For experienced hikers who want to do some overnight camping and hiking, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park has several options for backcountry wilderness trips.
Hiking to Halape
A large section of the park has trails that run along the coast and has several beaches that offer premier camping. By far one of the most remote and pristine beaches on the island is Halape. Getting here is something you have to earn, though.
The absolute closest you can get is the Hilina Pali Trailhead, from where it is an eight-mile descent to the beach across hot, dry, rugged terrain. The first two miles are straight down the pali (cliff) with multiple switchbacks to get you safely to the bottom. Halape is the sandiest beach along the coast, but there are also other beautiful places to access the ocean that aren’t quite as sandy.
One stunning option: After descending the switchbacks to the bottom of Hilina Pali, take the trail to the right toward Ka‘aha. This is a nice bay that offers lots of room to explore all the way to the pali that extends to the ocean. Some nice tide pools here offer unique snorkeling and swimming. If you keep to the left, the trail will lead you to Halape after six extremely hot miles that include some more steep ascents and descents—but your reward is a white sugary beach and a sheltered lagoon that offer you sand and protection from the raw ocean that crashes just past the lagoon. This spot is popular, so you’re likely see other campers, but you’ll never see the crowd you would in the more accessible sections of the park. Bathroom facilities are available here. There is water available at the backcountry sites, but it must be treated before drinking since it is just from a cistern of collected rainwater. Before you go, make sure to ask a ranger if there is water available since at times there is a drought.
The park requires backcountry permits to camp in these sections. They are available for free at the visitors center. There is a limit to the number of people they allow at any given time, so plan accordingly and know to get your permits ahead of time before you begin your trek.
If you have the option for someone to pick you up, the best route with the most variety is to hike down from Hilina Pali, spend a night or two at Halape, then enjoy a nice flat hike out by heading toward Keahou and Apua (note: Apua does not have shelter and water). This route is technically longer distance wise, but it is not as steep as the route you came on.
Hiking to Mauna Loa’s Summit
The most extreme hike of them all, Mauna Loa offers a unique experience to climb to the summit of the island’s largest volcano. This trip will take you to high altitudes of almost 14,000 feet, so be prepared for altitude sickness and changes of weather. Winter conditions can occur any time of the year here. In 2011 it snowed here in May! Yes, it snows in Hawaii. There are cabins available to stay in along the way that are free but require a permit from the Kilauea Visitor Center; you can only get them the day before your hike. The Pu‘u ‘Ula‘ula (Red Hill) cabin contains 8 bunks, and the Mauna Loa summit cabin has 12 bunks. Visitors are allowed a three-night maximum stay per site. Pit toilets are available at the cabins as well as drinking water (although check with park rangers about the water level). Don’t forget to treat the water. No water is available on the trails themselves.
There are two trail options for your hike: via the Mauna Loa Road trailhead (an hour drive from the Kilauea Visitor Center) or the Mauna Loa Observatory trailhead (a two-hour drive via Saddle Road), which is not in the park. The Mauna Loa Road trail ascends 6,600 feet over 18 miles. Depending on your hiking speed, it will take 4-6 hours to hike the 7.5 miles from the trailhead to the Pu‘u ‘Ula‘ula cabin. Then, it’s 8-12 additional hours to hike the 11.5 miles from the Pu‘u ‘Ula‘ula cabin to the Mauna Loa summit cabin.
The Mauna Loa Observatory Trail climbs 1,975 feet over 3.8 miles up the volcano’s north slope until it reaches the rim of the Moku‘aweoweo Caldera (the summit). From here, the Mauna Loa summit cabin is 2.1 miles. In all, it takes about 4-6 hours to hike from the Observatory trailhead to the Mauna Loa summit cabin. However, the hike back from the Mauna Loa summit cabin to the Mauna Loa Observatory trailhead is much quicker—only about three hours.
In summary, you have a few options for this hike. If you have friends on the ground (or means to hire a taxi), you can start from the Mauna Loa Road trailhead and finish at the Mauna Loa Observatory trailhead (for a quicker exit). But again, you’ll need someone to pick you up or arrange to leave a car at the trailhead. Otherwise, most hikers choose to hike from the Mauna Loa Observatory to the Mauna Loa summit cabin and return to the observatory for a challenging but manageable hike.
Note: Mauna Loa is at a high altitude, so it is imperative to wait at least 24 hours between scuba diving and ascending Mauna Loa in order to avoid getting the bends.