Traveling to Hawaii for a trail running vacation can provide a diversion from the standard single track fare. Of course there is an abundance of this variety of trail, but likewise, there is the uniqueness of running on volcanoes – some dormant, some active – and realizing a new type of off-road running.
On the Big Island, there are several opportunities for this type of exploration and include running on lava rock. One is in and around Mauna Loa and Kilauea, the other on Mauna Kea.
Mauna Loa is the smaller of the two mountains on the Big Island reaching 13,680 feet above sea level. Often enshrouded in clouds, the climate is very different at this altitude than on the beaches below. There are miles of trails in the Volcanoes National Park which is the area surrounding and including Mauna Loa and Kilauea.
One of the many trails is the Napau Trail which runs some seven miles over terrain that is remarkable and seemingly out of this world. A well-marked trailhead complete with a large area map (and a toilet), the Napau Trail starts out rather flat at just over 3,200 feet of elevation. The route quickly turns rugged and continues this way for nearly five miles, but the vertical gain is not significant.
The main challenge is to stay on the “trail” because the area is a sea of black rock and the markings leading the correct route consists of cairns made of more black lava rock. Much of the rock is porous and very brittle. One wrong step can cause the underlying rock to crumble and could result in a fall and perhaps some stinging cuts on legs and arms. Stopping to enjoy the views which include several craters along the way, occasional bushes sprouting up in the rock, and even some flowers is advised.
Another trail joins the Napau Trail after five miles and heads south toward the Chain of Craters Road. This Naulu Trail is approximately two miles long and does include mostly single track through dense forest with exposed tree roots, mud, and even a few creek crossings if the rain has recently fallen. Staying on the Napau Trail results in Napau Crater in about two more miles.
To return to the Napau Trailhead, a run up the Chain of Crater Road may be the best option rather than an out-and-back. However, having just descended over one thousand feet, it does mean a long ascent of nearly six miles up the road.
On Mauna Kea, there is an added element of higher altitude since the main trailhead is at more than 9,000 feet with the summit looming some 7 miles in the distance at 13, 803 feet, making this the high point of Hawaii. The route to the summit boasts an elevation change of 4,6000 feet and includes a rather well-marked path.
Like much of the Napau Trail, the Humu’ula Trail to the summit of Mauna Kea is completely in the open. There is no shade, as there are no trees at this elevation. The views are stunning along the way with the ocean floor in the distance, and outcroppings of huge lava rocks intermingled with small scree-like rock on the trail. This type of rock has a ball bearing type feel so the footing is not as easy as running on dirt surfaces. This is not an easy run when coupling the altitude with the terrain.
What can make a trail running outing in either of these two areas even more interesting, is the weather. Temperatures can vary from below freezing on Mauna Kea – even at the start of the trailhead – and include wind, rain, sleet, even snow depending on the time of year. The mercury can also reach 70 degrees, or more and the sun can be very intense.
When considering a trip to Hawaii, include these destinations in your plans and prepare for the weather – what it is at the start of the trail and what it may become throughout the effort – as well as the terrain. A good pair of trail running shoes is advised along with a hydration system, some snacks, sunglasses, gloves, hat, jacket and a map of the area. A camera to document the journey, as well as a friend to join in on the fun will make the experience one that is never forgotten.
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Article by Nancy Hobbs – Executive Director, American Trail Running Association