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Tips for Hiking the Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s Highest Peak

Hiking to the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii is becoming increasingly popular with visitors to Hawaii. Its attraction is understandable, at 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the State of Hawaii. Since its base is 19,000 feet below sea level, it has a height from bottom to top of 33,000 feet, making it the highest mountain in the world. The views from the summit are indescribably beautiful, the notion of being in an alpine setting in the tropics is quite unique, and it’s also quite simply one of my favorite places on earth.

Mauna Kea began to form at the bottom of the sea about a million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is covered in snow for much of the winter, with the summit covered in 35-foot-deep permafrost. During the ice ages, the summit of Mauna Kea was iced 3 times, beginning about 200,000 years ago and ending only 11,000 years ago. One can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, striated bedrock, glacial tills covering the summit area, and remnants of ice-cursed lava flows from those times. There are even remnants of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.

The Visitor Center and Summit are reached via a road that branches off Saddle Road at about 6,600 feet near the 28 mile marker and winds its way up the south side of Mauna Kea to the Mauna Kea Information Station. visitors to about 9300 feet. The path, although steep, is paved to the Visitor Center. Above that the trail is level dirt for about 5 miles, returning to asphalt paving for the final sprint to the summit crater rim. Road conditions for Summit Road are available at 808.935.6263.

The visitor center is open from 9 am to 10 pm 365 days a year. Informative multimedia presentations, souvenirs, and some food are available here, as well as clean toilets and drinking water. Every night after dark, the center allows visitors to gaze at the stars through various telescopes and informative talks by visiting scientists are occasionally scheduled. Guided tours of the summit are led by staff at the Saturday and Sunday Center, but visitors must bring their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is suggested that visitors heading to the summit stop at the Visitor Center for at least half an hour before heading to the summit so they can acclimatize.

Above the Visitor Information Station there are no public accommodations, no water or food, no gasoline service; the observatory buildings are closed to the public and generally locked. There are no public phones or toilets, only portable toilets. There is an emergency phone located at the entrance of the U of H 2.2-meter telescope building.

Driving the Summit Road to the top of Mauna Kea isn’t as dangerous as the rental car companies would have you believe, nor as haphazard as many Big Islanders will tell you. It is true that the summit road is mostly unpaved, it is steep and winding with limited view planes; The road is extremely dangerous when wet or icy, which is often, and is subject to frequent dense clouds, snow, rain, and fog that obscure vision. Additionally, mild summer conditions can turn into deadly winter tantrums in minutes with little or no warning.

However, the road is generously wide, regularly level, and poses no real threat to the cautious driver. The prudent driver can expect to reach the top in about half an hour after leaving the visitor information station. Remember, it’s not the roughness of the road that will hamper your car; it’s the elevation that will deprive you of oxygen. To be safe, take as much time going down the hill as you did going up, using the lowest gear to avoid wear on the brakes. Check your car rental agreement, many prohibit you from driving on this road. If you go anyway, your insurance is voided, and you do so at considerable financial risk. Remember, people DO hit craters on their cars from time to time.

If the weather turns horrendous, just head downstairs right away. Relax, keep calm and drive carefully; you can be sure that even if you have to slow down to 10 miles per hour in some places, you’ll be in the safety of the Visitor Center in a mere 40 minutes or so.

Home to the largest array of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, the summit of Mauna Kea is truly an amazing place; an alluring juxtaposition of icy heights rising from steamy tropical jungle; the ancient altars of the sacred Hawaiian gods next to the buildings of the most modern sciences; of icy landscapes sculpted during the ancient ice ages together with fiery volcanic formations; all wrapped up in a fabulous ride with a little rumor of danger, just for flavor! Beautiful and breathtaking 360 degree views of the entire Big Island also include the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i on clear days. The glow of the 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 humid, and very windy at the summit. Plan and dress accordingly.

The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to Native Hawaiians, as it is home to many religious Heiau, an obsidian adz quarry, and many other archaeological sites. Remember that this landscape and the archeological sites on it are sacred; don’t take anything but pictures, don’t even leave footprints.

Parking is limited, but the hike from the top of the road to the actual top is a must for anyone who has ventured here and is in decent shape. A stone altar and USGS survey point mark the actual summit of the mountain, about a 15-minute walk down a cinder path from the top of the road. A trail that leads around the summit crater takes around 30 minutes to walk through some very wild country with incredible views. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and hydrate frequently to help avoid altitude sickness. Do not leave the security of the parking lot if you feel ill or if the weather is unstable; in fact, in case of deterioration or bad weather, or at the beginning of nausea, one must immediately leave the top and descend.

Alternatively, for those in excellent physical condition, the summit can be hiked from the Visitor Center. With unparalleled views, wild landscapes, archeological sites, and more, the hike is about 6 miles long, gains about 4,500 feet in elevation, and takes 6-10 hours to get up, depending on the hiker. There is no water available anywhere above the Visitor Center so take enough to go up and back down. Frankly, many people choose to hitchhike down the mountain after climbing it. In fact, for people who are short on time, or for whom the scenery and not the conquest of the summit are the main objectives, taking a walk to the summit and walking down is an excellent alternative, and it takes only about 3 1 /2 hours.

Another absolutely stunning hike in the summit area, accessible to almost anyone in reasonable conditions, is Lake Wai’au. Park in the lot at about 12,000 feet, near the 5 mile marker, or in the lot at about 13,000 feet, near the 7 mile marker. It goes without saying that one hike is uphill and the other is uphill; 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 is phenomenal. An absolute gem of an alpine lake 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 loose tephra and glacial drift over the that settles Are they like 300? for 150? by 8 feet deep and, yes, I can personally attest that it has been dived. However, there is not much to see there.

There are also some health concerns about visiting the summit of Mauna Kea. In summary: it is recommended that children under 16 years of age, pregnant women and people with respiratory or cardiac problems or who are severely overweight do not go over the Visitor Information Station. Divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before traveling to the summit.

Acute mountain sickness, resulting from exposure to high altitudes, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. Aspirin and plenty of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is the immediate and rapid descent. Victims will notice a near complete cessation of symptoms upon retrieving The Saddle. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even life-threatening, and the sudden onset of a comatose condition, or even death, can be unexpectedly rapid.

Lastly, there is a serious risk of severe sunburn and eye injury, especially when there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses with a rating of at least 90% IR and 100% UV (both UVA and UVB); use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce susceptibility to sunburn.

Most visits to the summit of Mauna Kea are extremely pleasant experiences, encompassing easy adventures that can present a mild altitude euphoria, fabulous views, and a great sense of relief upon reaching the paved road and public restrooms at the top. Information station for visitors after leaving the summit.


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