Lua Pele—Hawaii’s Volcanoes (1986)

This is an article I wrote in 1986. There have been a lot of changes in Hawaii in the last 30-plus years. Mauna Kea is currently the subject of a controversy. There is a plan to build another huge telescope on the summit which is a sacred place to Native Hawaiians. I stand with the Native Hawaiians.


Go to Hawaii to climb a mountain? Well, sort of…. Hawaii has warm water, stunning beaches, tropical fruits—and—volcanoes. Everyone knows the Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in origin and many have read that if the big volcanoes were measured from their bases on the sea floor they would qualify as the tallest mountains in the world. What few people realize is that these big volcanoes encompasses some of the most interesting mountain terrain in the world.

Each of the major islands has its mountainous uplands. Ranges with steep, knife-edged ridges covered by dense vegetation and scored by torturous canyons. Red Hill on Maui reaches up to over 10,000 feet and stands over the immense Haleakala crater. As with almost everything in the state, the biggest mountains are found on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea (White Mountain) is the highest point in Hawaii at 13,796 feet above the Pacific Oceanf. Mauna Loa (Long Mountain) follows close behind at 13,677 feet and is considered the world’s largest active volcano. Both of these massive mountains have distinct personalities that are worth skipping a couple of beach days to  visit.

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea is a big mountain by any measurement. The peak rises from sea level to the 13,796 foot summit in just 20 miles and is crowned by a fascinating array of volcanic cones and craters. The peak is the oldest of the 2 great volcanoes and has been eroded into a classic volcanic cone shape.

Mauna Kea is not a pristine mountain environment because its summit is the home of an international observational astronomy program that includes more than a dozen observatories operated by the U.S., French, British and Canadian Governments. A 4WD road leads to the summit and astronomers and their support teams are constantly shuttling up and down the mountain.

Despite the road, it is not an easy proposition to reach the summit. To reach the summit, you must drive across the Island on the Saddle Road which begins in Hilo. Rental car companies on the Big Island refuse to let you drive their cars on the Saddle Road which crosses the Island, claiming that it is too hazardous. If you get past this problem, you still have a 6,000-foot climb from where the paved road ends to the summit. The hike to the summit can be enjoyable if you keep away from the road. The views of Mauna Loa, the Pacific Ocean and the Island of Maui are inspiring. The State of Hawaii has shown little interest in developing the hiking opportunities on the mountain and has prohibited camping on the mountain.

Mauna Loa

A Park Service brochure proclaims that: “Mauna Loa is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The 42,000 cubic kilometers  (10,000 cubic miles) of its expansive bulk is greater than all that of the Sierra Nevada.” Even with such an impressive introduction, those who venture onto the upper slopes of this monster will be humbled by its size and dimensions. It is over 31,000 feet from the sea floor to the summit. One estimate has  put the peak at roughly 100 times the size of Mount Rainier.

2 trails lead to the upper slopes. Both cross a barren world of  fresh lava, lonely cinder cones and silence. Mauna Loa is within the boundaries of the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. It stretches from the fertile ocean through tropical forests to the lifeless upper slopes in an inexorable and almost imperceptible climb. Hiking to the summit is an exercise in patience and endurance as progress is almost unmeasurable.

The lava is a maze, the trail is not much more than a concept, and the walk is tedious. Yet the experience is unique. For miles, the trails cross lava that appears as though it hardened just yesterday. You will not find a blade of grass or even an insect. Snow covers the summit during the Winter months. The summit is somewhat anticlimactic because it is dwarfed by the summit caldera, the Mokuaweoweo. The caldera is 2.7 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and over 600 feet deep. In 1984, an eruption in the caldera filled the vast floor with boiling lava which has now hardened into a dark sea of frozen waves of black lava.

A number of problems confront you if you seek the summit. The climb up from sea level to the summit can be a shock to the system as can the temperature differentials from the beach to the upper slopes. The mountain is often shrouded in whiteout conditions and is bathed in a cool mist.