Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Trekking and Backpacking
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The Rift Zone, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The Rift Zone, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (courtesy, Hawaiian Tourism)

All overnight backcountry users must register and obtain a free permit at the Kilauea Visitor Center. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis no earlier than the day before your hike. Stays are limited to three nights per site; groups are limited to 12 people. A total of 16 people per night are allowed at any coastal site.

For an unforgettable backcountry trip, hike the 18-mile trail (3 or 4 days) to the summit of Mauna Loa (nearly 14,000 feet). But be forewarned: Hikers must be in good physical condition and properly equipped for winter mountaineering.

The trail begins at the end of Mauna Loa Strip Road and climbs 7.5 miles, gaining 3,400 feet to Red Hill Cabin, elevation 10,035 feet. Backpackers are warned to hike slowly to become accustomed to the altitude. This section of the trail traverses the timberline and ancient lava flows. Red Hill is a large cone of red cinders on the northeast rift zone of Mauna Loa.

The next section, 9.5 miles to the intersection of the Mauna Loa Summit Trail, the Observatory Trail and the Cabin Trail, takes the hiker to the summit past lava flows, spatter cones, lava tubes, and fissure vents. The rugged terrain resembles the moon or some alien planet; the air is thin and cold—conditions that require careful preparation, planning, and good sense. Altitude sickness is common; no fresh water is available other than that in catchment tanks. The lava quickly destroys all but the sturdiest boots. This is not a nice, three-day jaunt to the top of a pretty mountain. Not surprising that the cabin at the summit is a welcome sight in this magnificent but rigorous setting.

A shorter route to Mauna Loa's summit is via the Observatory Trail, a total of 6.4 miles. The hike directly from the Observatory to the Mauna Loa cabin is a total of 7.2 miles. Backpackers should count on 8 to 12 hours to get to Mauna Loa's summit from the Observatory, and about 6 hours to return the next day. Not as interesting geologically as the Mauna Loa trail, this route does offer good views of Mauna Kea.

The Ka'aha, Halape, and Keauhou trails have three-walled primitive shelters available on a sharing, first-come basis. The Ka'aha Trail connects the Ka'u Desert Trail and the Hilina Pali Trail, running through the Wilderness area in the southwest corner of the park.

The Halape Trail connects with the Hilina Pali, Puna Coast Trail and the Keauhou Trail. The Halape Trail is a steep drop—3,000 feet in seven miles—from the Kipuka Nene Campground or the Hilina Pali Overlook to a rugged desert coast. This is a two-day trip for experienced, strong backpackers who can carry plenty of water for the descent and the hot climb back out again.

The Keauhou begins at Mauna Ulu, off Chain of Craters Road and goes 6.8 miles to the sea. Tents are recommended. Pepeiao Cabin is located at the intersection of Ka'u Desert Trail and Ka'aha Trail, and has three beds. All sites have catchment water tanks. Check on current water levels when registering. Treat all water before drinking. Pit toilets are provided at the cabin and shelters.

The 'Apua Point and Napau Crater campsites have pit toilets but no water or shelter. Note: The area beyond Napau Crater is closed to hikers due to major collapses of hte Pu'u 'O 'o cone.

The only water at a trailhead is at Kipuka Nene. No public telephones or public transportation are available.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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