Topographical Map of the Big Island
The Big Island of Hawaii is punctuated by two mammoth volcanoes shooting up out of the ocean and piercing through the clouds.
The taller of the two, Mauna Kea, stands 13,796 feet above sea level. The hike to the summit is known for its precariously steep slopes of loose gravel and the summit itself is covered in astronomical observatories (as opposed to, you know, peaceful natural wonderment), but because it is the highest peak in the state, Brent and I came prepared to make the ascent.
The second volcano, Mauna Loa, reaches a mere 13,680 feet above sea level. The largest volcano in the world, this one is shaped like a shield, covered by a vast expanse of lava rock with no real discernible summit.
Initially, my dad was contemplating joining us for the High Point hike, but after researching the two mountains, the three of us decided to tackle Mauna Loa together instead, eager to take advantage of its remote surroundings and unique terrain.
We awoke at 4:00 AM on Sunday morning and began the nearly-three-hour drive to the trailhead, sitting adjacent to the volcano’s observatory at roughly 11,000 feet. Ascending from sea level to that altitude was worrisome, and we’d all prepared ourselves for the possibility of shortness of breath, rapid pulse rates, and headaches brought on by low-grade cranial inflammation.
All part of the experience, right?
We pulled up just as the sun rose above the horizon and set off for the lip of the crater, sitting a mere 3.8 miles and 2,200 feet above.
The view of Mauna Kea from the trailhead of Mauna Loa
The route was marked by a series of sturdy rock cairns, but there was no defined trail to speak of.
Instead, we spent the next several hours traversing fields of largely unadulterated lava flow.
We were completely alone. There were no plants, no animals, not even an insect to speak of as we made our way up. It was, we all imagined, a bit like what walking on the moon must feel like.
Shortly before we reached the crater, we passed two hikers who were on their way down. They had summited the night before and slept in a cabin near the tip. They warned us about the rocky trail that circumnavigates the rim and leads to the true summit, 500 feet above the mouth of the crater, some 2.5 miles to the west.
We continued on, paused briefly at what may be the only open-air pit toilet that dumps its waste into a lava tube, and finally, three and a half hours after we began, we reached the top.
Not to worry - no pit toilets were used in the taking of these photos
We decided to keep moving toward the summit and reevaluate as we went. The trek up had been grueling and the terrain prevented any semblance of fast travel. We had to get back to Kona by evening to return the rental car, and the clouds were beginning to roll in.
We hiked for another 45 minutes and covered only a mile. The “trail” was a field of ankle-biting lava rock and my dad, still recovering from a deep muscle tear last fall, was beginning to feel its effects. As we sat down to discuss our options, we saw something remarkable: a lone ladybug, relaxing in the sun.
Seems we weren’t on the moon after all…
We turned back then and began to make our way back down to the car. Brent and I made a brief detour down into the crater, which turned out to be a series of terraced lava fields, an expansive staircase of smooth rock descending to the center of the earth.
We reached the observatory two hours later, wind-burnt and sun-soaked but none the worse for wear – the altitude proved far less taxing than we’d anticipated. For me and Brent, the day was perfect preparation for our ascent up Mauna Kea next week. And for the three of us? It was like reliving our ancient Incan adventures from last summer - on a planet far far away…