The easier approach to the summit of Mauna Loa is via the Observatory Trail. Take Saddle Road to the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory where you can access the trailhead. The Observatory Trail heads south for 3.8 miles climbing close to 2,000 vertical feet before coming to the four-way trail junction with the Mauna Loa, Summit and Cabin Trails. You then have the option of hiking 2.6 miles to the summit of Mauna Loa or 2.1 miles to the Mauna Loa Cabin. It's still not easy, with a trip to the summit and back being 12.8 miles.
When conditions are right Mauna Loa offers some pretty unique Hawaiian opportunities to snowshoe, cross country ski or telemark ski down her slopes. It's one of the few places in the world where you can ski during one part of the day, drive for less than forty miles and lounge on a tropical beach to watch the sunset.
In the southeastern section of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park the Chain of Craters Road winds for 20 miles down to the Pacific Ocean before ending where Kilauea has consumed the blacktop. The road passes through lush rainforest before yielding to the more desolate volcanic landscape. The road is very appropriately named passing a string of craters and through massive lava fields formed from 1969 to 1974. If you have the time you can head west on the Hilina Pali Road to the Hilina Pali Overlook and Picnic Area. The road passes through the Ka'u Desert and allows access to the Mauna Iki Trail and the Ka'u Desert Trail which heads west into the southwest wilderness region of the park.
An excellent hike can be found eight miles south of the Visitor Center at Kilauea at the Mauna Ulu parking area. The Pu'u Huluhulu trail crosses an amazing environment of pahoehoe lava flows, cinder cones, and lava shield. The summit of Pu'u Huluhulu offers excellent views of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Pu'u 'O'o and the Pacific Ocean. It is a three mile trek round trip over moderately difficult terrain. Under certain conditions the air can be quite foul with sulfur fumes. You can continue hiking east on the Napau Trail to Napau Crater, but prior registration and a permit is required. It's a rewarding hike crossing through a variety of terrain ranging from rainforest to barren lava flows. The trail is very rough and you need to follow the rock cairns.
Near the end of the Chain of Craters Road you can also stop at the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs. The one mile long boardwalk (one way) heads east to the ancient, fragile petroglyphs. Past Pu'u Loa the road heads east along the Pacific Coast past the Holei Sea Arch before ending where recent lava flows have claimed the pavement.
Visitors can continue to hike east out across the lava flows to where the hot liquid magma meets the sea. The walk is six to eight miles round trip and there is no trail. Two people recently lost their lives and for that reason the park service strongly discourages trekking across the flows. It's a dangerous trek across a wide range of obstacles. Sharp a'a' lava can cut like broken glass if you stumble. Steam vents, cracks, and shelves can collapse at any time, and running lava can be concealed just below the surface. The area can be oppressively hot, not just from the lava flowing under your feet, but also from the sun baking the black ground below you. Be sure you carry at least three quarts of water and register with the park service before crossing.
If you do make it to where the lava is meeting the ocean stay away from the steam clouds. The hot billowing clouds are loaded with tiny glass particles and full of hydrochloric acid. Waves can carry blistering hot water up the beach causing severe burns. The bottom line to all of this, stay off the beach. If you find a skylight, an opening in a lava tube where you can see the magma flowing by don't look down it or approach it. The edges can give way, and you could expose yourself to a 2,000 degree searing blast of heat. Visitors are severely injured and killed each year succumbing to the temptation of getting up close and personal with superheated, liquefied rock.
The bad news is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park only has two drive-in campgrounds. The good news is they are both completely free. The Namakani Paio Campground is located off of State Highway 11 west of the Kilauea Crater. Tall eucalyptus trees shelter the grassy campground and campsites have picnic tables and barbecue pits. The campground has a large pavilion with a fireplace, potable water and restrooms. No showers or dump station is available. Be sure to bring a sturdy ground cloth, warm bedding, and waterproof gear, as the region is quite rainy.
The Kulanaokuaiki Campground is located on the Hilina Pali Road. The brand new campground has only three sites, two of which are handicapped. Sites have picnic tables and grills and there is a vault toilet. The campground doesn't have any running water so be sure to pack in all that you will need.
If you want to stay in a more comfortable setting we suggest making reservations at the Volcano House Hotel. The hotel has been in continuous operation since 1846 near the Visitor Center and the Volcano Art Center. The hotel has 42 rooms, ten individual cabins and sits right on the rim of Kilauea. The hotel has a bar, restaurant, and two gift shops. Depending on the season and accommodations, hotel rates run from $40 to $185 per night.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a treasure on an island paradise offering visitors a chance to see both fire and ice. The mystical home of Pele is waiting for you whether your plans are to tour the park by car, be one of the hardy few that crosses the miles of her backcountry trails or tempts fate on the East Rift Zone. From lush tropical rainforest to barren volcanic desert the ever-changing landscape of Kilauea and Mauna Loa will fill your scrapbook with pictures and your mind with timeless memories.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Hawaii Volcano National Park
Location: Hawaii, Island of Hawaii
Nearest Major Air Service: Hilo, Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii
Fees & Permits: Park access is $10.00 for 7 days. Backcountry permits are free.
Why Visit: A unique volcanic environment in a tropical rainforest setting, encompassing majestic scenery, two outstanding scenic drives and a wide range of hiking trails challenge any skill level.
When To Visit: Year round
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide variety of activity. Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, rain gear, sturdy hiking shoes, wind breaker, camera, binoculars, and plenty of drinking water. Other gear is strongly recommended.
You Should Know: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is beautiful but dangerous. Stay on marked trails at all times. Do not approach steam vents, cracks, shelves, fissures, steam clouds or flowing lava. Your life depends on this. Many regions can be very hot so be sure to carry plenty of water. Rain can happen at any time anywhere in the park so appropriate rain gear should be carried, as a poncho is not adequate. Watch out for nene, geese native to Hawaii, when driving.
More Information: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, PO BOX 52, Hawaii National Park, Hawaii 96718-0052, (808) 985-6000