TR-Mauna Loa, HI (13677’)
Highpoint of Hawaii Volcanoes N.P.
12.6 miles RT, 2680’ gain
via Observatory trail
After a day of sightseeing on the Big Island, it was time to climb the largest volcano in the world, Mauna Loa. Its higher and more popular neighbor, Mauna Kea, overshadows Mauna Loa. From a distance it does not look very impressive as it looks like one big hill from Hilo, but when one is on the crater rim of this massive volcano, it is easy to see why this volcano has been the building block of the Big Island. From its’ base on the ocean floor, Mauna Loa rises over 33000’. Only Mauna Kea rises higher from its’ base. The Kilauea crater on the mountain’s lower slopes has had active lava flows for many years. The two most popular ways of climbing Mauna Loa is either via a 38 mile backpack following the northeast rift or a day hike from the weather station on the northwest side of the mountain at 11100’. I choose the day hike and hoped that this was not the day Mauna Loa woke from her slumber.
Jenni and I stayed at the Volcano House cabins in Volcanoes N.P., which meant that we had a 2 hr drive to get to the trailhead on the other side on Mauna Loa. We missed our alarm and didn’t leave until around 8am, heading back to Hilo to catch the Saddle Road. We caught the narrow road leading up to the weather station just east of the turnoff for Mauna Kea. This road has not been maintained in recent years, so the 19-mile drive through lava fields took nearly an hour. Jenni dropped me off and headed for Hilo to catchup on laundry, and I headed out onto the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa at a late start of 9:53. I followed the road southwest for about ¼ mile, then a sign pointed the way to the summit, some 6 miles distant. This trail is well marked by cairns and is easy to follow with good visibility. The lava rock outcrops are solid for the most part, so I made good time in terms of distance but not elevation gain. Your sense of distance is distorted on this huge expanse of volcanic rock as everything is one color. I just looked for cairns along the horizon, which guided me to the intersection with the longer trail coming from the south slope at the base of the impressive crater rim.
At this point I was already within 600’ vertical of the summit but there was still 2.8 miles to cover! The trail then winds around the western rim and has many ups and downs along the way. As I approached the false summit, I met up with a hiker named Robert who was heading back down. He was not sure if he had been on the true summit or not, so he continued up with me since I had a waypoint in my GPS. This I believe was his third time on the mountain, but things looked different. After about 10 minutes we topped out on the true summit at 1:15, which was marked by a huge cairn and a benchmark at the edge of the crater rim. The huge expanse of this crater was difficult to comprehend, the width of which had to be at least 3 miles. The drop down to the crater floor was an impressive 600 ft. Clouds obscured Mauna Kea, but we could see off to the west to what must have been Haleakala in Maui. With such a late summit, we were concerned with some clouds that were moving up the mountain, but they never materialized. Robert decided to head down a little sooner than I was ready, but he waited up for me so we could hike down together. I left the summit after an extended stay at 2:04.
I met up with Robert again about 2 miles down the trail and we hiked out from there, chatting about our various CO mountain experiences. It turns our Robert has done 50 14’ers even though he is from NY! We made good time back down to the weather station, where Jenni was waiting for me upon our arrival at 4:37. Mauna Loa is indeed an inspiring yet desolate place to be, and I was privileged to have the opportunity to walk her flanks on a fine day.
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