LUA PELE —Hawaii’s Volcanos 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 is 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 volcanos 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 mountanious uplands. Ranges with steep, knife edge ridges covered by dense vegetation and scored by tortious 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. Mauna Loa (Long Mountain) follows close behind at 13,677 feet and is considered the worlds largest active volcano. Both of these massive mountains have distinct personalities that are worth skipping a couple of beach days to  visit.


Mauna Kea is a big mountain by any measurement. The peak rises from sea level to the 13,796 foot summit is just 20 miles and is  crowned by a fasinating aray of volacanic cones and craters. The peak is the oldest of the two great volcanos 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 oberservational astronomy program that includes more than a dozen observvatories operated by the US, French, British and Canadian governments. A four wheel drive 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 it is too hazardous. If you get past this problem you still have a six—thousand 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) and the views of Mauna Loa, the Pacific and the Island of Maui are  inspiring.

The state of Hawaii has shown little interest in developing the hiking opportunites on the mountain and has prohibited camping on  the mountain.


A Park Service brouchure 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. From the sea  floor to the summit is over 31,000 feet and one estimate has  put the peak as roughly 100 times the size of Mount Rainier.

Two trails lead to the upper slopes. Both cross a baren world of  fresh lava, lonely cincer cones and silence. The peak which is within the boundaries of the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, stretches from the fertile ocean throuqh tropical forests to the lifeless upper slopes inexorable and almost imperceptible climb. Hiking to the summit is an exercise in patience and  endurance as proqress 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 summiflks somewhat anticlamatic because it is dwarfed by the summit  caldera, the Mokuaweoweo. The caldera is 2.7 miles long and 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 will 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 bathed in a cool mist.