two exhausted but happy hikers

M. Romano

I think we were operating on adrenaline for most of the way. I was cursing myself out for the last ¼ mile, even though we could see the weather observatory. My legs felt like wet noodles at the very end, but I think it was mostly a mental issue. Our last picture was at the 4WD road right before we headed into the last two lava beds.

I may never do something this crazy again, but it was a really special adventure. We were both really grateful to have Marc as our travel companion and to have had this once in a lifetime experience. Kudos to the back country rangers for helping us to plan a safe and amazing adventure.

Last updated: October 24, 2019

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