Hiking on Mauna Kea
Hike to the Summit of Mauna Kea or Lake Waiau the 6th highest lake in the U.S.
The largest mountain in Hawaii and one of the largest volcanoes on Earth, Mauna Kea is a geological wonder. Used as a place of cultural reverence, astronomical study, training, and even a NASA Mars mission project, Mauna Kea lies at over 13,000 feet above sea level.
The mountain offers dramatic views of the surrounding landmass and one-of-a-kind stargazing opportunities for those courageous enough to make the climb. But aside from the main attractions this volcano offers, there’s plenty for outdoor adventurers to enjoy along the most significant geological formation on the Big Island.
If you’re planning to gear up and explore the mountain on foot, you’ll want to know a few things about hiking Mauna Kea before you set out on this memorable adventure.
You can access the Mauna Kea Visitor Center via Saddle Road (Highway 200). The turnoff onto the Mauna Kea Access road is near the 28 mile marker and is marked with a sign. You then follow Mauna Kea road about 6 miles upslope to the Visitor Information Station around the 9,200 foot elevation.
Drivers are cautioned to use 4-wheel drive vehicles in low gear above this point because the road to the summit is unpaved, rough, and very steep. Most rental car contracts don’t allow driving all the way to the top of Mauna Kea summit, but do allow you to drive to the visitor station. Check with your rental car agency to ensure you’re not in violation of their terms if you plan to drive all the way to the summit.
Because of the significant increase in elevation, you should make sure that you pack and gear up appropriately. The top of Mauna Kea has the same conditions as other tall mountain peaks and should be planned for similarly. Because of the lowered levels of atmospheric protection, gearing up on higher-UV protection sunscreen is highly recommended – as is packing extra water, sturdy hiking boots, and emergency gear. There are no services on the summit, so planning ahead and preparing for the worst with first aid, extra rations, and cold weather gear is a must.
Most adventurers drive to the visitor center and start hiking soon after arriving, this is where elevation sickness can become a problem. You should actually make several stops on the way up the mountain and then wait an hour or so to adjust to the altitude at the visitor center before setting out on your hike.
If you and your party begin to feel lightheaded, stop for at least a half an hour and enjoy some of the scenic views while your body adjusts to the increase in elevation. Frequent stops along the way can help reduce the symptoms and severity of the elevation adaptation. Elevation sickness can be dangerous and you should turn back if you develop a headache, feel dizzy or begin to feel nauseous. Nothing but reducing elevation will help this, and continuing on could be life threatening.
Where to Hike
There are two major hikes on Mauna Kea that attract most hikers: The full Mauna Kea Summit Trail (Humu’ula Trail) and a shorter hike to Lake Waiau.
Mauna Kea Summit Trail
The Mauna Kea Summit trail is a 12 mile round trip that ascends 4,500 feet beginning at the Visitor Center (13.4 miles if you add in the lake side trail and the summit hill loop at the very top). This is a very challenging hike and you must take the altitude, weather, and mountain conditions into account before setting out. You’ll also want to start out early in the day so you can be off the mountain before dark. The hike typically takes 7-8 hours for someone who is in fit physical condition.
Fill out a form at the Visitor Center and leave it in the drop box before you leave, then check in when you get back so they know you are okay. From there, you’ll walk a short stretch up the road and head down the two lane trail to the left for about a quarter mile.
You will see a trail heading up hill to the right and that is the beginning of the Humu’ula Trail. Following this trail will take you past historic sites, incredible cinder cone landscapes, and the trailhead to Lake Waiau. Take a side jaunt to see the lake (totally worth it) then continue on to intersect with the road. The first two miles are very steep and the entire trail is rough terrain with loose rock so hiking poles are a real plus for this hike.
You’ll be on the road side for around a mile of the hike so be careful to watch for cars. There are no restrooms until you reach the parking area at the top so you will need to pack all waste and garbage with you. You can stop at the summit parking area and use the restroom and enjoy the views or continue on to the top. The final stretch of the climb to the summit starts where you see the parking area, then follow the trail around a half mile to the top. This area is considered sacred so please treat it with respect.
Lake Waiau Trail
There is also a shortened version of the Lake Waiau hike that is possible if you have a 4WD vehicle. You still want to stop at the Visitor Station, acclimate to the elevation and fill out a form. From there, you’ll want to drive up the mountain to Trailhead 1 and park your car. You will hike just over a half mile then intersect with the Humu’ula Trail heading North for a tenth of a mile where you will find the short trail to the lake.
Lake Waiau is very shallow and the highest lake in Hawaii. The body of water holds special reverence for Hawaiians, in ancient times Ali’i (royalty) would make the journey to deposit the umbilical cords of their children as an offering to provide them with the strength of the mountain. The Lake was also thought to be a portal to the spirit world. As such, you shouldn’t disturb the water or touch any offerings left here.
You have the option of returning to your car the way you came, or continuing on to the summit following the directions above. Hiking on Mauna Kea is a singular experience that you will long remember, enjoy the hike, leave no trace, and be safe.