Skip navigation


Aloha! I’m Donnie MacGowan and I live on the Big Island of Hawaii. Today, I’d like to take you to the top of Mauna Kea. At 13, 796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea’s summit is the highest point in the State of Hawaii; since its base lies at 19000 feet below sea level, its has a base-to-summit height of 33,000 feet, making it the tallest mountain on earth. It’s also one of my most favorite places on earth.

Mauna Kea began forming on the sea floor about one million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is snowcapped much of the winter, and the summit is covered with permafrost 35 feet deep. During the ice ages, Mauna Kea’s summit was glaciated 3 times, starting about 200000 years ago and ending only 11000 years ago. One can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, striated bedrock, glacial tills covering the summit area and remnants of ice-damned lava flows from those times. There are even the remains of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.

The Visitor’s Center and summit are reached via a road which turns off Saddle Road at about 6600 feet elevation near the 28 mile marker and tortuously stumbles its way up the south side of Mauna Kea to the Visitor Information Station at about 9300 feet. The road, though steep, is paved to the Visitor’s Center. Above that, the road is graded dirt for about 5 miles, returning to asphalt paving for the final sprint to the rim of the summit crater. Road conditions for the summit road are available at 808.935.6263.

The visitor’s center is open from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. 365 days a year. Informational multimedia presentations, souvenirs, and some food items are available here, as well as clean restrooms and drinking water. Every evening after dark the center allows visitors to stargaze through several telescopes and informational talks by visiting scientists are occasionally scheduled. Saturday and Sunday Center staff lead escorted summit field trips, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is suggested that summit-bound visitors stop at the Visitor’s Center for at least half an hour before heading to the summit so they can acclimate.

Above the Visitor Information Station there are no public accommodations, no water or food and no gasoline service; the observatory buildings are closed to the public and usually locked. There are neither public telephones nor restrooms, only port-a-potties. An emergency phone is located in the entrance to the U of H 2.2 meter Telescope building.

Driving the summit road to the very top of Mauna Kea is neither as dangerous as the car rental companies want you to believe, nor as casual as many Big Island residents will tell you. True, the summit road is unpaved most of the way, it is steep and winding with limited view planes; the road is extremely hazardous when wet or icy, which is often, and it’s subject to frequent dense clouds, snow, rain and fog obscuring all vision. Also, balmy summer conditions may turn into lethal winter rages in minutes with little or no warning.

However, the road is generously wide, routinely graded and poses no real threat to the cautious driver. The safe driver can expect to reach the summit in about ½ an hour after leaving the Visitor Information Station. Remember, it’s not the roughness of the road that will impede your car; it’s the elevation that will starve it for oxygen. To be safe, take as much time winding your way back down the mountain as you took coming up, using the lowest gear to save wear on brakes. Check your car rental agreement–many forbid you to drive this road. If you go anyway, your insurance is void, and you do so at considerable financial risk. Remember, people DO crater their cars on occasion.

If the weather turns frightful, simply head down immediately. Relax, be calm and drive carefully; you can be confident that, even if you have to slow to 10 miles per hour in places, you’ll be down to the safety of the Visitor’s Center in a mere 40 minutes or so.

The summit of Mauna Kea, hosting the largest assemblage of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, is truly an amazing place; a seductive juxtaposition of icy heights raised up from steaming tropical jungle; the age-old altars of sacred Hawai’ian gods alongside edifices of the most modern of sciences; of frigid landscapes carved during ancient ice-ages alongside fiery volcanic landforms; all wrapped around a fabulous trip with a wee rumor of danger, just for spice! Beautiful, awe-inspiring, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island also include the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i on clear days. The glow from Kilauea Volcano can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures during the summer can peak in the 60s, it is generally cold-to-frigid, frequently wet and very windy on the summit. Plan and dress accordingly.

The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians, hosting many religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry and numerous other archaeological sites. Remember this landscape, and the archeological sites upon them, are sacred; take nothing but photographs, don’t even leave footprints.

Parking is limited, but the hike from the top of the road to the actual summit is a must for any who have ventured this far and are in good shape. A stone altar and a USGS survey point mark the actual summit of the mountain, about a 15 minute walk up a cinder trail from the top of the road. A trail leading around the summit crater takes about 30 minutes to trek and traverses some very wild country with amazing views. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and hydrate frequently to help stave off altitude sickness. Do not leave the safety of the parking lot if you are feeling ill or the weather is at all chancy—in fact, in deteriorating or poor weather, or at the onset of queasiness, one should leave the summit immediately and descend.

Alternately, for those in excellent physical condition, one can hike to the summit from the Visitor’s center. Featuring unparalleled views, wild landscapes, archeological sites and more, the hike is about 6 miles in length, gains about 4500 feet in elevation and takes 6 to 10 hours to get up, depending on the hiker. There is no water available anywhere above the Visitor’s Center, so take enough to get up, and back down. Frankly, many people opt to hitch-hike down the mountain after hiking up. In fact, for folks short on time, or for whom scenery and not summit-conquering are the main goals, catching a ride to the summit and hiking down is a great alterative, and takes only about 3 1/2 hours.

Another absolutely stunning hike in the summit area, one that is accessible to nearly anybody in reasonable condition, is to Lake Wai’au. Park at either the lot at about 12000 feet, near the 5 mile marker, or the lot at about 13000 feet, near the 7 mile marker. Needless to say, one hike is uphill in and the other is uphill out; but both are less than a mile long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper trail because the view of the summit astronomical complex on the hike out is phenomenal. An absolute jewel of an alpine tarn in its own right, at 13,020 feet Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world…permafrost seals the lake bed in the loose tephra and glacial drift on which it sits. It’s about 300′ by 150′ by 8 feet deep and, yes, I personally can vouch for its having been snorkeled. Not much to see in there, though.

There are a few health concerns about visiting the summit of Mauna Kea as well. In brief: children under 16, pregnant women, and people with respiratory, heart, or severe overweight conditions are advised not to go higher than the Visitors Information Station. Scuba divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before traveling to the summit.

Acute mountain sickness, resulting from exposure to high altitude, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. Aspirin and lots of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is immediate and rapid descent. Sufferers will notice almost complete cessation of symptoms upon regaining The Saddle. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even life threatening, and rapid onset of comatose condition, or even death, may be unexpectedly swift.

Finally, there is severe risk of serious sunburn and eye damage, particularly when there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses rated to at least 90% IR and 100% UV (both UVA and UVB); wear sunscreen rated to at least SPF 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce the susceptibility to sunburn. Sun screen and sunglasses, necessary to combat the deceptively severe tropical sun, are so important that I’ve written a separate articles about sun burn and sunscreen in Hawaii and what sunglasses you should bring to Hawaii. Too many visitors drastically underestimate the strength and ferocity of our sun and wind-up with vacation-ruining sunburns.

No trip would be complete without wild life footage; this was the only other living thing on the summit the day I shot this…and just to prove where we are, yup, there’s the summit!

Most visits to Mauna Kea’s summit are extremely pleasant experiences, encompassing easy adventures which may feature mild altitude euphoria, fabulous views and a great sense of relief at reaching the paved road and public restrooms at the Visitor’s Information Station after leaving the summit.

Well…thanks for spending a little time with me in one of my favorite spots…I’ve got to run now…this is Donnie MacGowan sending you a hearty “Aloha!”

For more information on visiting Hawaii in general, or touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

Advertisements

5 Comments

  1. I want to hike to the top of Mauna Kea, but I want a ride back down to the visitor center. I’m an experienced hiker.
    Do you know how I cantact someone to bring me down once I’m done ascending to the summit? I will be staying in Kona the first week of November.

    Thanks,
    Skip Organ

  2. Skip-

    There are professional services which will do this, but they are waaaay spendy.

    E-mail me at donnie@tourguidehawaii.com a couple weeks before you get here and I’ll see in the meantime if I can arrange something free…like a friend or something–shoot, I’m up there about every three weeks myself (despite the name, it’s really a SMALL island and once you’ve been here a few years, you find yourself repeating hikes with some frequency). If worst comes to worst, most folks’ll give you a ride if you just hang your thumb–Hawaii is one of the last places I feel safe hitching rides.

  3. This information is great! My friend and I will be on the BI around the 20th of October and we really want to go Mauna Kea. We’d like to hike but we’re not really experienced hikers. We do some hiking but we’re not hardcore. We are in really good shape—we’re both runners. Do you think the hike would be a problem? Hitcing a ride up and hiking down would be great option but we had hoped to be there at sunset. Would it be unwise to hike down in the dark? We have headlamps. Any advice would be really appreciated.

    Mahalo!

  4. Aloha, Scott!

    Hmmm…you ask some pretty tough questions…tough because they call for judgment and I’m not sure if I have enough information about you to be much help.

    Daylight hikes, weather not-with-standing, you’re probably OK. But weather is a huge factor–temperatures can plummet, winds can become ferocious, it can become rainy/icy/snowy in a heartbeat, whiteouts can surround and disorient you. Altitude sickness is a huge factor, as well–but weather and altitude sickness are both troubles on any big mountain and part of the risk you assume when you play in this arena.

    The dark is a whole other ball of wax. Remember, upon sunset the temperature plummets which is bad enough. But this diurnal temperature change also can bring on stronger winds and sometimes unexpected clouds and whiteout conditions between the summit and where you parked the car.

    It’s true, many of us hike up and down in the dark by headlamp, however, we know the mountain intimately and everyone I know who does this also has some Big Mountain (we’re talking Alaska, Peru, Himalaya) experience, or at least experience on big volcanoes such as Mt. Rainier, Chimborazo, Popocatepytl–

    On Mauna Kea, it’s very easy to go wrong, the terrain is very, very similar in all directions (especially in the dark), the trail is faint to indistinct in the dark, as it’s just a footpath in pumice or other airfall debris or pebbly glacial drift–all fairly monochrome. It’s really easy to get on the wrong ridge or in the wrong valley going down and wind up many, many miles from the road. And, of course, there are no nearby personnel available for search and rescue in the dark.

    Going UP in the dark, not so much, since everything sort of converges at the summit–including the road back down. Still, I’d definitely rate this as “for experienced hikers only” as well.

    Remember, this is a serious hike on a serious mountain, with serious risks…be informed (i.e., more than just watching this video, reading this blog), be prepared, be careful.

    I guess the safest suggestion, if you are willing to assumes these risks, would be to do the hike during the day (either up or down or both–if you are both serious runners, doing both up and down hikes would be challenging, but not dangerously taxing), and then drive back up for sunset–sunset from the summit really is incomparable.

  5. Thanks for the info. We’ll have to seriously think about hiking it. Like I said, we’re not hardcore hikers so its definitely a very risky proposition. We may have to bite the bullet and use one of the outfitters. I was hoping for a little more adventure but i guess its all ok if I get to enjoy the top!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: