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Advice 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 among visitors to Hawaii. Its appeal is understandable, as the summit of Mauna Kea at 13,796 feet is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. Since its base lies 19,000 feet below sea level, its height from base to summit is 33,000 feet, making it the highest mountain in the world. The views from the top are indescribably beautiful, the feeling of being in an alpine environment in the tropics is unique enough and, quite simply, it is also one of my favorite places in the world.
Mauna Kea began to form on the sea floor about a million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language, and it is covered with snow for most of the winter, and the top is covered with permafrost up to 35 meters deep. During the ice ages, the summit of Mauna Kea was glaciated 3 times, starting about 200,000 years ago and ending only 11,000 years ago. We can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, the striated bedrock, the glacial ridges that cover the summit area, and the remnants of the ice-cursed lava flows of those times. There are even remnants of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.
The visitor center and summit is reached by a road that turns off Saddle Road at about 6,600 feet elevation near the 28 mile marker and winds its way up the south side of Mauna Kea to the visitor information station at about 9,300 feet. The road, although steep, is paved to the visitor center. Above that, the road is gravel for about 5 miles before returning to tarmac for a final sprint to the rim of the summit crater. Road conditions for the summit road are available at 808.935.6263.
The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. 365 days a year. Informative multimedia presentations, souvenirs and some food are available here, as well as clean toilets and drinking water. Every evening after dark, the center allows visitors to observe the stars through several telescopes, and from time to time informative talks by visiting scientists are also organized. On Saturdays and Sundays, the Center’s staff lead guided trips to the summit, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. For information, call 808.961.2180. It is recommended that visitors heading to the summit stop at the visitor center at least half an hour before heading to the summit to acclimatise.
There is no public accommodation, water or food and petrol above the visitor information station; observatory buildings are closed to the public and usually locked. There are no pay phones or toilets, just a potty. The emergency phone is at 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 rental car companies would have you believe, nor as leisurely as many Big Islanders will tell you. It is true that the summit road is unpaved most of the way, steep and winding with limited scenic views; 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 the view. Additionally, pleasant summer conditions can turn into deadly winter fury in minutes with little or no warning.
However, the road is generously wide, routinely graded and poses no real threat to the cautious driver. A safe driver can expect to reach the summit in about ½ hour after leaving the Visitor Information Station. Remember that your car will not be hindered by the unevenness of the road; it is the altitude that will lose oxygen. To be safe, take as much time winding back down the mountain as it took you to come up, and use the lowest gear to reduce brake wear. Check your car rental agreement – many prohibit you from driving on this road. If you do go, your insurance is void and you do so at considerable financial risk. Remember that people wreck their cars from time to time.
If the weather is terrible, simply head down immediately. Relax, keep calm and drive carefully; you can be sure that even if you have to slow down to 10 miles per hour in places, you will reach the visitor center safely in a scant 40 minutes.
The summit of Mauna Kea, home to the largest collection of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, is truly an amazing place; a seductive juxtaposition of icy heights rising from a sultry tropical jungle; the ancient altars of the sacred Hawaiian gods next to the buildings of the most modern science; cold landscapes carved in the old ice ages next to fiery volcanic formations; all wrapped up in a wonderful trip with a little hint of danger just to spice things up! Beautiful, breathtaking 360-degree views of the entire Big Island, including the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i on clear days. Kilauea Volcano’s glow can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures in the summer can top out in the 60s, it is generally cool to cold at the summit, often wet and very windy. Plan and dress accordingly.
The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to native Hawaiians, hosting many religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry, and many other archaeological sites. Remember that this landscape and the archaeological sites within it are sacred; don’t do anything but take photos, don’t even leave prints.
Parking is limited, but the hike from the top of the road to the actual summit is a must for anyone who has ventured this far and is in good shape. A stone altar and USGS geodetic point mark the actual summit of the mountain, about a 15-minute walk along a sandy path from the top of the road. The trail around the summit crater takes about 30 minutes and crosses very wild country with great views. Carry plenty of drinking water and hydrate often to prevent altitude sickness. Do not leave the secure car park if you feel unwell or the weather is fortuitous – in fact, if the weather worsens or if you feel unwell, you should immediately leave the summit and descend.
For those in excellent physical condition, you can go to the top from the Visitor’s Center. Featuring unparalleled views, wild landscapes, archeological sites, and more, the hike is about 6 miles long, gains about 4,500 feet in elevation, and takes anywhere from 6 to 10 hours to get up, depending on the hiker. There is no water available anywhere above the visitor center, so take enough to get up and down. Frankly, a lot of people decide to hitchhike down the mountain after the climb. In fact, for people short on time, or for those whose main goal is the scenery rather than the summit, a great alternative is to catch the drive to the top and the hike down, which only takes about 3 and a half hours.
Another absolutely stunning hike in the summit area that is accessible to just about anyone in reasonable condition is Lake Wai’au. Park in the parking lot at approximately 12,000 feet, near the 5 mile marker, or in the parking lot at approximately 13,000 feet, near the 7 mile marker. Needless to say, one hike is up and the other is uphill; however, both are less than a mile long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper route because the view of the summit astronomical complex on the hike is phenomenal. A true gem of an alpine tarn in its own right, Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world at 13,020 feet…permafrost seals the lake bed in the loose tephra and glacial drift on which it rests. Is it about 300? for 150? 8 feet deep and, yes, I can personally vouch for it being snorkeled. There is not much to see inside.
There are also some health concerns about visiting the summit of Mauna Kea. In short: children under the age of 16, pregnant women and people with respiratory or heart diseases or severely overweight are advised not to go higher than the visitor information station. Divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before going to the top.
Acute mountain sickness, which results from exposure to high altitude, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, difficulty breathing, and impaired judgment. Aspirin and lots of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is immediate and rapid descent. Sufferers will notice an almost complete cessation of symptoms once they reach the saddle again. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even fatal, and the rapid onset of coma or even death can be unexpectedly rapid.
Finally, there is a high risk of serious sunburn and eye damage, especially if there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses rated at least 90% IR and 100% UV (UVA and UVB); wear sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce susceptibility to sunburn.
Most visits to the summit of Mauna Kea are highly enjoyable experiences that involve light adventures that can include mild altitude euphoria, beautiful views, and a great sense of relief when you reach a paved road and public restrooms at the Visitor Information Station after leaving the summit.
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