The canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawai‘i; land travel was only foot traffic, over little more than trails and pathways.
Extensive cross-country trail networks enabled gathering of food and water and harvesting of materials for shelter, clothing, medicine, religious observances and other necessities for survival.
Ancient trails, those developed before western contact in 1778, facilitated trading between upland and coastal villages and communications between ahupua‘a and extended families.
These trails were usually narrow, following the topography of the land. Sometimes, over ‘a‘ā lava, they were paved with water-worn stones.
One such overland trail, leading to Mokuʻāweoweo, the summit crater at the summit of Mauna Loa, is ‘Āinapō Trail (darkened land (often heavy with fog)).
It is a narrow, single-file, twisting, and occasionally slightly abraded trail above the 11,600 elevation. It leads up the broad southeast flank of Mauna Loa volcano to and along the east side of Mokuʻāweoweo, the major summit crater (HHF)
Hawaiians laid out the ‘Āinapō foot trail to assure availability of shelter, drinking water, and firewood between their nearest permanent settlement, Kapāpala village, and Mokuʻāweoweo. Kapāpala village could be reached over easy-grade trails from the coastal Hawaiian settlements.
Most Mauna Loa ascents by Hawaiians were made during summit eruptions, when the volcano goddess Pele was present, to honor her with chanted prayers and offerings; and perhaps at other times to honor a site she frequented. (NPS)
“The Hawaiian style of ascent to Mokuʻāweoweo lay in moving upslope in easy stages to lessen fatigue and permit acclimatization to the increasingly rarefied atmosphere.
The major stages were a series of overnight camps, each complete with small, warm, thatched houses and well supplied with food, drinking liquid, and firewood. In each camp, the elite were supported in the style of Hawaiian high chiefs. The lesser stages consisted of frequent rest stops, perhaps in natural rock shelters, warmed by fires as necessary. (NPS)
In 1840, Lt Charles Wilkes, as part of the US Exploring Expedition, came to Hawai‘i to conduct experiments and make observations, including swinging pendulums on Mauna Loa’s summit to calculate the force of gravity. They hiked from Hilo to the summit.
Wilkes substituted his own route for the Hawaiian ‘Āinapō trail. Wilkes’ line of march was through wooded country, but without streams or waterholes. Shoes of the Caucasians scuffed and soles abraded on the lava they crossed.
Most of the Hawaiians were barefoot. To mark the path for the straggling porters, Wilkes’ associates built fires and blazed trees. Bushes were broken with their tops laid down to indicate the direction of travel. (NPS)
Much unnecessary thirst, hunger, cold, altitude sickness, fatigue, and snowblindness were suffered by both Caucasians and Hawaiians of the expedition when Wilkes substituted his own route for the Hawaiian ‘Āinapō trail.
‘Mountain’ sickness, probably caused from the combination of fatigue, dehydration, chill, hunger, and the altitude, was prevalent.
To the rescue came the Hawaiian guides ‘Ragsdale’ and Keaweehu, a famous bird catcher. Both had apparently been waiting at Kapāpala for the expedition to arrive and planned to guide the expedition up the ‘Āinapō trail.
Ragsdale was hired to supply water for the camp. His men delivered it the next day – fifteen gallons carried in open-top vessels over the trackless ten miles of rugged lavas which separated Wilkes’ camp from the ‘Āinapō trail.
At about the same elevation on the Āinapō was a large lava tube with pools of water inside. This tube was used by Hawaiians on the ‘Āinapō trail and was easily supplied with grass (for insulation from the cold ground) and firewood from a point on the trail not far below. (NPS)
Up until around 1916, the customary route to the summit of Mauna Loa was the 34-mile long ‘Āinapō Trail. Most Mauna Loa ascents by Hawaiians were made during summit eruptions, when the volcano goddess Pele was present, to honor her with chanted prayers and offerings. (HHF)
In 1916, With the assistance of the US Army, Thomas A Jaggar, a geologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had a trail constructed from Kīlauea to the Mauna Loa summit along the northeast flank of the mountain.
That year, the summit of Mauna Loa, the Army-built trail, and the summit of Kilauea volcano were incorporated within Hawaii National Park, established by Congress.
With the trail completed, horses and mules could go as far as Pu‘u ‘Ula‘ula (Red Hill), where a 10-man cabin and 12-horse stable had been built. The remaining 10-mile trail to the summit was pedestrian only.
After 1916, for the next half century, there were two trails to the summit, but the Āinapō received diminishing usage and was not maintained. Below the barren lavas, the savannah-forest areas through which the ‘Āinapō passed became ranching country private land through which public passage was discouraged. (NPS)
From the trailhead, ʻĀinapō Trail ascends 7,600-feet in 10.2 miles to the National Park Service cabin on the rim of Mokuʻāweoweo crater.
Vegetation varies from mixed mesic koa /ʻōhiʻa forest to alpine stone desert. Intermittent, and in places infrequent, stacks of loose lava boulders (ahu) line the sides of the trail.
Abraded spots occur only on the rare surface types subject to pockmarking by metal blows; this was done by iron-shod hooves since 1870s, when horses and mules began to be used. (NPS)
Day use of ʻĀinapō trail does not require a permit; however, hikers are required to contact Kapāpala Ranch at 808-928-8403 to obtain the combination for the locked gate.
Users are required to call the night before between 7:30 pm and 8:30 pm.to schedule entry. Lock combinations are changed daily and given out daily at the same phone number from 4:30 am to 7:00 am on entry day. Everyone using this public access will sign in and out on the log sheet located in the mailbox on the gate.
Reservations and permits for camping at the trail shelter may be obtained from Hawaiʻi District Division of Forestry and Wildlife, at 808-974-4221 or at the link below. Hikers continuing to the summit need to register with the National Park Rangers (808 985-6000). (DLNR)