Rising 13,796 feet above the sea, Mauna Kea is an impressive landmark on the Big Island. The peak of this dormant volcanic mountain is the highest point in all of the Hawaiian Islands. It can be seen from many parts of the Big Island and from Maui on a clear day, but the truth is that standing on land, you’re only seeing part of Mauna Kea. More than half of this mountain is submerged, and it actually extends 19,700 feet below sea level to the ocean floor. If measured from its base to its peak, it is the tallest mountain on Earth, edging out Mount Everest by over 4,000 feet.
Given the impressive statistics of Mauna Kea, it’s not surprising that Hawaiians of the past and present have considered this mountain to be sacred. It is the site of numerous ancient Hawaiian burial grounds and shrines. In Hawaiian mythology, Mauna Kea is believed to be the offspring of Wakea, the Sky Father, and Papahanaumoku, the Earth Mother. It is the home of Poli`ahu, the snow goddess and a rival of Pele, the goddess of fire, who also resides on the Big Island. It is said that the glaciers that once existed on Mauna Kea were formed by a battle between these two rivals.
Astronomers from around the world also hold Mauna Kea in high esteem. The lack of city lights and a clear, dry atmosphere at the top of the mountain make it an ideal location for astronomical observation. It currently holds 13 large telescopes near its summit that are used for astronomical research.
While Native Hawaiians and astronomers both celebrate the mountain, there are major disagreements on how to best utilize it. From 2014 to 2015, an attempt to begin building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea made the mountain the center of an ongoing controversy between astronomers and Native Hawaiian activists. Astronomers believe Mauna Kea is the best location for what would be the most powerful telescope in the world to study neighboring and forming galaxies as well as our own solar system and stars throughout the Milky Way, while Native Hawaiian activists believe the telescope would be a desecration of a sacred place in addition to the telescopes that already exist there.
Currently, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has been halted indefinitely due to an issue with how the permits were obtained. However, the Thirty Meter Telescope corporation still intends to obtain permits in order to build, and activists still oppose the telescope, so the battle continues.
Despite the controversy, on most days, the boldest displays you’ll encounter on Mauna Kea are the otherworldly cinder cone landscapes, the sun, and the nighttime sky. Many people begin their exploration of Mauna Kea at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station located at 9,200 feet. At this center, you can obtain more educational and safety information about the mountain.
About five miles from the Visitor Information Station (VIS) is the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve. Here, you’ll find the Mauna Kea Adz Quarry where ancient Hawaiians collected basalt rock to make tools.
As you approach the summit, look out for ‘ahinahina, or silversword, a unique plant endemic to Hawaii. These silvery, spiky plants have adapted to the rugged conditions of Mauna Kea, but are under threat because of feral cattle, sheep, and goats that roam the slopes of the mountain. Significant conservation efforts have been made to protect the ‘ahinahina and other endemic flora of the region, and the dwindling population of the ‘ahinahina is growing through reintroduction.
Near the summit of Mauna Kea, is Lake Waiau. At 13,020 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest lakes in the United States, and it is believed that the lake was formed from melted permafrost. To get here, you’ll need to do about a 1-mile round trip hike from the road.
From the fall to spring, it occasionally snows at the top of Mauna Kea, making it possible to play in the snow and swim at a tropical beach in the same day. For locals and visitors alike, the opportunity to experience the snow in Hawai`i is too good to pass up, and people will flock to the mountain with whatever snow gear they can scrounge up when the peak gets a dusting of snow and it is safe to drive up.
Due to the partially unpaved roads, four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended if you plan to drive past the VIS. It is always a good idea to check weather conditions before heading up to the summit of Mauna Kea, as two-wheel drive vehicles may be restricted during inclement weather. If the weather is severe enough, the road may be closed altogether.
Watching the sunrise or sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea can be a spectacular experience as you see the sun emerging from or sinking behind the fog below. If you are unable to go up to the summit for the sunset, another option is to watch it from Pu`u Kalepeamoa, also known as “Sunset Hill.” This spot is a 1.3-mile round-trip hike from the Visitor Information Station.
Even if you’re not an astronomer, Mauna Kea is a great place to stargaze. Every night, the VIS provides a free stargazing program from 6pm to 10pm. During this program, you will have the opportunity to learn more about the history of Mauna Kea, view stars through a telescope, and take a star tour. If you prefer to go up to Mauna Kea with a guide, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures and Hawaii Forest & Trail both offer tours that include watching the sunset from the summit, stargazing, dinner, and hot beverages to warm you up when it gets chilly on the mountain.
Regardless of the weather forecast, layers are highly important when visiting Mauna Kea, especially if you plan to stargaze at night. During the day, due to the proximity to the equator and high elevation, the sun can be bright, so ample sunscreen is also recommended for daytime excursions. Food for sale at the Visitor Information Station is limited, so it’s a good idea to bring snacks and picnic meals with you. With the dry, high altitude air, also be sure to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated.
For any hiking you plan to do on Mauna Kea, it’s a good idea to gradually acclimatize yourself. Before engaging in physical activity at or near the summit, it is recommended to spend time at the Visitor Information Station adjusting to the altitude. It may also help to hike at lower elevations in order to build stamina before hiking at higher elevations.
However you choose to spend your time on Mauna Kea, there are fascinating scenes all around. Exploring the unique and diverse landscapes of its slopes, you can admire how this mountain unites the sea, land, and sky as you stand atop a volcano that persevered for a million years to emerge from the ocean and reach such great heights. In this place, you feel grounded in the Earth’s splendor while always looking toward the sun and the stars.
Sunsets, Stars and Snow
After you experience one of the most dramatic sunsets in all of Hawaii atop Mauna Kea Summit, stay for surreal night skies with endless twinkling stars, bright constellations and cloudscapes like you have never seen before. Find out for yourself why Mauna Kea is the supreme location for astronomers to look into space and why locals claim it’s the best spot on the planet to stargaze and get their winter fix.
Check your rental car agreement before you drive up on your own and be prepared for wintery conditions. For road conditions and weather report message, call (808) 935-6268. Best to go with experienced guides for comfort, knowledge, powerful telescopes, warm parkas, hot chocolate, and dinner. Hawaii Forest & Trail (808) 331-3635 or Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (808) 322-2366.