Mauna Loa Backpack Prep
To the Observatory Trailhead
Wednesday, February 29
Mauna Loa is planet Earth's largest mountain. Now, you might balk at that description, and bring up the name of a rather more famous peak. However, it is true. You'll note I said biggest, and that refers to volume, not height. But even on the height front, a mountain is measured from its base - and on that score, Mauna Loa also tops Everest, rising nearly 33,000 feet above its base on the sea floor.
And so, with that bit of factual geography out of the way, I can safely say that our objective for the day was to start our backpack up to the summit of the world's biggest mountain!
There are three trailed ways to hike to the top of Mauna Loa (which, by the way, has a summit elevation of 13,677 feet / 4170m): The first and most common is via the Mauna Loa trail - a long 31km, 7,000-foot elevation climb. The second is via the so-called Observatory Trail - a much shorter 10km, 2600-foot elevation climb, starting from a trailhead adjacent to the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Observatory. The third way is via the remote and now rarely-travelled Ainapo trail - 23km and an 8000-foot climb. Although we had initially been leaning towards a 3-day climb via the Mauna Loa Trail, as the day of our climb approached, we realized that fitting in a long 3-day climb near the end of our trip was a bit tight, so we opted for a 2-day variant using the Observatory Trail.
Most climbs of Mauna Loa involve a stay of one or more nights at one or both of two hiker cabins - one at 10,000 feet at Red Hill, along the Mauna Loa Trail, and another at 13,300 feet near the summit Caldera. Based on our itinerary, yesterday's visit to the ranger station near Kileaua had included a reservation (which is free, btw) at the summit cabin for one night. Our resulting itinerary was this: drive to the Observatory Trailhead in the morning, climb to the summit, then hike to the cabin for the night. Then, the next morning, hike from the summit back to the Observatory trailhead.
Lower Observatory Road
Although the Observatory Trail is shorter and with less elevation gain than other approaches, its trailhead is a little more difficult to reach. You need to take a long and narrow mountain road, not all that well surfaced along much of its length, to reach it.
At the Namakanipaio campground, we awoke to more rain and wetness. We once again packed up wet tents and headed off in morning darkness on our way to the trailhead. It was a long way around - east to Hilo, then north-west on the saddle highway that runs between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The Observatory road, a little one-and-a-half-lane-wide strip of pavement, heads left and up Mauna Loa's slopes. We hoped that the extreme dryness at altitude on Hawai'i's highest peaks would rid of this pesky rain and clouds!
Becoming a bit rougher
Initially, the Observatory Road was a wonderfully-paved - albeit narrow - bit of work. It dipped and swerved around every little feature, but it was glass smooth. After about 6km (4 miles) of this, though, it abrubtly changed to a much lower quality pavement - uneven and a little crumbly. Still perfectly passable to just about any passenger vehicle, though.
Rising above the murk
Our pace was quite a bit slower on the rougher road. Gradually ascending, the terrain around us had become stark, barren lava fields. We were still in the clouds, so we couldn't see much. However, a characteristic brightening above us signalled that we were likely nearing the tops (of the clouds).
At around 8300 feet, the road - which had been trending south-west up the mountain's flank, reached a sudden bend that turned it back to the north-west. There was a group of communication towers off to the left at this point. The road became a bit rougher still, with little patches of dirt showing here and there through the delapidated pavement. Still, though, manageable in an average passenger vehicle - assuming you use a bit of caution and avoid larger obstacles.
Mauna Kea above clouds
Continuing on at an even slower and more cautious pace, we were happy to see that we were indeed climbing above the clouds, and by the time we reached 9,000 feet, we could clearly see across the cloud tops to nearby Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea, by the way, is Hawai'i's highest peak - although it is only a hundred feet or so higher than Mauna Loa.
A narrow patchwork
It seemed to take quite long to cover the remaining stretch of road to the trailhead. It felt quite lonely and remote up here - just a narrow lane of a road and a simple power line, stretching across miles and miles of barren slope.
There were a few places where the pavement had eroded away to gravel and stones, and in the interest of keeping things non-threatening to our Mazda, Brian and I got out to remove some of the larger of the stones. The last stretch of road just before the trailhead was covered in fresh chip-seal. It was more gravel-ly, but at the same time fairly smooth.
Driving through wasteland
Finally, after nearly an hour of driving from when we left the saddle road, we arrived at the hiker parking area for the Observatory Trailhead. Just up the slope above us was an array of towers, domes and small buildings that make up the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Observatory. It was faintly sunny and dry up here, but quite cool - less than 10 degrees C (50F). We set about unpacking and repacking our gear for our two-day climb. And we once again laid out our wet tents to dry.
Interactive Trackmap - Mauna Loa Observatory Road - double-click map to expand
Mauna Loa Observatory Road - Drive Data
* : +/- 75 feet