Hiking Hawaii’s Magnificent Volcanoes

Contributed by Outdoor Afro Lesly Simmons who shares with us her recent, inspiring adventure in Hawaii in words and photos.

Breathtaking views from the summit of Mauna Kea volcano (Photo by Jole Simmons)

The name Hawaii usually conjures images of beautiful beaches, palm trees and thoughts of lounging by a pool, fruity drink in hand. But hiking to a frozen lake at the top of the biggest mountain in the world, which also happens to be a volcano? The thought never entered my mind until I did just that during a recent trip to the big island of Hawaii with my husband Jole.

Before embarking on the trip we did enough research to know there were some amazing hikes on the islands of Hawaii and Oahu, where we planned to visit. We packed our hiking shoes anticipating we would find ourselves in hiking distance of a secluded waterfall only accessible after traversing a tropical rain forest. But instead, our trusty guidebook led us to the seclusion of Lake Wai’au, more than 13,000 feet up Mauna Kea volcano.

On its own Mauna Kea is a sight to behold—it’s the largest mountain in the world, and often has snow at the top in winter. Temperatures can vary wildly between the chilly summit and the coastal towns of Hawaii, less than an hour’s drive away. It’s very possible to hike the volcano in the morning and spend the evening drinking piña coladas on the beach in the afternoon.

Jole and the observatories (Photo by Lesly Simmons)

We only learned about Lake Wai’au thanks to the guidebook we picked up in the airport before we took off from San Francisco, the Rough Guide to Hawaii (highly recommended, it was worth it for the information on the lake trip alone). The frigid lake, set at just about 13,000 ft., comes from a layer of permafrost beneath the summit of the volcano.

Taking the drive up Mauna Kea requires a stop at a visitors center at an elevation of 9,000 feet to adjust to the altitude, which gave us a chance to explore some of the natural terrain of the volcano above the base layer of vog (fog made of volcanic ash from neighboring volcano Kilauea).  After thirty minutes we began our ascent, a bumpy 20-minute drive up mostly unpaved roads through breathtaking vistas that came into view as we rose above the clouds.

The view from the summit of the volcano is like nothing else we’d ever seen—amazing silver and white observatories framed the immediate area around the summit, and in the distance other peaks of the volcano rose up, ringed by fluffy clouds and perfectly blue skies. And we had the entire place to ourselves.

International observatories ring the summit of Mauna Kea volcano (Photo by Jole Simmons)

On the way back down we parked off the main road and started off, scrambling over a rocky patch to reach the clearly defined path between two peaks ahead that lead to the lake. It was quickly clear that this lake was going to be more than the ten minutes the guidebook said, but we went for it. When we reached the first ridge and didn’t see the lake or anything looking like it could be one, we had to reassess our plans. But we decided it made most sense to keep going and see what we would find around the hills ahead.

The author on the shore of Lake Waiau in Hawaii (Photo by Jole Simmons)

Thank God we did, because within about five minutes later, the lake was in sight. We paused for a second to contemplate that fact that here, at the top of an ancient volcano that few people get to visit, we were seeing a secret lake that even fewer people knew existed. My guess is almost none of the dozens of visitors that go up to the summit every day have any idea that this marvel was close by, and I feel so blessed that I was able to see it. It definitely made my poolside cocktails later on that much sweeter!
Lesly Simmons is a social media strategist and traveler in San Francisco. She’s already planning her next trip to Hawaii for more amazing hikes to secluded treasures.