mccallwrites

Your Ultimate Guide to Hiking Mauna Kea

hiking mauna kea hawaii girl on volcano mccall writes

There are so many wonderful, exciting things to do on Big Island including snorkeling with manta rays, exploring active volcanoes, and visiting rare black sand beaches. But one of the most intense, rewarding experiences you can have there is hiking Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea, meaning “White Mountain,” is a dormant shield volcano with an elevation of 13,796ft (4,205m). 

And it’s the tallest mountain in the world–taller, even, than Mt. Everest by over 3,000ft (914.4m). The only reason it’s not traditionally recognized as the tallest is because most of the mountain is submerged in the Pacific Ocean.

If you’re planning a visit to Big Island and want to know everything there is to know about hiking Mauna Kea, strap on your backpack and jump into this all-inclusive guide.

To hike Mauna Kea safely, make sure you take time to acclimate to the altitude, select an appropriate trail, and pack essentials for changing weather. Additionally, make sure you respect the environment by staying on marked trails and leaving no trace behind.

Table of Contents

the best time of year to start hiking mauna kea

the best time of year to start hiking mauna kea

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It’s recommended that you hike Mauna Kea between April and November because conditions are milder.

I hiked Mauna Kea in June of 2022, and I had a great experience with the weather. The roads and trails were easy to navigate, and despite the elevation, the temperatures were definitely manageable with the right layers.

how to get to mauna kea

how to get to mauna kea

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The visitor’s station and trailhead on Mauna Kea are located here–about 40 minutes outside of Hilo and about an hour away from Kona by car. 

No matter which side of the island you’re coming from, you’ll end up driving down Saddle Road until you turn off on the Mauna Kea Access Road. These roads are both well-maintained and easy to navigate–especially with the assistance of a GPS.

You’ll drive up the mountain for six and a half miles before reaching the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Information Station (VIS). You should be able to get there in virtually any passenger vehicle, but if you’re planning to drive up to the top, then you’ll need to drive something suited to off-roading like a Jeep.

where to park

where to park

There’s plenty of parking available at the VIS, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a spot–especially if you arrive early in the morning. 

Note that the later you arrive–even on a weekday–the harder it will be to find parking because people will start arriving for sunset stargazing tours. When my friends and I arrived at the VIS, we were one of two cars in the entire lot. By the time we finished that evening, there were less than five parking spots available.

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fill out a mauna kea hiking permit

fill out a mauna kea hiking permit

At the front of the VIS, there is a little box that has free Mauna Kea hiking permits. Make sure that each person in your hiking party fills out and turns in one of these documents. That way, there’s a record of when you started your hike and who your emergency contacts are if you need to be rescued. 

If the VIS isn’t open when you arrive, you can leave your completed form in the back section of the form box where the rangers can collect it later.

Pro tip: Grab a free trail map while you’re sorting out your hiking permit!

make sure you acclimate to the altitude

make sure you acclimate to the altitude

The visitor’s station on Mauna Kea is located at 9,200ft (or 2,804m) above sea level, so you need to make sure to take the time to properly adjust to the altitude.

It’s recommended that you spend at least thirty minutes to two hours hanging out in the parking lot to make sure you properly acclimate. Otherwise, you may end up getting altitude sickness which can become life-threatening.

Additionally, make sure that you don’t climb or drive any higher up Mauna Kea than the VIS if you:

  • Are under the age of thirteen
  • Are pregnant
  • Are intoxicated
  • Have been scuba diving within the past 24 hours
  • Or have high blood pressure, a heart condition, or a respiratory condition

what to expect on the trail

what to expect on the trail

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The Humu’ula Trail starts just a few hundred feet away from the VIS. Once you’re acclimated, you’ll walk further up the paved road until it forks off into the driving trail ahead of you and the hiking trail to your left.

Don’t feel bad if you’re already gasping for air at this point because I was 100% struggling. But that’s not a huge surprise considering I wasn’t in the best shape and your elevation increases more than 2,000ft (609.6m) in the first two miles alone.

But your burning lungs don’t come without reward–the views on your way up are absolutely incredible. When you’re just driving around the island, it can be hard to really get a grasp of how big Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are, but the higher you hike up, the bigger they appear.

Also, the trail is well-marked the entire way up, so it’s very unlikely that you’ll get lost. Just make sure to stick close to the path during hunting seasons to avoid potential risk.

 

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how long will hiking mauna kea take?

how long will hiking mauna kea take?

On average, it takes experienced hikers 5-10 hours to hike up the volcano. So if you’re physically fit and have experience with these kinds of conditions, you should be totally fine.

However, if you’re less than active and like stopping to admire the view (and catch your breath) every 100ft, it may take you a bit longer to reach the top.

Either way, the hike is definitely doable in a day. Just make sure you’re prepared if it ends up lasting longer than you anticipate.

must-sees when hiking mauna kea

must-sees when hiking mauna kea

There are so many fantastic things to see when you’re hiking Mauna Kea, so make sure not to miss anything.

Highly Endangered Silversword Plants

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In a small garden at the back of the VIS grows the “crown jewel” of Mauna kea–the silversword.

These are highly endangered flowering plants that are typically native of Hawai’i, and one thing that makes them so special is that they can live from fifteen to fifty years, but they only bloom once before they die.

Lake Waiau

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Lake Waiau is one of the highest alpine lakes in the world with an elevation of 13,020ft (3,970m). It’s incredibly important in Hawai’ian mythology, and it’s associated with the snow deities Lilinoe and Waiau.

Traditionally, only priests and chieftains were allowed to access the lake as well as members of the royal family.

Mauna Loa

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From the vantage point of a Mauna Kea hike, the view of its neighboring giant, Mauna Loa, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The immense bulk of Mauna Loa dominates the horizon, its slopes rising majestically against the backdrop of the sky, and contrast between the two volcanoes, with Mauna Kea’s rocky, snow-capped summit and Mauna Loa’s gentle, forested slopes, creates a striking tableau of natural beauty.

top tips before you start hiking mauna kea

top tips before you start hiking mauna kea

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Check out a few of my top tips to consider before you begin your Mauna Kea hike.

Get An Early Start

This hike is no walk in the park. It’s going to take a significant amount of your day to complete, and it may last longer than you expect. To give yourself the best chance of completing it, make sure you get an early start.

It took my friends and me eight-and-a-half hours just to reach the top, and if we hadn’t started at 6:30 in the morning, we may have ended up hiking back down after dark. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend starting this hike any later than 8:00 AM if you can help it.

Beware the Signs of Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness can be an incredibly dangerous side-effect of hiking Mauna Kea. It occurs in people when the drops in atmospheric pressure and oxygen react poorly with a hiker’s physical condition. 

It doesn’t happen to every hiker, but if you develop any symptoms of altitude sickness while hiking–no matter how close you are to the top–you must turn around immediately and get to a lower elevation. One of my hiking partners started developing symptoms seven hours into our hike at Lake Waiau–about half a mile from the summit–and he was forced to turn back.

Symptoms of altitude sickness can include:

  • Thirst
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Impaired judgment
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of muscle coordination

The Restroom Situation

At the VIS, the only bathroom options available are some rather rank portapotties on the backside of the building that I couldn’t bring myself to use. And there are obviously no facilities on the trail.

While there are (presumably) restrooms at the observatories at the summit, the majority of them are not open to the public, so you may be SOL up there, too.

Pack More Water than You Think You Need

The air on Mauna Kea is extremely dry, and that paired with your physical exertion means that you need to be drinking at least two cups of water (abo0t 500ml) per hour. 

I only took a 5-cup (1,250ml) water bottle and a 20oz (2.5-cup/591.5ml) dragonfruit Vitamin water, and it was definitely not enough–I ended up drinking everything I had by the time we reached the summit.

Don’t Forget Your Sunscreen

While it’s easy to remember to put on sunscreen when your skin is scorching on the beach, it can be harder to keep up with it when you’re hiking at colder temperatures. But you need to make sure you’re applying sunscreen consistently because while it may not feel like it, you’re still in danger of sun exposure while hiking Mauna Kea.

Dress for the Weather

Hawai’i-bound travelers usually load up their suitcases with bikinis, goggles, flip-flops, and shorts to help them make the most of the sunny, tropical days. But if you’re planning to hike Mauna Kea, you need to pack at least one outfit that would get you through a mildly cold southern winter.

The average temperature on Mauna Kea in the summer is 60F (15.6C), and the closer you get to the top, the colder it gets.

hiking-mauna-kea-mccall-writes
I recommend wearing hiking boots or tennis shoes with layers of athletic wear that are easy to move in but can be removed or added back on if you get too hot or cold. For my hike, I wore:
 
  • Thermal leggings
  • Two pairs of hiking socks
  • A crop top
  • A pullover sweater
  • A knit sweater
  • A baseball cap
  • Ear warmers (which ended up being v. necessary)
  • Gloves
  • And a giant green trench coat
Note that while this setup worked for me, it may not work for everyone. I’m pretty sensitive to the cold, so I knew I’d need a bit more to help me get through the hike.

Hitchhiking on Mauna Kea

Hitchhiking on Mauna Kea

If you’re looking to save time on your hike, hitchhiking may be an excellent way to get around faster. Dozens of vehicles trail up and down the volcano every day, so there’s a good chance you may be able to catch a ride.

It can also be a handy option if you start facing altitude sickness like one of my friends did. He was able to catch a ride back to the VIS and start recovering much faster. And my other friend and I were able to catch a ride to the bottom with a lovely Canadian group since we were cutting it close to sunset by the time we finished taking everything in at the top.

If you do choose to hitchhike, make sure you practice safe habits and don’t get in vehicles with anyone you don’t trust. This may not work for everyone, but it worked for us.

Understand Hawai’ian Peaks are Sacred

Understand Hawai’ian Peaks are Sacred

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When you reach the end of the trail at the top of Mauna Kea, there is a separate trail that can take you the last few hundred meters to the true summit. 

However, please understand that the summit of Mauna Kea–as well as Lake Waiau and many other locations in Hawai’i–are considered to be sacred and culturally significant among native peoples. And while you can hike to the very top of the volcano, there are signs posted expressing the significance of the land that request hikers not pass that point.

Out of respect for the land and people, my friend and I chose not to continue the hike and instead enjoyed it from the locations you see here.

Ready to Hike Mauna Kea?

Hiking Mauna Kea offers an exhilarating adventure amidst some of Hawaii’s most stunning natural landscapes.

By following these tips and recommendations, you can ensure a safe and enjoyable experience while exploring the breathtaking beauty and geological wonders of this iconic volcano.

So, lace up your hiking boots, pack plenty of water and snacks, and get ready to embark on an unforgettable journey to the summit of Mauna Kea, where panoramic views and awe-inspiring vistas await at every turn.

Happy travels!

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