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Mauna Kea: Hiking Hawaii's highest peak

Updated: Dec 28, 2023


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

Towering 13,807 feet (4,207 meters) above sea level, Mauna Kea is the highest peak in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Summiting this mountain, however, is no easy feat. You will have to contend with altitude, a tough trail, and (depending on the time of year) even some snow. But reach this mountain and you can confidently say you've hiked to the top of Hawaii.


 

Trail Info

Mauna Kea Trail Information Table

Know before you go

  • Altitude sickness is a risk on this trail. There are very few places on earth where you can begin at sea level and get to almost 14,000 feet in a single day. This is one of those rare places. As such, there is less time for your body to acclimate, increasing your risk of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Go slow, drink plenty of fluids, and descend if you start to show signs of altitude sickness.

  • The entire trail is tough, with sections of rock and unstable footing and a constant, moderately steep grade. Even if the altitude doesn't affect you, I can almost guarantee you will be physically challenged. With the loose terrain and constant uphill, this trail is simply tough on the body.

  • Standing directly on Mauna Kea's summit is disrespectful to Hawaiians. Maunakea, the eldest son of Wākea and Papa, the ancestors of the Hawaiian people, holds symbolic significance as the umbilical cord (piko) linking the island child, the Big Island, to the heavens. Keep this in mind as you approach the summit.

Alternate trails and adventures

  • Driving to the summit is possible. This is less rewarding in my opinion, but the challenge of this hike will preclude a lot of people from attempting it. The same altitude sickness rules apply even if you are driving.

  • You can access Lake Waiau via a very short hike if you opt to drive to the summit. It is only about a 1.5 mile hike with a few hundred feet of elevation gain, starting around the 13,000 foot elevation mark. If your body can handle it, it is a worthwhile mini hike.


 


The Trail


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

My adventure began around 7am at the Visitor information station, elevation 9,200 feet. I HIGHLY recommend beginning your hike as early as you can. This will give you some time to acclimate and give you as much daylight as possible to complete the hike. Even if you're an experienced hiker, you will go slower than you expect.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

The beauty of this hike starts almost immediately as you feel like you've been transported to Mars. This trail is full of interesting features, such as lava rock, and cinder cones, all which come from this dormant volcano, which last erupted 4,500 years ago.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

On this hike, you will see Mauna Kea's neighbor, Mauna Loa, towering 13,679 feet (4,169m) above sea level. It is also possible to summit this peak, but it is arguably more difficult as you start at a higher elevation and have less time to acclimate.


Unlike Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa erupted for 12 days in late 2022 and sections remain closed due to the eruption. These events are rare so I wouldn't worry too much, but volcanologists can provide some level of forecasting, so you can check sites like the U.S. Geological Service for the latest updates.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

One of my highlights was this painted rock around the 11,000 foot mark. This served as a great place to rest and snap a few photos before continuing on the hike.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

This hike is almost as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. I could feel the effects of the altitude, with a rising heartrate and a growing pressure in my head. But around every turn as I took in those clouds and landscape, I couldn't help but get that "I'll soon be on top of the world" feeling, so I kept pushing.



Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

There are only two main forks on this trail. The first I noticed was around 12,000 feet. At that junction, left will keep you on the trail, and right will take you back to the road.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

The second junction pictured above appears around 4.5 miles into the hike, just above 13,000 feet. This is the junction for the short out and back to Lake Waiau. It may be tempting to skip depending on how you are feeling, but it is a very short side trail. Head left to go to the Lake.


Lake Waiau on Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

This is a worthwhile side trail in my opinion. The greenish glow added to what feels like an otherworldly hike. Fun fact, this lake is also the highest lake in all of the Pacific Rim. It also holds cultural significance as its waters are believed to have healing powers. (That said, you should not disturb the water or any of the offerings surrounding the lake).


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

It is time to push on for the summit. After backtracking, you will follow the right fork at the Lake Waiau junction. At this point you will be above the clouds, so soak that in as much as possible during your hiking breaks.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

Eventually the trail opens to the point where you can see the end. That is the observation area, which is located just below the summit. The trail will soon parallel the road as you switchback up to the summit parking area.


I will say this is a rather disheartening section of the trail. You're almost done with the ascent, but you will start seeing cars effortlessly zoom by you, only to park at the destination you've been spending the past several hours hiking to. Oh well, type 2 fun.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

The roadside trail ends at the summit parking, next to the observatory. However, the official summit is still another 100 feet above, reached by this trail.


Mauna Kea hike on Big Island Hawaii

And with that, you've summited the highest peak in all of Hawaii! If you're journey is anything like mine, I'm sure all you will be thinking about is getting back to sea level and taking a nap. But soak it in as much as you can, because this truly is an accomplishment.



 

SS Hot Takes

When I did this hike, I was 26 years old, was hiking on Oahu nearly every weekend, and working out three to four times a week. Needless to say, I was confident I was in good shape and definitely had an ego about my ability to hike tough mountains.


But this hike checked my ego--- hard. High altitude hiking was something I had never done before, and it kicked my ass. It took me over 5 hours to summit, and 2,5 to return, indicating just how much the altitude had affected me. And when I returned to my Airbnb in Kona, my head was still splitting, and exhaustion fully set in. I was asleep by 7pm and woke up about 12 hours later, realizing I had certainly suffered from altitude sickness.


But luckily, the next day I was fine and I was able to fully appreciate what I had accomplished. It's not ever day you get to hike the tallest of anything. And this mountain, with its almost alien features, felt extra special. It's an adventure that I will always cherish.



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