| To the true summit of Mauna Loa
Summit Elevation: 13,677’
Route: Mauna Loa Observatory Trail
Total Round-Trip Distance: 12.8+ miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,500’ plus an estimated 300-400 feet of cumulative ups and downs (individually, they’re insignificant, but there are many of them)
When Jen and I climbed Mauna Kea in 2005, nearby Mauna Loa beckoned us to add her to our ever-growing list of mountains to climb. We put her off for years because the words “long” and “slog” always seemed to come up whenever we talked about climbing the volcano. In fact, “Mauna Loa” means “Long Mountain” in the Hawaiian language. It's an appropriate description, though somewhat understated, because Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on earth in terms of volume and surface area.
After touring Maui, Oahu and Kauai over the last six years, we finally made it back to the Big Island for Mauna Loa.
As our jet approached Kailua-Kona for a landing, we could see both of the Big Island’s 13ers. Mauna Kea on the left and Mauna Loa on the right:
Originally, Jen and I wanted to climb the mountain via the Mauna Loa Trail or the Ainapo Trail, but because they’re both so long, either one would have required camping gear (increasing our luggage weight) and an extra day or two (which would have cut into our vacation time), plus additional acclimatization time. So we opted to do a day climb via the shorter, albeit still long, Observatory Trail.
The Observatory Trail gains less than 3,000 feet in total, but it’s almost 13 miles long and it’s mercilessly rough and rocky.
Being the sea level dwellers that we are now, the high altitude was our biggest challenge. We made a feeble effort to acclimatize by spending our first two nights on the island in Volcano Village, which is at a humble 4,000 feet in elevation – just 1,000 feet lower than our old Colorado home, but a whopping 4,000 feet higher than our new home in Washington state. Acclimating for just 30 hours at a mere 4,000 feet wasn’t ideal, but we took what we could get.
With a 6 a.m. departure from Volcano Village, we didn’t make it to the Observatory trailhead until 9 a.m. Filling up with gas, eating breakfast and driving to the Mauna Loa Observatory Road took up two of those hours, and then the long and sinuous road up to the Observatory ate up the remaining hour. That 17.4-mile-long (each way), single-lane road, by the way, was nice and paved in the beginning, but it got nastier and nastier farther up. At times I had to carefully navigate our rental car around kiddie-pool-sized potholes. On the upside, we didn’t come across any other cars (going up or down) and we broke above the rainy clouds about halfway up.
One stretch of the long and lonely road to the Mauna Loa Observatory trailhead:
Mauna Kea from the upper portion of the road to the Mauna Loa Observatory trailhead:
Another road shot:
View from the trailhead parking area (road to the left goes to the Observatory; road that goes to the right is the trail):
At 9 a.m. we finally started up the trail, which was actually a rough road for the first 0.4 miles (and if anyone cares to split hairs, my GPS actually read .45, which would make the round-trip hike 12.9 miles).
By the way, the sign at the trailhead, adjacent to the public parking area, is incorrect. In the following picture, the top image is of the trailhead sign across the road from the parking area, and the bottom image is of the sign 0.4 miles down the road, where the trail leaves the road and starts up the lava. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone because, according to the signs, we weren’t making any progress.
Here are a few shots of the “trail” as it starts up the broad slope:
Cairns were relatively easy to find and follow, but I tracked our route with my GPS just in case. When the mountain is shrouded in clouds, I imagine it would be easy to lose your way. And if you strayed just a few degrees off track during your descent, you would end up many miles away from the trailhead farther down. That is, as long as you didn’t fall into a collapsing lava tube first.
In general, I wasn’t expecting a very big wow factor from this hike. After all, it’s just a huge, lifeless lava field, right? But it was actually much more interesting than I anticipated, and it rewarded us with many surprises along the way.
The multi-colored lava we came across, for example, was fascinating. I never knew lava rock came in so many different colors.
This pink lava rock, which was about the size and weight of a Nerf football, was particularly interesting:
And this was the first blue-colored lava I have ever seen (for size reference, boots are in some photos):
In one section of trail, we came across this vein of red, pink and orange lava:
We also had to cross quite a few lava fissures, which were eerily similar to crevasses.
These three fissures were extraordinarily colorful, and their textures were just as varied as their colors:
When we finally reached the North Pit, which is where many people turn around, we still had 2.6 miles of inhospitable terrain to get to the true summit (the red arrow is a very rough approximation of the true summit):
This was when the climb became mentally challenging. It would have been so easy to turn around, especially with the thought of post-hike beers swirling in my mind.
We only had about 500 more feet of elevation to gain, but the constant little ups and downs across the barren landscape made it seem like much more.
Normally, walking on this uneven, cocoa-colored lava wouldn’t be much of an issue. But after walking on it for many miles, while carefully stepping to keep from twisting an ankle, it really wore us down:
Some science/research equipment near the summit rim:
View from the summit rim, looking into the Mokuʻāweoweo summit crater/caldera (where lava flowed in the ’80s), but still nowhere near the true summit:
When we got to what we thought was the actual summit, which had a large cairn perched at the edge of the precipitous, we both stopped in relief. But then we could see the ridge continuing up and on into the distance, and we both knew we weren’t there yet.
I imagine many true-summit seekers are fooled by this point on the ridge. And for a brief moment, my oxygen-deprived mind even tried to convince me that we had arrived at the highest point on the mountain.
Defeated and exhausted, I think we both briefly considered throwing in the towel and heading back down. But before we could change our minds, we pushed on toward the true summit, which was still frustratingly far off in the distance. I think Jen said something like, “Come on, let’s bang this shit out.”
So we did. And it wasn’t long before we gained the true summit (at 12:30 p.m.).
Curiously, the point where we had just hiked from looked a bit higher than the true summit, but it was an optical illusion. My GPS assured us that we were roughly 15 feet higher, and indeed on the highest point.
The large summit cairn was adorned with a variety of items, most of which were offerings to Pele. We had nothing to give her but our thanks for allowing us to climb to the top.
View of the ridge to our northeast (where we came from):
Summit shot; two photos stitched together (Jen took mine and I took hers):
Did I mention that we didn’t see any other hikers all day long? It was odd yet very peaceful.
Here’s a zoomed-in shot of the cabin on the other side of the caldera, which is about 2 air miles away from the true summit:
While we were elated to gain the summit, the thought of hiking back down across that sea of lava wasn’t so exciting. But it had to be done, and because we wanted to leave ourselves enough time to hike down and then drive the Saddle Road back across the island before dark, we didn’t have any time to waste.
On the way down we saw more dazzling lava rock. The iridescent lava was most interesting, but it was hard to capture in photographs.
Here's one silver-colored lava rock I found:
I really wanted to collect samples of all the different colors of lava rock we came across, but I didn’t because I’ve read that Pele, the ancient Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, isn’t fond of that practice. It’s a common belief that taking lava rock (or sand) from Hawaii results in a curse of bad luck, and the only way to break the curse is to return the lava rock back to the island (which many people do every year). I also wanted others to be able to enjoy the rocks. God knows they’ll need something interesting to look at on this painfully long slog.
Before you take any lava rock home yourself, read this:
Here’s another shot of some burgundy, pink, orange and red lava beside the trail:
This was one of the only stretches of flat trail on the entire hike:
Some natural shelters:
When we could finally see the Mauna Loa Observatory buildings, we still had a good 45 minutes to go:
At 3:45 p.m. we finally made it back to our rental car. We still hadn’t seen another person or car all day.
Overall, Mauna Loa was a mentally and physically draining hike that hammered our feet, gave us altitude-induced headaches and wrenched our backs with all the core work needed on the rocky and uneven trail. It’s also one of those climbs where you stay high in elevation for a long period of time (we were above 13,000 feet for many hours and above 11,000 feet for almost seven hours, which is much longer than many 14er climbs in Colorado). But it was still much more rewarding than I expected, and for that reason I think it’s an underrated mountain. Especially when compared to Mauna Kea, which seems to get all the attention because it's a little over 100 feet taller.
Some additional photos here …
One of the many potholes on the upper portion of the road:
Spooky roadside lava tube, which seemed to be pulling the road’s shoulder into it:
A couple maps for reference:
Display at the Jaggar Museum near the Kilauea caldera:
Lava glow on Kilauea, viewed from Jaggar Museum at sunset:
View from the northwest coast of the Big Island … Left to right: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai:
Humpy’s in Kona, a must-stop for beer lovers:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):