WHAT TO EXPECT: HIKING TO RED HILL CABIN
We began our morning snuggling in my hammock at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach followed by sipping coffee beside the cozy fire inside Volcano House Inn. After checking in at the National Park to obtain our backpacking permit, we roamed around the Mauna Loa trail head in search for hiking sticks. There's a small pavilion next to the parking area where we gazed at the vast vista enjoying our breakfast of Greek yoghurt, granola, and nuts. Around 11am, we finally decided it was time to start the trek up Mauna Loa. We knew we would start at 6,600 feet elevation and we would be hiking approximately 7.5 miles until we reached 10,000 feet elevation.
With two cups of coffee in me, I had a feeling we would conquer this steep incline in no time. We hiked along the red lava rock that swerved around bright silver trees as far as our eyes could see. It was such a beautiful, warm day that Ryan and I were able to hike in shorts and short sleeves the entire hike up. The trail was a difficult incline, especially with heavy bags in tow; however, taking frequent breaks for water and nutrient dense snacks helped to sustain our energy for the rest of the hike.
Nearly halfway through the hike, we saw a massive red hill towering in the distance. It seemed as if hours had passed when we finally reached the base of the hill, but the cabin was nowhere in sight. In spite of spotting the Red Hill, we still had to follow the steep trail up and around the hill on tiny, coarse red cinder rocks before we actually caught a glimpse of the Pu’u’ula’ula (Red Hill Cabin). When we spotted the cabin, we were so stoked! Although it wasn’t a particularly long day (the hike only took us about four hours total), the altitude change and physical exertion had us quickly unpacking and resting outside on the cabin mattresses while soaking up the last of the sun’s rays on the lanai (porch).
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP
Besides scaring me before we started our hike by explaining EVERY SINGLE DANGER that we could potentially come across, the ranger did give us some sound advice to filter the water from the catchment tank as soon as we got to the cabin before it froze overnight. In the midst of unpacking and setting up our beds for the night, we made sure to heat up our Tasty Bites for dinner, read the travel journal entries of the other hikers, and play cards while drinking peppermint schnapps hot coco. After demolishing Ryan in a game of Gin Rummy, we called it a night. Side note: Make sure to pack a sleeping bad that can handle at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit! I packed a summer sleeping bag + I had three layers of clothing and still had to switch with Ryan half way through the night because I was so cold.
WHAT TO EXPECT HIKING TO SUMMIT ON DAY 2
With stars still twinkling above, Ryan was ready with his camera to capture some epic sunrise shots of Maunea Kea towering across the island. We decided to start earlier this day because we knew it would be an extensive 11.3 mile hike gaining 3,000 feet of elevation across numerous challenging lava rock terrains. When we finally got started, we were hiking in a cloud for the first hour. Once we got above the cloud line, we could see several large cinder cones in the distance in the distance. These were so encouraging to see since they were our only way of tracking the distance that we covered during our trek. There were so many striking lava flows with vibrant colors and unique formations that we passed along the way up the mountain slope. Ryan stopped a few times to really capture the beauty of these natural configurations.
BEST PLACES TO TAKE A BREAK ALONG THE WAY
Once we reached Dewey Cone, we had our first snack break of granola bars, trail mix, and boiled eggs + NUUN for an electrolyte boost. I don’t know if it was the mix of food, trying to hike just ten minutes after eating, or the high elevation, but I instantly got sick for the next hour of hiking. As we made our way to the next landmark, Steaming Cone, I continued to walk slowly behind Ryan. We eventually stopped for a solid twenty minutes and I decided to take another altitude pill. Thankfully, all of the nausea went away within twenty minutes after taking. We continued hiking until Pohaku Hanalei where we stopped for lunch. FYI, there is no sign by this crater, but it is the only other physical landmark before you start making your way up the steep slope to the caldera.
REACHING MAUNA LOA CABIN
After 9.5 miles, we finally reached the edge of the caldera after the most challenging incline of the day. You will see a sign that points to the Mauna Loa Cabin (2 miles). We hiked down into the caldera passing a massive craters along the way. This was the most mentally challenging leg of the day because we kept thinking that we would see the cabin over the horizon, but the trail kept going! We eventually came across a boy scout and his troop leader, and they gave us hope that we were only 1 mile away from the summit cabin. They were on a day hike from the Weather Observatory, which is a total of 11 miles if you hike to and from the observatory to the summit cabin. The true summit of Mauna Loa is across the caldera from the cabin, which some hikers also choose to start from the observatory. Finally, we saw the cabin in the distance and I sprinted across the lava rock toward it. Ryan wasn’t far behind, but with blisters forming all over his feet, he decided to take is slow on the final stretch. Our cabin overlooked a stunning and enormous caldera hundreds of feet below us. We nicknamed it, “The Grand Canyon on Hawai’i.”
Once we began unpacking our backpacks, we realized that we had the entire cabin to ourselves! There was something so special about being the only ones on top of this massive volcano. After we hung out our clothes to dry in the warm sun and made our beds with all the extra sleeping bags in the cabin, Ryan went off to take pictures of the caldera and the leftover snow while I journaled about our eventful day.
Since we were the only ones there, we spread out our belongings and took up the whole table with cards, candles, and our Tasty Bites meals. After finishing dinner, we heard a yelp in the distance coming from outside. All of a sudden, a foreign sounding woman pops in saying that her and eleven other people are coming to stay in the cabin! We quickly gathered our spread out belongings and put them in the corner. Ryan decided soak up the billion stars above capturing the Milky Way above. It was a freezing 28 degrees outside, so I joined him for a quick but efficient five minutes to capture some of the most magical photos of the trip. To say the least, both Ryan and I slept half-heartedly amongst the symphony of snorers in the cabin ;)