Backpacking Mauna Loa Day 1: Mauna Loa Trail to Red Hill Cabin | December 14, 2018
If you know us, you know that one of our long term goals is to hike the highest point of every state. Our high pointing adventures have been put on hold for over a year since moving to Hawaii, and we were excited to finally have a chance to conquer Hawaii’s high point, Mauna Kea. However, we knew we wanted to be smart about hiking it. We were coming from sea level on Oahu having only hiked up to 2000 feet recently; Mauna Kea is 13,796 feet above sea level. We knew we needed to spend some time acclimating to higher elevations to avoid altitude sickness.
Enter Mauna Loa: Mauna Loa is just a bit shorter than Mauna Kea at 13,678, but we saw it as a perfect way to acclimate because we could take several days to backpack it and sleep at higher elevations. It also has a longer, more gradual trail to the peak, while Mauna Kea is steeper and shorter.
But the more we looked into hiking Mauna Loa, the more excited we became. While not the highest peak, it is still an ‘ultra’ (a peak with >1500 meters of prominence) and the biggest volcano in the world. We also read trip reports about it, sharing that it isn’t a popular hike, so there seemed like a big chance that we could be alone on the hike. We decided we wanted to hike from the Mauna Loa lookout on the Mauna Loa Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are 2 cabins on this trail, so we planned to spend either 3 or 4 days backpacking the peak and staying in the cabins.
After leaving South Point, we drove to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. After stopping briefly in the visitor’s center, we went to the back country office to obtain permits [to learn about the permit process and back country hiking, visit the national park page here]. We hadn’t been able to reserve anything in advance, but weren’t too concerned about that because we were sure this trail wasn’t too popular. We chatted with the park ranger about the hike and checked the forecast and water tank levels. We still weren’t sure at this point whether we wanted to take 3 or 4 days on the mountain, so we got a permit for 4 days just to be safe.
As we were finishing up, he looked and noticed that the cabin would be full tonight, with 12 people already registered to hike. We were a little disappointed to hear that, but didn’t want to alter our plans since our trip was already pretty ambitious for the 6 days we had on the island. However, in hindsight we wish we would’ve asked if it was 12 individual people or several small groups, or one group of 12. As soon as we arrived at the trailhead, we saw the hiking group: a group of 12 college students. Oh boy!
They were finishing packing up, so we waited until they finished and set off on the hike, then began preparing ourselves. It was after 1 in the afternoon, but we only had to hike 7 miles to the first cabin for the night so we weren’t too worried. We just wanted there to be enough distance between the other group so we could hike up in peace.
In our giant backpacks, we brought around 5 liters of water and a filtration set (there are tanks of water at both cabins), and 3 bottles of Gatorade to drink. Food wise, we had 4 cans of soup, 2 packets of Ramen, 10 tortillas, peanut butter, 2 bags of pretzels, and 4 bananas. We had our mess kit and a can of sterno to cook ramen and soup (no campfires are allowed, but even if there were, there isn’t anything to burn up there). We had our sleeping bags and tent just in case, though we hoped we could sleep in the cabins to stay warmer and not have to set up/tear down. We also brought a small game and book, some flashlights, first aid kit, and sunscreen — very important on such an exposed hike. One thing we wish we would’ve had was chapstick.
Finally, we began our hike: 7 miles from the trailhead to Red Hill Cabin. We began our trek just below 7,000 feet and ended at 10,000 feet above sea level. The slope isn’t bad at all, just a slow and steady elevation gain for most of the way. While it isn’t that hard, we still took breaks to make sure we were hydrating and adjusting well to the change in elevation. The trail varies between a dirt path and walking on different types of lava rock. It was interesting to see how the color or type of rock could all change abruptly depending on which lava flow it came from. We started out with trees and plants which thinned out as we rose in elevation, and by the time we reached 10,000 there were hardly any living things in sight.
From where we began, we were already above the clouds and able to look down South behind us and see steam rising from Kilauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as other craters, and the big wide blue ocean.
Ahead of us, however, was what seemed like an endless slope. Because of the long, gradual elevation gain, we were hardly ever able to see more than half a mile ahead of us. It didn’t take long before this became more discouraging than exciting. No matter how far we walked, the view didn’t really change, and it never seemed like we were getting any closer. Every so often though, we would catch a glimpse of Mauna Loa in the distance…and no matter how close we got, it always looked so, so far away. Little did we know, this would become the story of our hike.
We finally got a glimpse of Red Hill ahead of us in the distance, and maybe an hour later we arrived just as the sun was setting. We were approaching the cabin when we got our first good look at Mauna Kea to the North, and our jaws dropped — it was lit up in purple light with a pastel sky around it. It didn’t matter that I had just walked 7 miles up to 10,000 feet — I dropped my backpack and ran to get a better look. We took some pictures and relished the beauty. This was truly perfect timing and a great reward for all our effort that afternoon.
Of course, we also met our new 12 neighbors that were also staying at the cabin. The cabin has 8 bunks with mattress pads, so clearly not everyone would get one, so we settled for sleeping on the large porch outside. While the wood floor wasn’t comfortable at all, it had walls blocking the wind and just being next to the warm cabin filled with people was enough to get us out of the cold. And I do mean cold — I have no idea what the actual temperatures were, but I am positive that they were the coldest that we had felt since at least Haleakala, and even colder — I don’t remember the last time we had experienced that! I suppose the elevation wasn’t the only thing we needed to acclimate to!