Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth, is an iconic natural wonder located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its name, which means “Long Mountain” in Hawaiian, accurately describes its vast expanse. This colossal shield volcano extends for about 75 miles (120 kilometers) across the island and rises to a towering summit of 13,678 feet (4,169 meters) above sea level. As one of Hawaii’s most prominent geological features, Mauna Loa offers a unique opportunity for exploration, scientific research, and outdoor adventure.
In late 2022, Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, saw its first eruption since 1984, lasting around 12 days.
The eruption started on Sunday, November 27, 2022, at 11:30 p.m. HST in MokuŻāweoweo, the top caldera of Mauna Loa. After a few hours, fresh fractures in the Northeast Rift Zone opened out a little distance from the peak. The summit fissures ceased to erupt shortly after that. The eruption was contained to fissure 3 in the Northwest Rift Zone on Friday, December 2. The lone fissure that was still active, known as Fissure 3, was spewing forth 50 to 100 cubic yards of lava per second. This lava was pouring out of the park towards the north, along Daniel K. Inoye State Highway 200, also known as Saddle Road.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said on December 13, 2022, that “Mauna Loa is no longer erupting.” stating, “Lava supply to the fissure 3 vent on the Northeast Rift Zone ceased on December 10 and sulfur dioxide emissions have decreased to near pre-eruption background levels.”
- Enormous Shield Volcano: Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, characterized by its gentle slopes and relatively fluid lava flows. It covers an area of approximately 2,035 square miles (5,271 square kilometers), making it the world’s largest volcano by both area and volume.
- Volcanic Activity: Although Mauna Loa has a reputation for producing effusive, non-explosive eruptions, it remains active and poses a potential threat to the island. Its most recent eruption occurred in 1984, and it continues to be closely monitored by scientists.
- Unique Ecosystem: The slopes of Mauna Loa host diverse ecosystems that transition from tropical rainforest to alpine desert as elevation increases. This range of environments provides a home for various plant and animal species.
Activities and Attractions:
- Hiking: Mauna Loa offers a variety of hiking trails catering to different skill levels. The most popular is the Mauna Loa Summit Trail, which takes hikers to the summit. However, it’s essential to obtain permits and be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions.
- Scientific Exploration: Due to its status as one of the world’s most accessible and scientifically significant volcanoes, Mauna Loa is home to numerous research facilities and observatories. The Mauna Loa Observatory monitors atmospheric conditions and is renowned for its continuous record of carbon dioxide levels.
- Cultural Significance: Mauna Loa is deeply embedded in Hawaiian culture, often being associated with the deity Poli’ahu, the goddess of snow. It is a sacred place that holds spiritual significance for the indigenous people of Hawaii.
- Stargazing: Mauna Loa’s elevation and relative isolation from light pollution make it an excellent location for stargazing. Visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of the night sky and celestial phenomena.
How to Get There:
- Mauna Loa is located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Visitors can reach the volcano by traveling south from Hilo or west from Kailua-Kona. The roads provide access to various trailheads and the Mauna Loa Observatory.
- Hiking to the summit is a strenuous endeavor and requires a permit, which can be obtained from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Mauna Loa stands as a geological giant, a symbol of Hawaiian spirituality, and a source of scientific curiosity. Whether you’re drawn to explore its diverse landscapes, study the Earth’s processes, or simply admire the natural beauty and celestial wonders it offers, Mauna Loa welcomes visitors with open arms. It is a testament to the raw power and dynamic nature of the planet, a place where science, culture, and adventure converge to create an unforgettable experience.
Hiking the Mauna Loa
Backcountry hiking at Mauna Loa offers an exceptional experience within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Mauna Loa stands as one of the largest active volcanoes globally, and trekking its slopes provides a unique chance to explore the striking volcanic landscape. Towering at 13,681 feet (4,170 meters) above sea level, Mauna Loa holds a commanding presence within the natural beauty of Hawaiʻi.
The hike is both challenging and rewarding, taking you through diverse ecosystems, from forests teeming with native flora to the stark, otherworldly terrain of Mauna Loa. The summit is situated at high altitude, and the trail traverses rough, jagged, and often loose lava rock. To guide your way, the trail is marked with cairns (stacked rocks), although it can be easy to lose during periods of low visibility.
There are two primary backcountry sites on Mauna Loa:
1. Puʻuʻulaʻula (Red Hill) Cabin via Mauna Loa Trail:
- Access and Location: The Puʻuʻulaʻula Cabin, also known as Red Hill Cabin, is situated along the Mauna Loa Trail, which begins at the top of Mauna Loa Road. This rustic cabin rests at an elevation of 10,035 feet (3,059 meters), offering serene views of Mauna Loa.
- Trail Length: The trail spans 7.5 miles (12.1 kilometers) with an elevation gain of 3,373 feet (1,028 meters) from the top of Mauna Loa Road.
- Amenities: The cabin provides basic amenities, including sheltered space, sleeping quarters, a cooking area, and a pit toilet. While water is available at the cabin, it should be treated before consumption.
Note: The Mauna Loa Summit Cabin is inaccessible from the Mauna Loa Trail due to trail damage resulting from the 2022 Mauna Loa eruption.
2. Mauna Loa Summit Cabin via ʻĀinapō Trail:
- Access and Location: The Mauna Loa Summit Cabin is located along the Mauna Loa Trail, reachable via the ʻĀinapō Trail and Kapāpala Ranch. This hike requires two permits and gate access from the National Park Service and the State of Hawaiʻi.
- Trail Length: This is a very challenging 10.2-mile hike involving rocky and steep terrain. The ʻĀinapō Trailhead to ʻĀinapō Cabin at Halewai is a demanding 2.7-mile hike, followed by a strenuous 7.5-mile hike from ʻĀinapō Cabin to Mauna Loa Summit Cabin. An alternative, longer route from Highway 11 to Mauna Loa Summit Cabin adds an additional eight miles and still requires permits and gate access.
- Amenities: Mauna Loa Summit Cabin provides basic amenities like sheltered space, sleeping quarters, a cooking area, a pit toilet, and non-potable water. The water available at the cabin must be treated before consumption.
Note: Cabin permits and gate access through the ranch are required, and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is needed for ʻĀinapō Road.
Stays at these sites are limited to three consecutive nights per location. Hikers embarking on the Mauna Loa trek should be well-equipped, experienced in wilderness and high-altitude trekking, and physically fit. The GPS coordinates for key locations include Mauna Loa Road Lookout Shelter: 19.49283, -155.38551, Pu‘uʻula‘ula – Red Hill Cabin: 19.53034, -155.46440, and Mauna Loa Summit Cabin: 19.46647, -155.58201.
- The Pu’u ‘ula’ula (Red Hill) allows a total of 24 hikers per night. The cabin at this location offers 8 bunks with thin foam pads.
- For the Mauna Loa summit cabin area, a maximum of 28 hikers are permitted. The summit cabin here features 12 bunks with mattress pads.
- Both cabins are equipped with attached water catchment tanks. However, it’s essential to check the current water levels when obtaining your permit. Always treat any water from these sources before consumption.
- Composting toilets are available and should be used. Please refrain from disposing of trash in the pit toilets.
Services and Access:
- There is no drinking water available at either the Mauna Loa Observatory or Mauna Loa Road trailheads. These locations can be reached via one-lane paved roads. Please be aware that there are no public telephones or public transportation services at these trailheads.
- The journey from the Kilauea Visitor Center to the trailhead along Mauna Loa Road typically takes around one hour. To reach the Observatory trailhead via Saddle Road, expect a two-hour drive.
These essential details should be kept in mind to ensure a safe and well-prepared hiking experience on Mauna Loa.
Mauna Loa vs Ol Doinyo Lengai, the comparison
Mauna Loa and Ol Doinyo Lengai are two distinct volcanoes located on different continents and known for their unique characteristics. Here’s a comparison of the two: Check out the 3 days Ol Doinyo Lengai Trek here
- Mauna Loa: Mauna Loa is situated on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the United States. It is part of the Hawaiian Islands and is the largest shield volcano in the world.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: Ol Doinyo Lengai, also known as “The Mountain of God,” is located in the East African Rift in Tanzania. It is a stratovolcano and stands as one of the unique volcanoes in the region.
- Mauna Loa: Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, characterized by its broad, gently sloping profile built up by the relatively low-viscosity lava flows.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: Ol Doinyo Lengai is a stratovolcano, which is more conical in shape and composed of layers of ash and lava.
- Mauna Loa: The lava from Mauna Loa is basaltic, which is relatively low in viscosity and erupts at higher temperatures, resulting in relatively non-explosive eruptions.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: Ol Doinyo Lengai is unique for its natrocarbonatite lava, which is cooler and more viscous than typical lavas. It erupts at much lower temperatures and can be extremely fluid.
- Mauna Loa: Eruptions of Mauna Loa are typically non-explosive, characterized by the relatively gentle outpouring of lava flows. It is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: Eruptions of Ol Doinyo Lengai are known for their unique black, natrocarbonatite lava that can flow like motor oil. These eruptions tend to be less explosive compared to many other volcanoes.
- Mauna Loa: Mauna Loa is frequently active and has experienced numerous eruptions over the past century, with the most recent eruption occurring in 1984.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: Ol Doinyo Lengai has a history of sporadic eruptions. It’s not as consistently active as Mauna Loa, and the frequency of eruptions varies.
- Mauna Loa: Mauna Loa holds cultural significance in Hawaiian culture and is considered a sacred site. It is also home to many observatories.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: Ol Doinyo Lengai is considered sacred by the Maasai people in Tanzania and has cultural significance in their traditions.
Mauna Loa and Ol Doinyo Lengai are two volcanoes with distinct characteristics, geological settings, and cultural significance. Mauna Loa is a massive shield volcano in Hawaii, while Ol Doinyo Lengai is a unique stratovolcano in Tanzania known for its natrocarbonatite lava.
Similarities between Mauna Loa and Ol Doinyo Lengai volcanoes
Despite their many differences, Mauna Loa and Ol Doinyo Lengai share some similarities:
- Volcanic Origin: Both Mauna Loa and Ol Doinyo Lengai are volcanoes, originating from geological processes that involve the movement of tectonic plates.
- Location Near Rift Zones: Both volcanoes are located in or near tectonic rift zones, which are regions where the Earth’s lithosphere is pulling apart. Mauna Loa is situated on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is formed due to the Pacific Plate moving over a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. Ol Doinyo Lengai is located in the East African Rift, a tectonic boundary where the African Plate is splitting into two, leading to volcanic activity.
- Cultural Significance: Both volcanoes hold cultural significance for local populations. Mauna Loa is sacred in Hawaiian culture, and Ol Doinyo Lengai is considered a sacred site by the Maasai people in Tanzania. Both have traditional and spiritual importance to their respective communities.
- Volcanic Activity: While the style of eruptions and the types of lava differ significantly, both Mauna Loa and Ol Doinyo Lengai have experienced eruptions in their histories. Mauna Loa is known for its more frequent eruptions, while Ol Doinyo Lengai has experienced sporadic eruptions.
- Tourist Attractions: Both volcanoes attract tourists and researchers interested in studying volcanology and geology. Mauna Loa’s accessibility and visitor centers make it a popular destination for volcano enthusiasts, and Ol Doinyo Lengai’s unique natrocarbonatite lava and stunning landscape draw visitors interested in its geological wonders.
Despite these similarities, it’s essential to recognize that the two volcanoes remain distinct in their geological characteristics, types of eruptions, and the regions in which they are located.