Volcanoes National Park Backcountry Backpacking Adventure: Pepeiao Cabin & Ka`aha

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Ohia outside of the Pepiao Cabin in the afternoon light.

TL;DR

Trails Traveled: Ka’u Desert Trail from Hilina Pali Lookout to Pepeiao Cabin; Ka`​aha Trail from Pepeiao Cabin to Ka`aha; Ka`aha to Hilina Pali Lookout.

Locations & Nights Camping: Pepiao Cabin, 1 night; Ka`aha Shelter, 1 night.

Total Distance Traveled: ~14.4 miles

PROS: Didn’t see anyone else on the trail until ascent of Hilina Pali on final day, cabin at Pepeiao, shelter at Kaaha, new compost toilets at both campsites, beautiful vistas, beach at Kaaha.

CONS: Millions of red ants at Pepeiao Cabin, lots of cockroaches at Ka`aha shelter, odorous drinking water at Pepeiao Cabin, extreme heat hiking from Pepeiao Cabin to Kaaha, extreme heat and elevation gain hiking from Kaaha to Hilina Pali Overlook.

Would I do it again?: Not likely. Checked it off the bucket list!

The Idea

The first time I heard about the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) Backcountry hikes was from @Susie. Her stories of camping at Halape and Keahou excited me to venture from my usual camping spots to explore the south eastern slopes of Mauna Loa. Upon researching the various camping sites in the coast of HVNP Backcountry I quickly realized no one would be willing to go there with me. Stories of scorpions, red ants, cockroaches, centipedes, and extreme heat scattered across recent blogs, mind you most were from 2010 and prior, would easily deter most casual campers from venturing out into the Backcountry. Nevertheless, with only five weeks off between graduation from medical school and residency orientation, I made it a goal of trying to at least check a few of the HVNP coastal Backcountry camping sites off of my bucket list.

Logistics

A few logistical hurdles stood before me:

  1. Finding people able to take time off from work or with sufficient funds to attend
  2. Finding people physically fit enough to carry 40+ pound backpacks miles through lava fields
  3. Securing a backpacking permit, as the HVNP website states they can only be purchased ONE day prior to entering the Backcountry. Seeing that we would be flying over the Hawai`i Island from Oahu for the hike, this could possibly have been a big issue.

After inviting a bunch of friends to attend, in the end, only one brave soul was willing to join me on this adventure: @Maxine. With a person to join me I then began the planning logistics: purchasing flights, reserving a rental car, finding a place to stay, and making a list of items needed for the adventure. Once these logistics were completed, all that was left was waiting for the flight from Honolulu to Hilo.

Permit Purchasing

I arrived a day prior to Maxine in order to drive to HVNP’s Backcountry Office to purchase our permit. The very informative Ranger Greg was extremely helpful as he gave numerous updates as to the water quantities, bathroom status, and trail status for each of the camp sites. Unfortunately, he explained to us, the water catchment system at Halape was broken, and thus no water was available at the site, making this camping location not ideal. After some discussion I reserved one night at Pepeiao Cabin, followed by one night at Ka`aha, and a third and fourth night at Keahou, since Halape wasn’t an option. Based on the title of this, you can figure we didn’t make it to Keahou, which will be explained later.

One very important update from Ranger Greg was that the NPS is transitioning to mostly online Backcountry permit reservation system. I did notice on the HVNP website the following info related to permit purchasing:

“Permits must be obtained no more than 24 hours in advance from the Backcountry Office, open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fees for backcountry camping can be paid in person at the Backcountry Office by credit card, personal check, cash (exact change please), or online through pay.gov. Payments made through pay.gov require obtaining a permit number in advance by calling or emailing the Backcountry Office. You will enter this number into the pay.gov on-line form.

Per Ranger Greg, up to ONE WEEK prior to your planned camping trip into the Backcountry permits can be purchased via 1) calling the Backcountry Office 808-985-6178, 2) receiving a permit number from him, 3) paying the $10 feee for the permit online, and 4) calling him back to make sure he received the payment information. That would have saved me needing to fly over to Hilo a day over; but, oh well.

Day 1: Hilina Pali to Pepeiao Cabin (4.8mi)

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First glimpse of the Pepiao Cabin along the Ka`u Desert Trail.
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Before we started the hike from Hilina Pali Overlook to Pepiao Cabin.

The following morning I picked up Maxine from Hilo International Airport, we had a pre-hike ritual brunch at @HawaiianStyleCafe, and then we headed up to HVNP to begin the hike. We parked our car at Hilina Pali Lookout and began the hike to Pepiao Cabin, along a portion of the Ka`u Desert Trail: 4.8mi (7.7km,) 600ft (183m) elevation decrease, projected to take 2 hours per the NPS. Ranger Greg had warned that the trail was NOT well maintained, and he was right; besides a few “Where’s the cairn?” situations along the trail we made it to Pepeiao Cabin in exactly 2 hours.

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Start of the hike at Hilina Pali Overlook. We parked our car here for the duration of the trip.

As in the other blogs I could find online, the cabin was “rustic,” with two spring cots covered in thin ply-board (due to the rusted springs underneath) and a fabric cot. There was also a table for food preparation, a bookshelf with the cabin log, a fire extinguisher, some random books left by visitors, a hat, and a broom. The cabin had 5 sliding glass windows without screens, 4 of which were still slideable, as well as a wooden door that closed tightly. Despite the closable windows and doors, the numerous holes in the roof and side of the cabin meant that keeping insects and rodents out of the cabin was next to impossible. After opening the windows to air out the cabin we swept the floor clean and rearranged the cots so that our tent could fit in the cabin if no one else arrived prior to sunset. We then took to exploring the area, finding the newly renovated (appearing) compost toilet, and eating most of the many pounds of lychee provided to us by the @Hamiltons.

As night approached we decided that no one was likely joining us at the cabin, which we were correct in the end, so we placed our REI 2 man dome tent in the cabin, with rain fly due to the numerous holes in the sheet metal roof. We used the small propane stove to boil water for a Blue Mountain dehydrated meal of beef stroganoff, which we split, and finished the meal with lychee for desert. Overall the night in the cabin was a bit chilly, despite it being May, but overall no issues throughout the night.

PROS:

  1. 10k gallon water catchment tank filled to the brim
  2. Relatively 2 hour easy hike to the cabin
  3. Secluded campsite with no other campers when we were there
  4. Cabin to set up a tent in if no one else planning to use cabin
  5. Newly renovated compost toilet

CONS:

  1. Water from catchment tank had a foul odor, but was drinkable
  2. Water faucet was clogged with dirt, per Ranger Greg, which explained why it functioned but only allowed out a trickle of water
  3. Tons of long-legged red ants everywhere around the cabin, with fewer inside, that climb on anything as soon as it stands still
  4. We did see ONE mouse but was not an issue for us at all during the night
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Pepiao Cabin.
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Compost toilet at Pepiao Cabin.
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Inside the compost toilet; relatively clean with lots of cedar chips.
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Water catchment system at Pepiao Cabin.
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Water catchment tank.
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Example of wooden and fabric cots within Pepeiao Cabin.
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Bookshelf inside of the Pepiao Cabin with random items.
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Side view of sliding windows in Pepiao Cabin along with the many holes in the metal roof.
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Lots of ohia around the cabin

Day 2: Pepeiao Cabin to Ka`aha (6mi)

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Pepiao Cabin is somewhere up there on top of the pali to the right side of the picture. The trail descends this lava flow. View from the ocean where the trail heads along the coast to Ka`aha.

Per the NPS, the hike from Pepeiao Cabin to Ka`aha, the Ka`aha Trail, is 6mi (9.7km) with a 1680ft (512m) elevation decrease, projected to take 3 hours per the NPS. We began the hike around 9am after some cruising after a slow morning of cleanup and enjoyed the views descending the southern end of Hiliani Pali down toward the ocean. Once again the trail was relatively uneventful besides the now expected “Where’s the cairn?” situations. Once down to the coast; however, since it was ~10am the heat was quite excessive, making us both grateful for our sun hats, long sleeve shirts, and long pants. We arrived at Ka’aha within 2 hours and 45 minutes, less than the projected time, and were pleased to find no one already at the campsite. After eating our lunch we drank more water and then decided to explore the coast a short 10 minute walk from the Ka`aha shelter. Although we both had brought swimming attire for Keahou, due to the lack of non-salt water and the many miles of trail that stood between us and rinsing off the salt, we decided not to go for a swim at Ka`aha. Along the coastal walk we saw lots of small fish in the tide pools,  ocean debris scattered above the high tide mark, and enjoyed the beautiful view down the coastline.

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View from Ka’aha Trail toward Ka`aha as we descended from Pepiao to the coast
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One of the better cairns/ahu along the way
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What most of the Ka`aha trail looks like
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Greeted by a sea arch at the coast where the Ka`aha trail begins to head toward Ka`aha along the coast
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Lots of ocean debris on the beach at Ka`aha
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Black sand down at the cove in front of Ka`aha
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Looking back at the Ka`aha shelter from the cove

After exploring the beach we checked out the restrooms: the old restroom is closer to the shelter, but with no door, is not ideal for use. The second shelter is up a number of stairs and appears fairly new. Unfortunately, neither toilet had cedar chips available and oddly a very large Ziplock bag of tampons was sitting next to the toilet. The Ka`aha shelter also appeared fairly new and had many nails to hang belongings on to dry, a stand for cooking in the back right corner, and an ammunition box containing the campsite log.

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Ka`aha shelter with the tent in it since no one else was at the campsite.
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Water catchment tank at Ka`aha.
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Old compost toilet sans door
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New compost toilet; much better.
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Also a very clean compost toilet, but without cedar chips and a random bag of tampons.

We waited until late in the afternoon before setting up our tent within the shelter, without a rainfly, as no one else was at the campsite. Hitting 24 hours without seeing another person was exactly why we came out to the HVNP Backcountry, and thankfully, neither Pepeiao Cabin or Kaaha had any other campers/hikers. Our second dinner consisted of yet another Blue Mountain dehydrated meal of chili mac, followed this time by candy for dessert. Although I had hoped to take some long exposure photos of the stars down along the coast, due to the overcast skies that night, no real stars were visible. As soon as the sun set, what had been a previously pleasant day for both of us turned into a nightmare for Maxine as in-numerous cockroaches began appearing from the rock walls within the shelter, around the tent. Little did I know that Maxine was terrified of cockroaches, and the multitude of cockroaches ruined her evening/night at Kaaha. For me, I slept as fine as I ever do on a camping trip without any real events overnight.

PROS: 

  1. Relatively new 10k gallon water tank without odor and an unclogged faucet that was filled to the top based on tapping on the side of container
  2. Relatively new appearing shelter
  3. Relatively new bathroom
  4. Per the campsite log, excellent fishing down along the black rock beach in front of campsite

CONS:

  1. No cedar chips for new bathroom
  2. No door on old bathroom
  3. Tons of cockroaches in shelter
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View from Ka`aha trail towards Ka`aha shelter once the trail nears the coast
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TONS of opihi shells next to the campsite. . .no wonder there are so many cockroaches
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View from Ka`aha shelter towards Halape in the morning light.

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The Dilemma & Hike Back to Hilina Pali

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Although we expected that we would need to hike up the Hilina Pali we didn’t expect it to be as brutal as it was. . .

Based on the permit I purchased, at this point, we were supposed to hike 7.7mi to Keahou for our next two nights. After much discussion regarding bugs at both of our current/prior campsites and the 9.7mi hike from Keahou back to our car at Hilina Pali entirely uphill, we decided to venture out of the Backcountry and to head back toward the car. We figured that a separate camping trip to Halape/Keahou would be best kept for the future when Halape’s water catchment system was functioning.

Based on our map, the trek from Ka`aha to the car parked at Hilina Pali Overlook would be 3.8mi long with an elevation gain of 2280ft, taking roughly 2 hours (downhill NPS projected hike time.) Honestly, this trail kicked out butts. Whether it was due to lack of training, our backpacks loaded with food fro two more nights that we weren’t needed, our many “Where’s the cairn?” moments, or the >2000ft elevation gain is to be determined. Overall it took us 2hrs 25min to make the journey back to the Hilina Pali summit. The trail was the usual cairn following from the coast to the Hilina Pali, at which point we followed the newly redone switchbacks to the summit. Oddly we somehow lost track of the new trail on our ascent and spend a good 10 minutes scaling the cliff, which was less than ideal, but we did manage to find the trail again, thankfully. We were also met with out first hikers on the journey up unto this point on the switchbacks, a nice couple who informed us we were about 1/3 of the way up the pali (we though we were higher up!?!) The only main issue ascending the pali was a left super rectus abdominis cramp that left me crippled on the side of the trail. Overall, a truly brutal ascent that left us more than stoked to finally reach the Hilina Pali Overlook where we could take off our backpacks and restock on water from the car.

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Somehow we covered all of the land in this photo, from the far end of Hilina Pali below Pepiao Cabin, all along the coast to Ka`aha in the left corner, and up to Hilina Pali again.
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Ka`aha trail down from Pepiao cabin in the distance
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Somewhere hidden are the Hilina Pali switchbacks
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Brutal ascent
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What a grade. . .
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Looking down from Hilina Pali Overlook to what we now know is Ka`aha in the distance. Amazing that you can’t see any of the plateau below Hilina Pali from this vantage point.
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End of hike photo after having survived the brutal Hilina Pali ascent

*Attempted to use proper okinas and kahakos but the formatting changes with them, so alas, the punctuation is incorrect on most words in the article.