Resting right on the border between East and Central Java, this strata volcano stands proudly at 3,265m. Its three peaks, stunning views and height have given it quite a shining reputation with hikers who come from all over the world to catch sunrise from the top.
Gunung Lawu also draws people for an entirely different reason as the mountain holds both a spiritual and traditional significance to the Javanese. Popular lore is that after the fall of the Majapahit Empire to followers of Islam in the early 16th century, the last king Brawijaya V retreated to Karanganyar in the western foothills of Gunung Lawu in search of spiritual enlightenment. There he founded a Hindu temple named Candi Sukuh but was forced to abandon it unfinished when forces loyal the new kingdom of Demak came after him.
Brawijaya retreated northwards and set about constructing the temple of Candi Ceto. Again he was pursued, this time by troops of the Kingdom of Cepu, and fled to the summit of Gunung Lawu. Whilst in hiding there, he issued a curse to the effect that if any direct descendants of his pursuers set foot on Gunung Lawu then harm or death would come to them. It must have had the desired effect because thereafter Brawijaya was apparently left to in peace and eventually achieved nirvana as Sunan Lawu.
The temples that Brawijaya founded are among the last Hindu monuments constructed in Java and to this day, pilgrims come to Gunung Lawu seeking spiritual guidance.
Despite Lawu’s height, it is actually a reasonably easy mountain to summit and well suited to even beginner hikers. There are two routes to the summit and both start around 1,800m elevation, are non-technical and very scenic. Whichever one you choose you’ll need to register at the trailhead before setting off. A popular option is to ascend on one route then descend via the other.
The most used route commences at Cemoro Sewu village on the East Java side of the mountain and about 10km’s from Tawangmanggu, the closest town the trailhead and climbs up Lawu’s eastern flanks. There are five posts (pos) along the way, spaced roughly one hour hiking apart and the trail is roughly paved the whole way with handrails and steps in some places. The forth Pos, Gokro Suryo has some cottages, a warung and a superb viewpoint, although the summit is only another 15min further on. If you don’t want to fork out for cottage accommodation, you can camp around the warung or on the summit. For this route, you should allow about 5 hours for the ascent and 4 hours to descend.
The second route starts at Cemoro Kandang only 800m west of the other trailhead and snakes around the west and north slopes of the mountain. It’s the longer of the two (12km versus 8km) but less steep due to a large number of switchbacks. It’s possibly a little more scenic but its appeal lies in it being a more natural hiking experience as the trail is unformed. There are four pos along the way; the first two have huts and some flattish ground suitable for camping. About 45min past Pos 4 the trail intercepts the Cemoro Sewu route but if you prefer you can cut right along a rough trail which takes you to the summit in 10min. Although longer, the Cemoro Kandang route takes about the same time as the other as it is a gentler climb but being unpaved it’s best not tackled after rain.
Keep in mind overnight temperatures on the mountain can be extremely cold; colder still if it’s windy. Hikers have died from hypothermia on the mountain so come well prepared with plenty of warm bedding and clothing.
Tawangmanggu has a plenty of basic guesthouse and lodge style accommodation. There are also a number of warungs located at the trailheads and for a small fee, they often let trekkers bed down for a night. Public buses run daily between Solo and Tawangmanggu but you’ll need to grab an ojek from there to the trailhead.