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Hike Mauna Loa Summit

While Mauna Kea tends to get all the headlines and notoriety as the tallest and most observatory riddled mountain in Hawaii (and the world), its sister peak across the valley should not be overlooked.  Mauna Loa is a scant 117′ shorter, but because of its long, gently sloping sides, is deceptive in its appearance.

Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa

And, while Mauna Kea sports more observatories than any single location in the world, Mauna Loa hosts only two.  A large portion of Mauna Loa is included within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which maintains two cabins available for use by hikers for up to 3-days.  Its on a first-come, first-served basis and you must pick up your free permits from the Park Headquarters no earlier than the day before.

A trail-head begins at the Mauna Loa Lookout on the southern flanks of the mountain at the 6,662′ point, less than 20 miles from the Park Headquarters.  From there, its a 7.5 mile hike to reach the Pu’u’ula’ula (Red Hill) Cabin at the 10,035′ mark.  It may not sound very far, but you should allow 7-8 hours to reach it.  Its a good place to spend the night acclimating yourself to the elevation and thereby lowering your risk of suffering from Accute Mountain Sickness, aka altitude sickness.

The second leg of the hike takes you 9.5 miles away to the aptly named, Mauna Loa Cabin.  You will have climbed 3215′ in elevation over that nine-and-a-half-mile and probably taken upwards of 11-hours doing so.  Remember, its a fairly challenging incline, add to that the fact you’re doing it at an elevation of 2 miles up while carrying your camping gear and food, and you can see why you won’t be setting any land speed records.

And, while the hike back should be easier since its all down-hill, it won’t be much faster as the elevation and loose footing on the lava rocks will not allow you to safely travel much faster.  Take your time and arrive back safely.  As you can see, if you’re going to make this outing, you should allow a minimum of 4-days/3-nights.  It is not for the faint of heart or for those not in good physical condition.

Here is a pdf formatted map of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Alternatively, for those not quite up to a multi-day hiking/camping adventure, you could drive around to the other side of Mauna Loa along the Saddle Road that takes you up between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.  The Mauna Loa Observatory Road allows you to reach the 11,150′ mark in relative comfort and in just a few hours from either Kailua-Kona or Hilo.

You can then make the much shorter hike from the observatory to the Mauna Loa Cabin, however, you may want to allow additional time en-route to allow your body to adjust to the altitude rather than trying to go from sea-level to 13,000′ in a few short hours.   Remember, Accute Mountain Sickness, is a very real risk and can have serious consequences if ignored.

Here is a hiker’s journal from 2006 describing one hiker’s experiences along this alternative trek.  Included in his journal are some very nice pics of what you can expect to see.

A few precautionary notes should be made here.  First of all, even if you’re thinking of taking this on in the middle of summer, dress warm.  Hypothermia is a very real threat!  Temperatures on the top of Mauna Loa regularly dip into the 30’s and 40’sF, even during the summer.  During the winter, it is not unreasonable to expect snow.  Add to that the very real possibility of winds in the 25+ mph range and you should start to get the picture.

Take as much water as you can carry, wear protective boots…not just for the support, but also to protect you from the jagged edges of a’a lava rocks that abound.  Rain gear is also a must have…nothing worse than cold AND wet!

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