Hawai'i Volcanoes: A feral cat and a new kind of hiking

We woke up in the morning to dew covered sleeping bags. We packed them up and dined on our first breakfast of granola and greek yogurt. It was deeply dissatisfying. When your sleeping bag is wet you simply want a warm meal and all we could muster was granola. We got ready and got moving driving down the rest of the Hilina Pali road.

As we drove we noticed something jump up onto a small tree branch next to the road. It was a feral cat with vibrant green eyes. He/she was a little one, but certainly looked healthy. We took a picture, thinking nothing of it and went along our way.


We continued our tour of the park stopping at the Visitors Center to pick up our Junior Ranger booklets and National Park patches. We filled our water and made our way to the backcountry office to begin the real adventure. At the backcountry office we learned that Mauna Loa was a bit more difficult than we expected, we needed to start our way up in the early morning so opted for a hike to the Ka’aha Trail. While there we mentioned to the ranger that we had seen a feral cat on the Hilina Pali road and he looked genuinely surprised and concerned as he said ‘They aren’t supposed to be over there.’ The cats are known for killing baby Ne Ne birds, which are endangered.  Trevor was able to pull up exact latitude and longitude coordinates from the photo and we provided them to the ranger so that they could set up a trap. We asked to be notified if they caught the cat as we were in desperate need of a trip animal.

After our good deed of the day we drove back down the Hilina Pali road to start out on the trail to Ka’aha. There were two options a 3.8 mile trail straight to the coast and an 11.8 mile trail down the K’au Desert Trail to another cabin and then back down to the coast. Trevor took the 3.8 mile trail and I started blazing off on my own.

It was 1pm when I left and with the sun setting close to 6pm I would have to average just over 2 miles per hour. I didn’t have time to enjoy a leisurely lunch. I had to hike. I grabbed a bagel, sausage, and cheese and started down the trail. Between breaths I strategically stuffed food in my face and washed it down with water.  I almost immediately regretted this decision, because the trail was not well marked. There were cairns of volcano rock staggered every 20-30 yards, but often times the grass was high enough to obscure them from view, or there wouldn’t be one for a hundred yards. I got lost on several occasions, never for more than 50 yards and had to backtrack to rediscover the trail. I was constantly looking at my watch and trying to assess if I had enough time to make the trek.

At around 3:30pm I had hiked 6-miles and come across the first cabin. After this I would head south towards the coast and backtrack until I came to Ka’aha. From my vantage point I could see a lush green bay that I guessed was Ka’aha. I continued following rock cairns and sweating buckets. With the sun beating at my back I hiked from cairn to cairn as quickly as possible. The terrain was nearly desolate. Yellowed grass and volcanic rock surrounded me and the only sign of animal life was one mongoose that scampered away before I could get close. It is hard to make a trail on volcanic rock because it doesn’t dig out the same way that dirt does, you have to trust your senses and follow the markers. Hiking from cairn to cairn is also mentally punishing because you don’t know how many you have to go until your destination. On a dirt trail you don’t know the distance, but you can easily discern if you are headed in the right direction. Following the cairns forces you into a repeated game of look up, find the next cairn, hike to it, look up again. Your mind is on high alert, because if you don’t immediately find the next cairn then you have to stop and scan the miles and miles of lava rock to find the one stack of lava rock that marks your path.

Sweat poured down my back as the sun lowered itself on the horizon. I hiked faster, every 10 minutes knowing that darkness would leave me with no opportunity to find Ka’aha.  Around 5:30pm, I found the cabin. Trevor was sitting on the beach and there was a group of 12 with a mini city set up by the water. I was saved. There was just enough time to jump in the water, so I threw off my backpack, put on flip flops grabbed my towel, and headed for the water. 

Nearly every time that I have camped in the backcountry it is common courtesy to acknowledge the existence of others. This group seemed not to follow that code. They couldn’t have cared less about my arrival. There tent city was set up right in the path to the beach so I had to walk amongst their tents to get to the water. Two people acknowledged my existence, but there were no ‘how was your hike?’ or anything. I attempted to make eye contact and engage, but got nothing in return. I went to the water and made peace with a refreshing dip

Trevor and I returned to the little shelter and ate our cold dinner of sardines, hummus, pitas and kimchee. The stoic hikers came up to the shelter to purify water. Many of the shelters are equipped to collect rain water, so they came to pump water for dinner. Again, it was if we didn’t exist. They were no more than 4-feet behind our sleeping bags grabbing water talking to each other and making a rukus, but said hello as they walked up, but were met with icy silence after that.  We opted to sleep, I was exhausted as the sun had sapped me of all of my reserves.