I live on the Big Island now after spending most of my life in the Pacific Northwest. I can’t compare the two locations because they are so different and yet both are so beautiful. All I can say is, if possible, you should visit here and see how amazing this place is as well.

The Big Island has 5 volcanoes on it which makes for some very interesting landscapes. Some of the volcanoes are old and dormant while others are young and very much alive. Kilauea has been in the news a lot in the last year because it erupted causing severe damage and the loss of 700 homes. It also filled and covered the largest lake and hot springs on the island. As the molten lava poured out of the fissures it was moving at as much as 15 miles per hour. The flow lasted for months and added a large area of land to the island reaching over a quarter mile out into the ocean. The eruption also caused severe damage to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park severely damaging the Jaggar Museum and overlook adjacent to the main volcanic crater which shut down the park for several months. All this was happening at elevations below 4,000’, but on another of Hawaii’s biggest volcanoes, Mauna Loa, things were relatively calm.

On the Eastside of Mauna Loa looking over the Kilauea volcano is the Mauna Loa Lookout road. The way to the lookout is  13.5 miles of very winding narrow and rough road. As you ascend from about 4,000’ elevation you go through large Koa and Ohia forests and pass through a major burned area. By the time you reach the lookout, you have reached an elevation of over 6,600’.  From the lookout, you can see spectacular views of the ocean and the volcano below. It is also the starting point of the Mauna Loa Trail. The trail goes through the highest reaches of forest land and on up over many types of lava flows and eventually leads to the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677’ elevation. Many hearty souls climb all 19+ miles to the summit and the Summit Cabin there. Someday I will make the full journey there but for now, I am satisfied to have made it up to the Red Hill Cabin.

Red Hill cabin is a true cabin located at 10,000′ elevation on the Mauna Loa Trail. The route covers about 7 miles one way and is rigorous, partly so because of the elevation, but also because of the terrain. It is almost totally exposed to the sun and it covers many types of Lava to walk over. There is no water available anywhere along the trail, but catchment water collected from the cabin roof is available at the cabin. It is advisable to plan on carrying about 3 liters of water with you. I would suggest that you get a very early start to the hike because there is little shade along the way to get out of the sun and the often black lava gets pretty hot as it absorbs the suns light.  Another consideration is the elevation. Remember the trail starts at 6,600’ elevation so the air is thin.

All along the route, you see views down to the ocean and the Kilauea Volcano. At the trailhead, there are some sparse trees but as you ascend, you quickly get above treeline. In several places along the trail, you see and walk over Lava Tubes or caves once filled with flowing molten lava. The island is riddled with these tubes from eons of time and many massive eruptions and flows.  In some places, the roof of the tube has collapsed allowing you to see both ends of the tube as it descends underground. Some of the lava tubes are sacred sites and many have become burial sites over the many years the Hawaiians lived here before the Europeans arrived. My suggestion is that you look at the tubes, but don’t enter them.

One thing I found about this trail is the variety of terrain you will pass through. There are treed forests of Ohia, rounded and sometimes flat Pahoehoe lava and jagged A’a and farther up the mountain fine red cinders. Now I know hikers here who really don’t like the lava hikes preferring the jungle-like beach trails, but I love the mountains and the lava hikes. There is a different type of beauty to be found here than anywhere else.

The weather should be a consideration for anyone hiking up a mountain. It can be hot and dry, cold and wet, very windy or calm or even snowy in a single day. Temperatures can also vary widely so I suggest you be prepared for all possibilities.

As you reach up and over one of the Many false summits along the way, you will finally see the Red Hill in the distance. The ground changes from Lava to cinders and not just any cinders, but red to burnt orange cinders. It certainly has an otherworldly feel. It is like you have been transported to Mars. You begin to imagine what it must have been like here as the many cinder cone vents nearby were spewing hot gas, cinders and ash high into the air falling to the ground completely covering the underlying lava. Over the years since the last eruptions in this area, some strange bluegrasses have taken root in small patches here and there. This just adds to the strange alien feel of the area.

For me, the last mile of the journey is very hard. My legs are sore and achy, My lungs are stretching to their limits to get in enough oxygen and my mind feels numb. I recall needing to stop momentarily no more than 100’ from the crest of the cone to rest and give my lungs a chance to catch up. My body feels cold. Just a little more effort and I reach the rim of the cinder cone and see the Red Hill Cabin.

It seems sort of surreal that here, in the center of a red mars like cinder cone, you come upon a large barn red metal roofed cabin. Once inside you see sets of bunk beds all with nice comfortable foam sleeping pads. There is a picnic table and benches and even a cooking counter. Outside there is a large catchment tank that collects rainwater from the roof to use for cooking and drinking and a composting toilet. Since this area is somewhat sheltered from the winds, larger patches of the bluegrass cover larger areas of the ground. Along the rim of the cone, there are some partially sheltered and walled off campsites for those who prefer to camp rather than sleep in the cabin.

I climbed to the top ridge of the cone to take in the view and was blown away. I saw Mauna Kea summit with its many telescopes across the Saddle Road that runs from the East side of the island to the west. Somewhat downhill from the Red Hill are several other cinder cones of various sizes and stretching out in the distance is the Kilauea volcano. The ocean from this distance seems calm and smooth although that is almost never what it is like on this side of the island.

Once again I find myself to be one of the lucky ones. I get to live in a place where it is sunny and warm almost all the time and I get to experience the magnificent wonders of nature first hand and up close.

I suggest you plan on doing this trail as a backpack. Hearty people can do it as a day hike, but carry lots of water, sunscreen and a strong will.


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