Hike Journal - Mauna Loa Trail to Red Hill Cabin
By Norrie and Jeremiah Judd, January 2-3, 2006
..........."Ohhhh, What We Do For LOVE" .......... should be the title of this journal of the hike my son Jeremiah and I did to Pu`u `Ula`ula (Red Hill) on Mauna Loa.
My seventeen year old son, Jeremiah wanted to hike to Red Hill during Christmas vacation of his senior year in high school. So, I gladly went with him. (Maybe I should mention here that I am more than 3 times Jeremiah's age, haven't hiked this trail in many years, and have been stuck behind a computer for ages .... poor thing ..... not exactly the picture of fitness .... hahaha! Jeremiah, on the other hand, has been lifting weights and running as part of his fitness training in preparation for going into the Marines in June). Wanting my son to have a memorable experience, we trotted off on our overnight adventure. Ahhh .... rare and treasured moments with my teenaged son.
It has been many years since I last hiked to Red Hill and over 5 years since I dayhiked the 3.3 miles up the trail to the "last tree". In fact, the last time I was at the "last tree" was with my older son Jonathan, on his senior year hike before he went into the Air Force.
The Mauna Loa trailhead is in a forested area with the sights and sounds of native birds fluttering about (`i`iwi, `apapane, `amakihi, and `elepaio). There is a small lookout shelter and a pit toilet at the turn-around at the end of Mauna Loa Road. We headed out from this trailhead sometime after sunrise, perhaps 7:15a.m. We had hoped to be on the trail much earlier, as the clear skies would mean scorching sun higher up on the mountain. But, we took a little while to get organized, take pictures, and acclimate to the elevation (6,662' or 2,031m). Quickly leaving the forest and it's shade, the trail winds uphill where smaller bushes of native `ohelo, pukiawe, leponene, kupaoa, and `a`ali`i prevail. It is much like stair-stepping most of the way until you reach the "last tree", 3.3 miles up the trail and just past the 8,000' elevation marker. I was very sad to see that the beautiful "last tree" had died, yet its branches still provided shade for us and a perch for birds. It is a great destination for a day hike; a place to enjoy a picnic and the view. On a clear day, you can see Kilauea Caldera, Pu`u `O`o venting its fumes, and quite a bit of the Puna side of the island. Cell phone coverage was good because the cell tower for our carrier was on Kulani Cone, a cindercone on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa.
After 10 a.m., a slight breeze started blowing out of the east/southeast. Fortunately, it was blowing at our backs. The trail leads upslope with gradually less and less vegetation although, the vegetation becomes more alpine-like as you go higher. Hikers really have to appreciate the incredibly beautiful lava landscape beyond the "last tree". After the 8,450' elevation, the trail lies on ancient (900+ year old) lava which is embedded with lots of green olivine crystals. In some places, you can even see greensand from the worn crystals.
The trail is on both `a`a and pahoehoe and traverses areas that look like lava channels or collapsed giant lava tubes. At elevation 8,830', there is a large trench to the left of the trail, a collapsed roof of a lava tube - you can even see smaller tubes that fed into the large one. At the 8,920' elevation (4.9 miles on the trail), you get your first glimpse of Red Hill, still over 2 miles away. To the right of Red Hill are vents from the 1984 eruption. These vents lie along the rift zone of Mauna Loa.
The 9,000' elevation sign is 5.2 miles from the trailhead and 2.3 miles from the cabin (according to Lisa Petersen's guide to hiking Mauna Loa). You can also get a glimpse of Red Hill from here. There's an acretionary ball to the right and the tip of Red Hill is visible on the left. Also, the photos on this page were not altered to change the colors ...... the sky was REALLY that blue and Red Hill is really very red ........... the contrast was spectacular.
Ok ............ after the 9,000' elevation sign, things got a bit harder for me. Red Hill looked sooo close ........ yet, the trail went on and on. Lots of hills and I thought that surely Red Hill would be just beyond the next hill ..... only to find more great hills to climb ....... like giant waves on an ocean ....... you can't see beyond them but more keep coming .......... hmmmm .... it's a great hike ......... but, not a short or easy one for the old mom. I felt bad for my son 'cause he would have been at the cabin hours earlier ......... He never complained ...... and I just plodded on ...... stopping often to keep my heart from racing ........... but, I must say that it was good to have the blood circulating!
6 miles into the hike at 9,300' elevation, the trail leaves the olivine rich lava. At 7 miles on the trail, 9760' elevation, the trail crosses onto the red Pu`u `Ula`ula lavas 1/2 mile below the hill. At some point in here, you pass through the second gate on this trail. (Make sure you close the gates behind you as the fencing was put up to keep the goats and sheep out of the park, and to protect native plants such as the silverswords). You then have to hike up the cinder cone (the trail is very visible) .......... the trail winds up on the left side of the cone and into the bowl where the cabin is located ........ whew ........ time to take off my boots and break out the rubber slippers!
The cabin was neat and snug. We knew we were going to be the only ones there for the night so, we dropped our backpacks, chose our bunks, and went outside to explore. The views from Red Hill were incredible! Mauna Kea was clearly visible and so beautiful in the clear air above the clouds.
Ohhhh the SUNSET! The whole process was spectacular. The sky got so green with varying degrees of deep colors. And after sunset, the STARS ...... make sure you ask the rangers at the visitor center for a current star chart. There are more stars than grains of sand!
I was VERY low key that night ..... my feet were hurting from my new boots and I wanted to give them a good rest. We dined on MREs that my son packed up the hill. The meals had heat packs and all the gizmos (tobasco, gum, matches, etc.)......... amazing! I think I had Thai Chicken with wild rice ....... wow ..... it was very good. It was sooo cold outside but nice and snug inside. I brought a candle lantern that I let burn all night, producing a soft glow. I could see Mauna Kea out the window from in my bunk. My sleeping bag was a good 0 degree one. I wore warm socks and fleece over my polypro pants and shirt. In the middle of the night, I had to start taking the layers off ..... it was a very comfortable temperature inside. This was a far cry from my last overnight at this cabin. Prior to being repaired, the wind would howl through the cracks in the walls and it was as cold inside as outside. But, all is well now.
In the morning, we cleaned the cabin, swept the front porch and outhouse floor, and checked the water level in the watertank. We also packed up all the food that people left behind in the cabin. PLEASE ...... pack out all your food and garbage ......... let me tell you that no one will eat anything you leave behind and the rangers shouldn't have to haul it out for you ...... they have to hike in and out just like you do - they don't fly in. Food left behind just encourages rodents and insects. Also, please use the little candles in small metal cups ....... using regular candles leaves wax dribbles all over and could cause a fire. Please DO write in the hikers log in the cabin ..... it makes for good reading at night and each log book, when filled, is kept in the park archives as a historical record.
The trek down the hill was even more of an ordeal than going up. As soon as I started downhill, I realized that my knees were hurting - even though I had done some stretches before starting down and hadn't felt any pain the day before. My new boots also fell apart on the way down and perhaps this was the root of my problem. By the time we reached the "last tree", my son insisted on carrying my backpack. I told him we could just stash my backpack somewhere and I'd come back for it another day, but, he insisted ........... so, I took his trekking pole and he carried my backpack over his head ....... yikes!
Those last 3 miles on the trail took forever. The trail was alot more rugged than I remembered when we went up. There were some sections near the bottom where Jeremiah and I wondered if we had been paying attention and perhaps had taken a wrong turn. It's a good thing Jeremiah had his gps and we were familiar with the trail. Vegetation obscures some of the trail markers although, the trail itself is clearly worn, we just weren't sure if we had gotten off on a side trail. We were very happy to reach the gate and it was just a short hike beyond to the trailhead and our car. Yes ... we made it back and didn't need to call for help ........... I am sooo thankful that everything worked out ok and Jeremiah was fine. Can you believe this: When we reached the car, Jeremiah said: "That was a good workout, mom!" Too Amazing!
Last updated: March 28, 2017