Backcountry hiking at Mauna Loa presents an extraordinary experience at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Mauna Loa is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world, and hiking its slopes offers a unique opportunity to explore the dramatic volcanic landscape. Standing at 13,681 feet (4,170 m) above sea level, Mauna Loa boasts a commanding presence in the natural beauty of Hawaiʻi.
The hike is challenging but rewarding, taking you through diverse ecosystems, from forests filled with native flora to the stark, otherworldly terrain of Mauna Loa. The summit is high altitude and the trail is over rough, jagged, and often loose lava rock. The trail is marked with cairns (stacked rocks) and can be very easy to lose in times of low visibility.
There are two main backcountry sites on Mauna Loa:
1. Puʻuʻulaʻula (Red Hill) Cabin via Mauna Loa Trail:
Access and Location: Puʻuʻulaʻula Cabin, also known as Red Hill Cabin, is situated along the Mauna Loa Trail. The trail begins from the top of Mauna Loa Road. This rustic cabin is nestled at 10,035 feet (3,059 m) offering a serene view of Mauna Loa.
Trail Length: 7.5 miles (12.1 km) with 3,373 feet (1028 m) of elevation gain from the top of Mauna Loa Road.
Amenities: The cabin provides basic amenities such as a sheltered space, sleeping quarters, a cooking area, and a pit toilet. Water is available at the cabin, but must be treated before drinking.
NOTE: Mauna Loa Summit Cabin is not accessible from Mauna Loa Trail due to trail damage from the 2022 Mauna Loa eruption.
2. Mauna Loa Summit Cabin via ʻĀinapō Trail:
Access and Location: Mauna Loa Summit Cabin is situated along the Mauna Loa Trail, reachable by the ʻĀinapō Trail and Kapāpala Ranch.
Two permits and gate access are required for this hike:
1. The National Park Service manages the Mauna Loa Cabin at 13,250 feet (4039 m). Permits cost $10 (plus the park entrance fee) and can include up to 12 people for as many as three nights.
2. The State of Hawaiʻi manages ʻĀinapō Trail and ʻĀinapō Cabin at Halewai (7,750 feet), where most hikers spend the night before heading to Mauna Loa Summit Cabin (13,250 feet). Overnight use of ʻĀinapō Cabin requires a state permit, the per-night fees are $30 for Hawaiʻi residents; $50 for non-residents. Visit the Hawaiʻi State Parks' Wiki Permits webpage for reservation information.
3. Kapāpala Ranch: ʻĀinapō Trailhead and ʻĀinapō Cabin at Halewai are accessed via the rough and bumpy eight-mile ʻĀinapō Road, an infrequently maintained 4WD road that passes through Kapāpala Ranch for 5.7 miles and continues another 2.3 miles through the Kapāpala Forest Reserve to the ʻĀinapō Trailhead. Limited parking is available. For access through Kapāpala Ranch, go to Forest Reserve Access (Kapāpalaranch.com) and submit the new online form.
Trail Length: This extremely grueling, rocky and steep 10.2-mile hike is not for everyone. From ʻĀinapō Trailhead it is a challenging 2.7-mile hike to ʻĀinapō Cabin at Halewai. From ʻĀinapō Cabin it is another difficult 7.5-mile hike to reach Mauna Loa Summit Cabin. Although some hikers have trekked up from Highway 11 to Mauna Loa Summit Cabin, this adds an additional eight miles on foot to the 10.2-mile hike and still requires cabin permits and gate access. Hikers are urged to be prepared and know their limits.
Amenities: Mauna Loa Summit Cabin provides basic amenities such as a sheltered space, sleeping quarters, a cooking area, a pit-toilet, and non-potable water. and a pit-toilet. Water is available at the cabin, but must be treated before drinking.
NOTE: Cabin permits and gate access through the ranch are required and a high-clearance 4WD is needed for ʻĀinapō Road.
Stays are limited to 3 consecutive nights per site. Backpackers to Mauna Loa should be adequately equipped, experienced in wilderness/high altitude trekking, and physically fit.
GPS coordinates for Mauna Loa Road Lookout Shelter: 19.49283, -155.38551, Pu‘uʻula‘ula - Red Hill Cabin: 19.53034, -155.46440, Mauna Loa Summit Cabin : 19.46647, -155.58201
All eight backcountry campsites (Ka‘aha, Halapē, Keauhou, ‘Āpua Point, Nāpau, Pepeiao Cabin, Red Hill Cabin and Mauna Loa Cabin) and all offsite/dispursed backcountry camping require a permit.See the Backcountry Hiking page for instructions on how to obtain your permit.
A total of 24 hikers are allowed per night at the Pu'u 'ula'ula (Red Hill). The cabin has 8 bunks with thin foam pads. A total of 28 hikers are allowed at the Mauna Loa summit cabin area. The summit cabin has 12 bunks with mattress pads. Cabins have attached water catchment tanks. Check on current water levels when obtaining your permit. Treat all water before drinking. Composting toilets are provided; please use them. Do not put trash in the pit toilets.
There is no drinking water at either the Mauna Loa Observatory or Mauna Loa Road trailheads. Both are accessible by one-lane paved roads. Neither has public telephones or public transportation. It takes about an hour to drive from the Kilauea Visitor Center via Mauna Loa Road to the trailhead, and two hours to drive to the Observatory trailhead via Saddle Road.
Be prepared for severe winter conditions, including blizzards, high winds, and whiteouts. Snow or driving rain are possible at any time of year. High altitude storms can occur without warning. Temperatures are below freezing at night all year round.
You will be hiking at high altitudes under rigorous conditions; altitude sickness is common. The only cure is to descend. Pace yourself, drink plenty of water. Pack extra clothing and your sleeping bag in plastic for waterproofness. Stay warm and dry; hypothermia (low body temperature) is a killer. Be prepared to treat injuries caused by falls on sharp, glassy lava.
SCUBA divers MUST wait at least 24 hours before ascending Mauna Loa to avoid getting the BENDS. This means that if you were diving less than 24 hours ago, you should not be hiking on Mauna Loa.
There are serious and potentially fatal consequences of hiking at high altitude. Mauna Loa IS HIGH ALTITUDE.
Children under 16 years of age, pregnant women, and individuals with severe health problems including, but not limited to, pulmonary and cardiac problems, high blood pressure, or a severe overweight condition SHOULD NOT HIKE on Mauna Loa without first consulting with their own personal physician.
Be familiar with the following symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). If you have had AMS, HACE, or HAPE before, you are very susceptible to getting it again -- check with your personal physician before hiking on Mauna Loa. The only appropriate treatment for altitude-related illnesses on Mauna Loa is evacuation to a lower elevation., preferably to sea level. If symptoms do not get better at sea level, the individual should be admitted to a hospital for observation and treatment.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): mild to severe headache (which responds to aspirin), nausea (and/or vomiting), lack of appetite, sleeplessness, malaise, altered muscular coordination (ataxia), altered mental state, dizziness, fainting, extreme shortness of breath, possible swelling in hands and face.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): headache, nausea (and/or vomiting) lack of appetite, dizziness, weakness and fatigue, increasing anxiety, unable to catch breath (even at rest), very rapid pulse, gurgling sounds in the lungs, very rapid respiration rate, dry cough at first then becoming wet (possibly pink), incoherence or hallucinations, blue coloration in lips and under finger nails.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): headache (which doesn't respond to aspirin), nausea (and/or vomiting), loss of balance (ataxia), loss of muscular coordination, altered mental state, decreased mental functioning, psychological withdrawal, disorientation, confusion, hallucinations, weakness or numbness on one side of the body, being unable to talk, being unable to make sense while talking, coma.
IF MORE THAN ONE OF THESE SYMPTOMS IS PRESENT, DO NOT WAIT - DESCEND IMMEDIATELY. IF SYMPTOMS PERSIST AFTER DESCENT TO SEA LEVEL, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION WITHOUT DELAY. THIS IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH!
The Mauna Loa Road traverses areas which contain very flammable grasses and brush. Open fires are prohibited.
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