Hiking to Mauna Kea’s summit on the Big Island of Hawaii is becoming increasingly popular with visitors to Hawaii. It’s attraction is understandable, 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. The views from the summit are indescribably beautiful, the notion of being in an alpine setting in the tropics is sufficiently unique and, quite simply, 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, archaeological 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 alternative, 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.
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.