In Hawaiian, “Mauna” means “long mountain,” and that’s what hikers get on the Mauna Loa Trail.
Mauna Loa is called a shield volcano, and it’s on the island of Hawaii. It is considered the Earth’s largest mountain when you take into account the surface below sea level. Taking this into consideration, Mauna Loa is 56,000 feet tall.
Thankfully, you’re not climbing the entire volcano! Let’s look at the fast-facts of this hike before going into detail.
- Out-and-back trail
- Trail difficulty: challenging
- 12.9 miles
- Elevation gain of 2,972 feet
- Estimated time to complete: 7-8 hours
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park charges a $30 fee (valid for seven days)
The trailhead to Mauna Loa Trail is at the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory. You can’t enter the observatory, but public restrooms are available. You’ll be driving on a one-lane road (Hwy 200; Saddle Road), so use caution since you may encounter approaching vehicles.
Before you depart, we (along with those who’ve hiked the trail) strongly advise getting an up-to-date weather report from the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory (MOL). It’s better to know in advance what the weather conditions will be, so you can pack accordingly or postpone your hike for another day.
One of the biggest obstacles you’ll be tackling is altitude. MOL is at 11,135 feet above sea level. You’ll need to get acclimated to this elevation once you arrive, so factor in about 45-60 minutes into your hiking schedule.
The second challenge is the trail’s surface. Hikers compare it to hiking on the Moon, and there’s a good reason. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew trained for their moon trip by climbing to the top of Maua Loa. While you contemplate hiking where these famous men trod, be sure you’re wearing hiking boots. Hikers commented that hiking over loose lava rocks was more tiresome than dealing with the altitude. Because these rocks are sharp, others advised not wearing sneakers. Some even packed duct tape to repair any damages.
The trailhead is a half-mile up a 4-wheel drive road of loose lava. The sign for the Observatory Trail is on the left. What makes this hike surreal is the lack of vegetation and wildlife. The trail blends in with its surroundings, with only a series of cairns (stacked rocks) marking the way. It’s easy to get off course in foggy conditions, not paying attention, or the lack of oxygen affects your judgment.
The last two miles to the summit are the most strenuous stretch of the trail. But all agree that the reward of seeing the crater is worth the effort.
A successful ascent requires superb planning. Visitors to the Mauna Loa Trail encourage being on the trail at 6-7 AM. While you’ll see patches of snow near the top, visitors agreed that you wouldn’t need snow spikes or poles. They all suggested bringing:
- A backpack
- 3-4 liters of water
- Plenty of snacks
- Cold-weather gear for the summit (temperatures can be 30°)
If interested in overnight camping, the National Park Service has a cabin (Red Hill) at the summit of Mauna Loa. You’ll need to get register in advance and get a permit.
If you’re in good shape, are an experienced hiker, and plan well, we recommend hiking the Mauna Loa Trail. Like the astronauts from Apollo 11, you’ll have an out-of-this-world experience!
The sun will be intense at this altitude, so wear a hat, sun shirt, and sunscreen. To help with altitude symptoms like headache, pack some Tylenol or ibuprofen.