Trip dates: July 20-22, 2019
Caltopo map here: https://caltopo.com/m/0H9C
I'd procrastinated all summer about making a plan for after my work conference on the big island of Hawaii (preceding trip report here). When I booked my plane ticket, I didn't know what I'd get into but I was sure I could fill up 5 days.
I knew there was a big National Park on the same island as the conference, but I honestly couldn't ever seem to remember if it was Haleakala NP or Volcano NP. I'd seen pictures on the internet somewhat lush landscapes and people in traditional backpacks. Surely that's where I was going, right? I'd just figure it out "on the fly".
It turned out to be Volcano NP. The first thing I noticed was that Google searches for "Volcano National Park backpacking" were surprisingly useless. I noticed that the population density for the big island is low, so I figured it's just a statistics thing--there's not enough people for backpacking to be popular. There didn't seem to be a lot of mapping resources available either. My favorite USFS 2016 layer in Caltopo was blank, and the USGS maps, the most recent of which were decades old.
This should have been a clue...
In the end, there are just not that many opportunities for backpacking in Volcano NP. This is mostly due to the fact that water is in general very rare for longer itineraries. (There are some backcountry shelters on the eastern coast and I think a few may even have water tanks). The park is just big enough that a longer trip there are plausibly 1-2 day long stretches (20-30 miles) where you'd have no fresh water.
In the end I settled on a hike up Mauna Loa. A friend had told me about a couple cabins including one at the summit (cabin elevation 13,250') that had big rain barrels you could collect water from. I never walked up a volcano so this seemed pretty fun.
I wanted to start from the lower trailhead (Mauna Loa Road Lookout Shelter). My first thought was to break it up over two days. On the first day I'd hike to summit and then back around the caldera to the summit cabin (adds 5.4 miles!). The ascent and descent numbers for these two days were intimidating:
Day 1: 22.8 mi, + 7322', -824'
Day 2: 17.45 mi, +203', -6727'.
I've never done a hike as hard as the numbers for Day 1 suggested. I've some days around 20 miles and +/- 6500' but I''d never had a >+7000' day. But maybe I'd be fine? The slopes were gentle so there shouldn't be any hellaciously steep climbs. And I only had to do 824 feet of descent that day. How hard could that be? Honestly I'd never just had only ascent or descent in a day. Maybe my knees would be fine?
Normally for my trips in the Rockies, I can be flippant with this part of the plan. If I overdo it, it won't be life-threatening-- if I'm gassed and that last pass just feels like too much I could just stop. I'd almost surely find easy water, and I always have a little bit of extra food, so no big deal. Mauna Loa was different. If I got humbled again I'd be a little screwed. There was no water to be found anywhere except the rain barrels at the two cabins.
This was annoying because it would still mean the days had to ultimately be split up in sort of stupid ways because of the fixed location of the cabins. In principle I could have collected enough water at the first cabin for the next 1.5 days and camped somewhere in the middle somewhere. But my "volcano camping" skills were pretty weak. It would be 100% covered in rocky lava and it would be impossible to drive stakes in the ground. I couldn't even guarantee there would be loose lava (ie: large rocks) that I could tie the guylines to. I only had a pyramid tarp with me but since it's not free-standing it would be useless without tight guylines. It sure seemed like a shit-fest.
Ultimately I decided on a 3 day plan, breaking ascent into 2 days and leaving 1 day for the descent.
Day 1: (Mauna Loa Road Lookout Shelter to Red Hill Cabin): 6.8 mi, +3445', -95'.
Day 2: (Red Hill Cabin to Mauna Loa Summit to Summit Cabin): 16 mi, +3887', -729'
Day 3: (Summit cabin to Mauna Loa Road Lookout Shelter): 17.45mi, 17.45 mi, +203', -6727'.
The next thing that worried me was that I really had no idea what weather I should expect. I know nothing about small (~70 miles across) island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Would there be terrible storms? How cold would it get at night? Would it be sunny or covered in clouds? Cab drivers had told me the weather in different regions of the island was wildly varying. The previous week I'd been on the western coast which was really hot, sunny and dry but the northern coast was supposed to be a rainforest. I hadn't found anyone who lived there who'd been up Mauna Loa. (It seems that although rain is likely, storms aren't as terrifying as they can be above 13,000' in Colorado).
Then I thought about sun exposure and the UV index. Hawaii is much closer to the equator which means it gets stronger UV radiation from the sun than a similar elevation at a much higher or lower latitude. This would be the worst of both worlds. High elevations like in Colorado but much closer to the equator. My skin is pretty fair and I took extra precautions to keep from baking into oblivion (sun hoody, sunscreen every hour). Fortunately, Day 2 was cloudy/rainy for the second half and Day 3 was rainy the whole day so I did well in terms of sun exposure. I seriously considered bringing an extra pair of sunglasses in case I broke or lost them.
I picked up my permit and grabbed lunch at the lodge hotel. My pizza was pretty lousy but I knew I needed the calories.
When I got to the TH no one else was there. It's a small parking lot with room for 3-4 cars. For solitude, this was very promising. I hadn't exactly packed for the trip but I had everything with me. I dumped out all of my stuff on the table and began to choose what I would and wouldn't need.
Not taken: inflatable sleeping pad, pyramid tarp, stakes
I think that was it.
I draped an emergency blanket over the mattress for hygiene reasons under my quilt. I planned for temperatures below 30F at night.
Around this time a pair of older women showed up to have lunch. One of them was very maternal and started offering me things in her car to take with me in case I forgot something. It was sweet. She was also concerned about the lack of vegetable content in my diet...
I made it to the Red Hill Cabin just as the sun was setting. I think these views were among the best of the trip.
Accomodations at both cabins were spartan in an absolute sense, but were downright luxurious to a minimalist backpacker. There are about 12 bunks with mattresses. There are also emergency sleeping bags and propane canisters and burners. The NPS rangers don't tell you about either of these since they want you to be prepared and (I assume) they don't vouch for how much fuel is still left.
The bright red lava was possibly my favorite part of the trip. I'd just never seen anything like it.
Mauna Loa was a unique mountain environment for me. Usually, even far above tree line in Colorado, you'll find abundant organic life: grassy tundra, wildflowers, marmots, mountain goats, elk and birds. Above about 8500' signs of organic life vanish entirely. Of course, leave no trace principles are especially important because there is no other organic material around to aid in decomposition.
Between the summit of Mauna Loa and the Mauna Loa cabin, I got hammered by rain and then freezing rain. The camera did't come out during this section.
"Stars like this could make you religious"
The best night sky I'd ever seen before this trip was in Wyoming's Wind River Range the night before the total solar eclipse of 2017. There was no moon that night as the Eclipse would be in late morning the next day. I had woken up to pee about 3am and even without my glasses (my eyes are pretty bad) I could see the Milky Way clearly. It was amazing.
Well it turns out that being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on top of a mountain at 13,200', above the most of the moisture is vastly superior. About an hour after sunset, the night sky already looked better than it did in Wyoming (I of course put my glasses on later that night in Wyoming).
My note in the summit register was "Stars like this could make you religious".
If I did this again I'd take a foam pad to lie out under the stars at night. The glassy, volcanic rocks are so sharp that I thought I'd destroy my inflatable pad.
Day 3 was a fairly straightforward hike back down to the TH in a single go. I of course stopped at the Red Hill Cabin to stock up on water. It rained and misted on me the entire day.
I've never appreciated cairns more than I did on this hike. Usually I feel these are a lousy, scenery destroying crutch. Being on a volcano with no distinguishing features (natural handrails) made it very easy to get off the trail. In the section between Red Hill Cabin and the Summit there are natural pinnacles that look like large cairns.
The area below is marked "Beauty" in the caltopo map.
This "phone booth" was neat.
This was one of the most bizarre and beautiful experiences of my life. I don't know of too many other opportunities to hike up an active volcano. Highly recommended.
That being said, a caution is in order. Leaving aside the: