Hiking Mauna Kea the highest volcano in Hawaii
Nothing beats the winter blues like a trip to Hawaii. In Canada, the winter is long and the sun is so low in the sky it’s hard to get enough vitamin D, and our mood suffers as a result. Even those of us who spend lots of time outside in the winter have a hard time keeping motivated at that time of year, and head to sunny places. There are so many places to go, but one of our favourite spots for a tropical trip is Hawaii. We’ve been to Maui a few times, but recently made our first trip to the Big Island, Kona.
The biggest island in the Hawaiian island chained is called “The Big Island.” Though famous for beaches and mega-resorts, the island contains plenty of good hiking trails, remote beaches and wilderness. Just take a drive away from the touristy places and you’ll have no problem finding solitude and quiet. There is lots to do on the big island, and our favourite activities are road biking and hiking. One of our favourite experiences on the island was hiking up the Mauna Kea volcano.
About Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea means “white mountain” in Hawaiian, referring to the snow that caps the summit. We visited during winter, so there was an ample amount of snow on the summit, which would likely be more if the winds that raked the mountain weren’t so strong. Mauna Kea routinely experiences strong winds from the trade winds that blow from the north. Some days, you can literally be swept off your feet in the most unromantic sense by these winds. The visitors centre will often be shut down during these wind storms.
About the hike
Hiking up Mauna Kea is not difficult, the trail itself is easy and well-graded. The main difficulty of this trail is the very high altitude which makes breathing laborious. Most people slow down to compensate and don’t feel too sick, but altitude can make some people feel extremely sick. If you’re not careful, it could develop into altitude sickness, so make sure to go slow, take it easy and drink lots of water; drink much more water than you would for a similar hike at a lower altitude.
The Mauna Kea Summit Trail tops out at 13,796 feet. The main challenge of this hike is the associated physical discomforts of altitude and also the extreme weather that can accompany it. Mauna Kea is often subject to very quick changes in weather, very strong winds and cold temperatures. Check the weather forecast before you head out and start early. Remember, in the winter the days are a bit shorter, so plan accordingly.
Weather can change quickly. Typically, summer temperatures are around below freezing to 50 F (8 Celsius).
Personally, I get very sluggish and feel very sick at high altitude, but that is my own personal physiological response. Everyone is different. Some people feel a bit slower, but otherwise not too sick. At best, it will slow you down (everyone will slow down at least a little bit), so the best advice is just to pace yourself and take it easy. If breathing becomes difficult, slow your pace. Take lots of breaks and drink lots of water. Hydration is an issue at high altitude so drink lots of liquids and regularly.
We even recommend drinking double what you would normally on a similar hike at a lower altitude. Make sure to bring enough water as you can’t get any on the trail. Mauna Kea is as dry as a desert! Bring about 1-2 gallons (4-8 liters) per person for a hike of 8-10 hours. The humidity on the mountain is an average of 10% most of the time. That’s very dry, and you will feel it. Dehydration can be a big problem.
How long does it take?
It depends how good in shape you are, but also how your body reacts to altitude. Typically you can expect the hike to take the whole day, approximately 8 hours. Allow yourself the full day to hike, this means it’s recommended that you start right at sunrise or even in the dark, shortly before sunrise.
Round Trip Distance 11.5 miles (18.5 km)
Elevation Gain 4500 feet (1370 meters)
We hiked up it at the end of January, we started in the late morning, about 9 am and were up and down in 6 hours. This isn’t typical, we were well acclimatized from living at a slightly high altitude (5000 feet) and used to altitude from skiing in the Rocky mountains regularly. Though we are fit, we took it slow and steady, with lots of breaks for food and water. Our 9 am start wasn’t what the rangers want to see!
Since you’re required to register at the visitors centre before you hike (it’s highly advised too, from a safety standpoint), you’ll want to be there as early as possible. If you come later than 10 am, the rangers will advise you not to hike. If you’re there before the visitors centre opens, there is a box outside the building where you can register your hike, and let the park rangers know you’re out there on the trail. Make sure to to sign back in, too, so they know you’ve made it back safely and don’t have to alert search and rescue.
Why is it hard to breathe at high altitude?
Everyone breaths harder and deeper at high altitudes. At higher altitudes, you’ll often hear the air being referred to as “thinner.” This is because of lower pressure. At sea level, the air is oxygen rich and the pressure is the highest. The higher up you go, the less atmosphere you have above you – the less ‘weight’ of atmosphere is over you – so because there is less weight, there is less pressure.
It’s hard to breathe at high altitude because of this low pressure. The lower air pressure makes it hard for your lungs to absorb oxygen. Your body adapts to the lower oxygen saturation by producing more red blood cells to carry more oxygen.
At 9,200 feet, you’ll find the Mauna Kea visitors centre. This is a very scenic and impressive spot and you’ll already start to feel the affects of altitude. The trail starts just up the road towards the summit and branches off to the left. Start slow, the trail is loose and steep at the beginning. Conserve some energy for the long hike ahead.
Get the latest weather conditions and forecasts on Mauna Kea on the National Weather Service website. Current weather conditions at the Mauna Kea visitors centre are available here. The weather is the worst usually in the winter. That being said, there are plenty of days in the winter where you can hike to the summit with nothing but a windbreaker on if you get a great weather day.
What to wear and what to bring
Have appropriate clothing for cold wind and insulation for rainy or snowy weather. Layer your clothing so you can remove or add layers as you need. Read more about layering here. Take a gore-tex jacket with you, which is breathable, will keep you dry in case it rains, and will also block out the wind. Take an insulating layer, such as fleece or down jacket, a hat for the sun, gloves, a long sleeved shirt and good hiking boots. The trail is loose shale in places so you will need sturdy footwear. To read more about how to layer and dress for cold weather, read our article here.
Make sure to take lots of sunscreen with you including protection for your nose and lips. Sunglasses and a hat are a must.
Summit Gear Checklist
What to bring
Here are the things you should wear and bring with you. Of course, make sure you have a proper hiking backpack that is comfortable to wear for all those hours on the trail.
- Long pants (recommended, the wind is usually too cold for shorts, and your legs will get dirty from the dry dust on the hiking trail)
- Long or short sleeved shirt
- Hiking socks, such as merino wool are recommended
- Proper sturdy hiking boots
- Wide brimmed hat or baseball cap to block out the sun
- Goretex jacket or other hard shell jacket
- Insulating layer, such as fleece or a down jacket
- Hat or toque
- Enough food for the trail, try easy to eat food such as chocolate, nuts, and granola bars or energy bars
- Sunscreen, including protection for lips and nose
- Lots of water, consider a hydration reservoir for ease of carrying
- A camera, the views are stunning!
We can’t emphasize the importance of an early start enough. By giving yourself an early start, you’ll give yourself plenty of time to make it to the summit and back. You’ll also avoid the strongest sun of the day by hiking early in the morning. The sun is strong at that altitude, so be prepared. Read why an early start – an alpine start – is always a good idea.
How to get there
To get to the start of the hike, take the Saddle Road, or highway 200 and turn north onto the Mauna Kea Access Road. The visitors centre is located high above this intersection and the views get more and more impressive as you climb. Yes, you can actually drive all the way to the summit with a 4 by 4 vehicle. The hiking trail however, is located far from the road so you don’t even notice it.
The hike starts at the visitors centre. Park at the visitors centre, register, and walk up the road for about 200 yards and look for the trail to the left. Follow trail signs for the first 1.5 miles, after which the trail is easy to follow. At about 13,000 feet the trail joins the road, and you hike the remaining 800 feet or so on the road. If you don’t feel like hiking down, you can try your luck by asking someone who has driven up for a ride down. If you can’t find anyone at the summit willing to give you a ride you can always hike the road instead of the trail, and it’s quite possible that someone will pick you up. However, of course, this is not guaranteed, so if you do decide to hike all the way up, make sure you can hike all the way down on your own.
Check out the Mauna Kea Visitors Centre site for more information.
Interested in island hiking? Check out information on more island hiking here. Yes, Hawaii is on our list of top 7 hiking islands!
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