Mauna Kea from the town of Waimea. Cactus in Hawaii???
As part of our trip to Hawaii's Big Island, we decided to hike Mauna Kea. Hawaii doesn't seem to have a large hiking or climbing community, and we got several very exasperated responses when we told people about our plans. I suppose it's mostly the altitude that freaks people out, since most of the population of the island lives close to sea level. Coming from Colorado, we were pretty confident that it would be easy for us. Several locals told us that thunderstorms were very rare, so we decided to get a late morning start (for a change) to take advantage of this.
Walking on the moon
After leaving our hotel at sea level, we drove through Hilo to "Saddle Road," the road that splits Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. We soon found ourselves at 9,000 feet at the Visitor's Center for Mauna Kea at about 9:30.
After checking in with the Visitor's Center folks and filling out some forms, we started out on the Humu'ula Trail to the summit. By most standards, the trail is physically arduous, but technically very easy. It's a 15 mile round trip to the summit with about 4,600 feet of gain. It's not a major undertaking for someone who climbs a lot at altitude, but I can definitely see why people from sea level have such a hard time with this hike.
The cloud cover for the day stayed at about 6,000 feet, so we climbed far above the clouds all day. That was a special treat for me - I've never seen anything like it. Actually, it was pouring rain in Hilo, and we were hiking in sunny, cool conditions up high. We lucked out on a wonderful day.
As we climbed the long trail, small shrubs gave way to a moon-like landscape. It's easy to see why the Apollo astronauts trained here. The trail was very easy to follow, and the volcanic dust was really easy on the joints. The views of Mauna Loa were stunning. There were only brief sections that actually required you to walk over the brittle a'a (volcanic rock). About 5 miles into the hike, a short detour took us to Lake Wai'au, the third-highest lake in the US, and the only tropical lake in the world fed by permafrost. At the six mile mark, we reached the end of the Humu'ula Trail, and met the road that goes to the summit, where some of the observatories are located. Unfortunately, the road is the only way up from here. There are some slopes to climb, but they are extremely loose, and hikers would surely cause undue erosion. Reaching the road was a real disappointment - we had clmbed in total solitude until then.
After walking the road for about a mile, we saw the summit. We left the road on a faint use trail that led to the summit proper, and met about 15 tourists there who had drove to the end of the road and walked the few hundred feet to the actual summit. Seeing them gasping for air was actually kind of amusing. The tourists quickly left, and we had the summit to oursleves for a while to take in the astonishing views. (see below)
The descent took us a long time, stopping for several photos, and we wound up back at the Visitor's Center at about 4:00pm. All in all, hiking Mauna Kea was a really fantastic experience. The volcanic landscape is truly astonishing, and the hike to the top is a great workout. Where else can you dip your toes in the ocean and climb to nearly 14,000 feet in a few hours?
Several photos from the trip:
Volcanic Cinder Cones far above the ocean and clouds.
The highest conch shell in the world. This display is for the Goddess Pele.
Looking north from the summit.
Another old Cinder Cone.
The actual summit from just off the road.