Mauna Iki

Jan 9, 2020

With: Tom Becht

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Today was a big day for rain, even by Hawaiian standards. It seemed no place on the big island was safe and we would end up a sopping mess for a second day in a row. We headed to the Ka'u Desert in Volcanoes National Park, thinking a desert ought to be one of the drier places we could find. It rained only a fraction of what was pounding other parts of the state, but it still amounted to probably half an inch of rain in the four and a half hours we were there. It wasn't a continuous rain, but would come in heavy spurts. When it wasn't raining, we could often see a wall of cloud and rain approaching from the northeast, giving us 5-15min warning before the next rainfall. Temperatures were in the high 50s and low 60s, not unlike what one might get in California during a rainstorm. The terrain is a mix of volcanic flows, from the smoother pahoehoe to the jagged a'a. Luckily most of it is pahoehoe where cross-country travel is relatively easy.

Starting from Hwy11, the Ka'u Desert Trail (also called the Footprints Trail) reaches to the summit of Mauna Iki in 1.8mi. The trail starts off as a paved footpath, leading to a covered park display area for the preserved native footprints that were found in the lava fields, remnants of an eruption in the late 1700s that rained "falling sands" onto the natives inhabiting the area at the time. Beyond this, the trail goes across lava fields, mostly of the pahoehoe type, marked by regular cairns and rocks placed along the path at intervals that make it virtually impossible to stray from. Mauna Iki itself is remarkably unremarkable, the junction of three signed trails with little gradient on the uphill side, and only modest gradient south towards the coast.

From Mauna Iki, we turned south towards the other two summits in the Kamakai'a Hills, a collection of cinder cones about 2.5mi away. The trail veers to the right of the two highest named cinder cones, requiring some cross-country travel. We left the trail about a mile and a quarter north of Kamakai'auka, the nearer of the two cones. The cross-country was much better than expected, nearly the same speed across the lava flows as on the trail, helped by the lack of the the rougher a'a flows and an abundance of hardpacked black sand. We ascended up the north slope, expecting a tiring pile of cinder gravel, but finding it surprisingly solid with almost no slippage. We walked around

the rim of the crater to the highpoint on the south side, then down the south side which was looser than our ascent route. We were fortunate that the rain held up for the entire ascent, short summit visit and descent, giving us some views and a chance for some pictures.

The last summit, Kamakai'awaena, was another 0.6mi to the southwest. The rain did not hold off for this one (thus no pics) and the slope was more like the loose gravel we'd expected - it was notable just how different the construction of the two cones could be, given their close proximity. Once off the last summit, we paused so that Tom could clean the small stones from his boots (and wring out his sopping wet socks), then continued northwest towards the trail to the northwest, another 0.6mi further. Once on the trail and heading back, we were facing into the wind and rain which came more regularly now. We kept our heads down to keep our hats and hoods from blowing off, and to keep the rain from hitting our faces. We had a break in the rain for the last mile, giving our clothes a chance to dry some (though not a whole lot). Though it was just past 12:30p when we returned to the highway, we had to call it a day as Tom had to fly back to the mainland this afternoon. But first - beer, shower and lunch, in that order...


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