Anyone who traverses the Big Island’s Saddle Road towards Hilo will notice the many massive pu’us (cinder domes) that dot the landscape along the way. One in particular always stands out for me, as it looks like a desert island stranded in an ocean of lava:
This is Pu’u Huluhulu, and it sits directly across the highway from the Mauna Kea access road. If you’ve made the trek to the Mauna Kea visitors’ center, you’ve seen it and probably wondered about it. This is not "just" a pu’u. It is also a Kipuka, a forested oasis surrounded by, but spared by, lava flows. Its one of several that can be found along the Saddle Road that were created long ago by lava flows from Mauna Loa.
There’s a parking lot at the base of the pu’u and from this point it looks pretty steep and perhaps difficult to climb.
It also isn't that tall, and you might think the views from it would not be special. Both conclusions are wrong as we have discovered.
As you enter the parking lot, you'll see a small shrine near the highway, that was decorated with fresh flowers when we were there recently.
To get to the trailheads, continue to the back of the parking area. Go through the gate (and close it: this is a wildlife preservation area). There is a hunter reporting station and one of the excellent HawaiiTrails signs that now appear at many trailheads in the area (Na Ala Hele Trail &Access program).
The trail map on the sign shows that the pu’u has a whole network of trails that were originally created in the 1970s.
The longest trail (Old Quarry Trail) is only about 1 mile to the peak. We took the shorter, steeper Pilo trail and reached the peak in about 20 minutes. There are a few spots on the initial part of this trail that require some big steps up, but for the most part it is not difficult (wear good shoes), and the view is immediately rewarding:
Once on top of the Pilo trail you’ll find a large open area that presumably was once the crater area of the cinder dome.
Heading west across this area on the Naio trail takes you to a surprisingly dense Koa tree forest where the Old Quarry trail meets it. The entire back (south) side of the pu’u is covered with these trees. More surprising for us was that the Old Quarry trail, that snakes up from the pu’u base through this forest, had been recently mowed and looked so well groomed that it belonged in a resort!
The Koa trail goes up from here a bit further to the top of the pu’u, still in the beautiful Koa forest.
Virtually all the trees were shrouded in a furry white lichen known as Umikoa or “Beard of the Koa”.
This lichen is harmless to the trees and is common for Koas at higher elevations like this. At the top is a small area roped off as sacred, and within it is a quite beautiful totem, clothed in white. It was obviously well cared-for.
The views from the top at the surrounding lava fields and volcanoes is impressive. This is a view of Hualalai to the west:
Mauna Loa, with a small snow cap, is visible through the trees to the south:
And Mauna Kea, with a bit larger snow cap can be seen to the north.
We took a slightly different route down, and found this trail, like the others, to be well-maintained.
The entire stop took about one hour for us. There are more trails to explore here that we did not try, most of which travel through the Koa trees. Next time you cross the Saddle Road, why not stop and give it a try?