Mauna Loa Trail Hiking Journal
May 8th - 11th, 2013
42 miles, 6600ft - 13666 ft
Photo by Glen Gibb at Mauna Loa Trailhead (at the end of Mauna Loa Rd.)

Gear List
Adapted from
Note: No need for tent and sleeping pad, since there are two cabins on the way and matresses are provided. Day 1 (Mauna Loa Trailhead 6600 ft - Red Hill Cabin 10300 ft)
Day 1 GPS Trace Log
Day 1 GPS Visualization on Google Map

KK, Adam, Glen and Nikhil kindly dropped me off at the trailhead around noon. This is my first time hike alone, without any guide or any friend, just myself. I did a lot of preparation works, including taking compass/map classes and lots of running to train myself. I felt that I am ready for this so called "extremely challenging" hike and excited to prove myself.

And I was lost after the first 0.3 miles.

I know the trail is not marked and I have to follow "ahu" (or cairn), but I couldn't see any. I thought of calling Adam and asking my dear friends to take me back. But my ego simply doesn't allow me to do so. I traced back to the trailhead and tried it again. Although I still didn't see any cairn, I started to tell the different color on the dirt/rock surface on the trail. This led me to the first ahu and my journey began.

I knew I started late and only have roughly 6 hours to finish the 8-mile between the trailhead to the red hill cabin. The pack felt extremely heavy with the 5L water that I insist to take with me. (The stubberness turns out to be useful in the next two days). I knew I have to go fast and I am full of energy. I was maintaining a pace of 40 min/mile, but then cloud and fog kicks in. I later learned there is always cloud/rain/fog in the afternoon, as the heat in the morning gathers a lot of vapor from the surrounding sea. Hiking in rain gear slows me down and I started to worry. Rangers recommended me to take out my tent and sleeping pad. So if I couldn't reach the cabin, I would simply be screwed. The worry of not being able to reach cabin became the common theme for the next two days.

When I finally reached the cabin around 5:30pm, I was super relieved. Even happier, I found two people already in the cabin -- Ben from Canada and A.J. from Colorado. Ben and A.J. knew each other at a hostel in Hilo and decided to hike together. This was their 3rd night in the mountain. They had been up to the Mauna Loa Cabin and they were already on their way back to civilization. Ben and A.J. forecasted how difficult my tomorrow will be. "Prepared to hike at least 8-10 hours", said AJ. Worst, they told me that they gave up on doing the true summit. "The way to the cabin is hard enough. The true summit is doable, you will just have a very miserable day." Ben added.

My heart sunk. If two big guys cannot do it, am I really be able to do it? But I was too tired to worry, "I can always start early!", the positive side of my mind said.

Day 2 (Red Hill Cabin 10300 ft - Mauna Loa Cabin 13000ft.)
Day 2 GPS Trace Log
Day 2 GPS Visualization on Google Map

Knowning it would be a hard day, I set out at 7am today. One big challenge today would be the altitude. I got diamox from Stanford and did not feel much symptom of altitude sickness. However, I could feel my breathe becomes more and more difficult as I hiked higher and higher. My pace was significantly slower than yesterday, keeping the pace of 45 min/mile for the first 5 miles. My pace became further slower after the steaming cone, started doing 50 - 60 min/mile. When I finally reached the North pit of the Mokuaweoweo crater, it's already 4pm. The 9.2 miles took me 9 hours to hike, and I still have 2 miles to reach the Mauna Loa Cabin.

The last two miles took me forever to walk. I took numerous breaks and finally reached the cabin around 6pm, i.e., I had been hiking for 11 hours. I was totally exhausted when I opened the door of the cabin. Thanksfully, the cabin was very clean and well maintained. They even have a new Phoenix toilet! Amazing.

I was just in time to watch the sunset at the crater, but I was so exhausted to go around and did not take many photos (which I regretted a lot). The rest of the night, I kept asking myself whether I can do the true summit tomorrow. I didn't want to feel regretted, yet I worried that I won't be able to reach back to Red Hill Cabin in time, especially after I learned how slow I am at high altitude from today's experience. If I want to do the summit, I will have to walk 17 miles in total tomorrow, which will take at least 12 hours. With some breaks in between, I will have to start before 5am to be safe. "5am it is.", I told myself.

Day 3 (Mauna Loa Cabin - True Summit - Red Hill Cabin)
Day 3 GPS Trace Log
Day 3 GPS Visualization on Google Map

And then I overslept.

When I woke up, it was already 4:40am. I quickly prepared some breakfast and the amazing sunrise began. I forgot about the fact of having to leave at 5am, but simply focused on enjoying the sunrise. When I realized how late it was, it's almost 6am. When I finally head out to the trail, it's already 6:20am. "I can still do it, as long as I run!", I told myself.

So I run! With the 20kg bag (5kg is water) on my back, I run.
I managed to reach the north pit (2 miles away from the cabin) at 7:20am, and start climbing the true summit. The map says it's 2.5 miles away, so I gave myself 2.5 hours to hike it, hoping to reach the summit before 10am. It turns out to be 2.8 miles, and yes, 0.3 miles is a lot at 13000 ft high! When I finally at the summit ahu, it's 10:20am. The view was amazing and I was super happy that I finally made it. But I was also very worried. I had 12 miles between me and the Red Hill Cabin, and I had 7-8 hours to do it. I needed to run, but the summit climb exhausted me already. It took me another 2 hours to hike down from the summit back to the North pit. It's 12:20pm and I had 9.5 miles to finish within 5.5 hours. I started to "power hike". The worry of being stranded in the mountain kept me going. The next mile still took me 40 minutes to finish. Then I met two amazing hiker on the trail. They are super synced with a great pace and they told me it only took them 3 hours to walk the 8 miles from the Red Hill Cabin (it took me 8 hours). "No worries, you will be able to make it!" One of the awesome hiker comforted me.

"I can do it!", I kept telling myself and as I decend, my speed started to improve. My pace increased to sub 40mins/mile then to sub 30mins/mile. At the end, I reached the cabin at 5:30pm, finished the 9.5miles in 5 hours. However, the "power hike" left 5 big blisters on my left feet :-( -- and later I found I lost one nail too. Then I met Tony from Canada, who just finished his first day from the trailhead to cabin.

Day 4 (Red Hill Cabin - Mauna Loa Trailhead)
Day 4 GPS Trace Log
Day 4 GPS Visualization on Google Map

I couldn't fall into sleep on the 3rd night. Every inch of my muscle is sore and aching. By the time I finally fall sleep, it's already 10pm (this is consider very late as a hiker). I woke up around 5am and Tony is already almost ready to go on his adventure. I know today will be my easiest day, so I took it slow and easy. I cooked a bowl of noodle for breakfast and wrote my hiking log on the journal in the cabin. As I read the log from previous hikers, I realize how lucky I was to be able to finish to this point without any major altitude sickness or sprained ankle ... etc. With the sense of proud, I head out for my final 8 miles down to the trailhead.

As usual, the weather in the morning is usually clear and good. I took out my camera and try to take as many photos as I can. I did not take many photos in the previous days, as I was constantly worry that I will not be able to reach the next cabin before dark. Plus, it's always raining/foggy in the afternoon. There were so many colors on this trail. Red, pick, yellow, gold, silver ... etc. There were too many things that I can only keep in my memory and cannot save it with photos, but I would like to give it the last chance.

The 5 big blisters from yesterday slows me down a lot. In order to relieve myself from feeling the blister, I put on a pair of super thick socks. It did help but my feet also sweat like crazy. My pace was down to 45 mins/mile, even though the elevation is much lower and my pack is much lighter. But today is the only day that I don't need to worry about arriving late, so I let myself procastinate, relax and enjoy the view. As I decend, more and more plantation showed up and I can start to hear the birds singing. At some point, I was not sure if I really want to get back to the cilvilization, even though I wanted to shower so badly.

When I finally reached the trailhead, it was already 12:30pm. This final decend almost took me as long as my first ascend, but it was the time well-spent. I did fantasize that I can easily hitch-hike a ride from the trailhead down to the national park visitor center. Many hiking journal mentioned that hitch-hiking would not be easy, since the trailhead is not a very popular lookout point (it's a 14miles of mountain driving from the visitor center after all).

But I was a lucky person through and through!

After about 2 minuts arriving at the trailhead, I saw a small white car climbing up to the trailhead. And two seemingly very kind people coming down and ask me where the good view is. "For a really good view, you will have to climb up from here for another 2 days, Sir!", I joked. They turned out to be two professors from UT Houston and they were here for a conference. Oh we academics. :-) That was my first ever hitch-ride and it went great! Sometimes you just need to let the life lead you.
I was planning to take a bus from the visitor center to Hilo, so that I can save Nikhil a drive. But dear Nikhil already bought me lunch (burger and salad!) and ready to pick me up. Life really cannot be better than having good food with a friend and great view of a steaming volcano crater. :-)

Useful Links
•Trail Guide:
KinQuest Trail Guide
•Hike Journals:
Journals posted on National Park Service
Blog post
•National Park info about Mauna Loa:
•REI guide post:
Mauna Loa Trail to Red Hill Cabin
Mauna Loa Trail to Mauna Loa Cabin
•Backpacking brochure and trail maps from the Park:
Backpacking brochure by NPS