One of the most unique and rewarding things to do on the Big Island is hike to the top of Mauna Kea. What makes Mauna Kea so special?
Well, not only is Mauna Kea the tallest mountain (volcano) in Hawaii, but it’s technically the tallest mountain in the world.
So whether the Mauna Kea hike has been on your bucket list for 10 seconds or 10 years, this guide will help you reach the summit of Mauna Kea and celebrate this incredible feat.
Quick Stats: Mauna Kea
Distance: 13.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet
Location: Mid-island off of Saddle Road
The tallest mountain in the world.
Yep, you heard that right. When measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea extends 33,500 feet where Everest reaches 29,029 feet. So the fact remains, Mauna Kea is taller than Mount Everest.
But unlike Everest, you won’t have to train for several years and pay $50,000 to reach the summit of Mauna Kea.
If I’m making Mauna Kea seem easy, don’t be fooled. It is still a hell of a hike that can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared.
So before you set off on your Mauna Kea hike, here are a few things you’ll need to know:
What You Need To Know Before Hiking Mauna Kea
Since you are hiking to the top of Mauna Kea, you’re likely a very experienced hiker. If so, you probably know the basic advice when it comes to trekking.
But here are a few things you may not know:
1. Give Yourself Plenty of Time
To reach the summit of Mauna Kea from the visitor center, you’ll need to give yourself plenty of time.
At 13.5 miles in length, this hike will take you anywhere from 5 – 10 hours to complete. Starting your ascent after 11am would be a poor choice considering the sunsets anywhere from 5:30 – 7pm and getting stuck on the trail in the dark could mean disaster.
I recommend starting by 7am to avoid any afternoon rain (or snow) showers and to finish well before sunset.
2. Trail Conditions
When you start your Mauna Kea hike from the visitor’s center, you’ll walk up the road for about 200 meters. This is black top pavement, but don’t worry, it doesn’t stay this way!
At the true trailhead, you’ll turn left off of the pavement and onto a dirt and gravel path. This dirt is firm, which makes it easier to hike.
The trail narrows and continues up the mountain for several more miles.
But pay attention because one moment you’ll be hiking on dirt and the next you could be walking on snow.
3. Be Aware of Altitude Sickness
Most hikers are aware of the dangerous effects of altitude sickness, but who knew that altitude sickness is very prevalent among Mauna Kea hikers?
Since you’ll be starting from sea level and reaching a maximum elevation of 13,800 feet, altitude sickness can happen rapidly.
Pay attention to obvious signs of altitude sickness including headache, dizziness, and nausea. If any of these occur during your hike, turn around and descend immediately.
Ignoring warning signs of altitude sickness could lead to death.
4. Am I Able To Go To The True Summit?
One of the biggest questions I had before the Mauna Kea hike was, “am I able to go to the very top?”
I had previously read that the summit of Mauna Kea is considered sacred among native Hawaiians (in addition to Lake Waiau).
As we approached the summit, we noticed a sign asking for those who are hiking to keep off the very top. To be respectful, we didn’t continue.
After our hiking day, we sat down for dinner with our Airbnb hosts, Matt and Lokana. Lokana is a native Hawaiian, so I asked her about Mauna Kea’s true summit.
According to Lokana, Lake Waiau is a sacred area and she recommends staying at a respectful distance during your hike.
But, the summit of Mauna Kea is not sacred like Lake Waiau. She said that many native Hawaiians are upset that universities are using the top of the mountain for astronomy research because they “didn’t ask permission”.
However, it is a fact that the universities were invited to the top of Mauna Kea by the local Hawaiians. In addition, these universities contribute greatly to the islands.
Therefore, claiming that the top of Mauna Kea is sacred is a ploy to get the universities off of the peak.
So whether you decide to go to the true summit or not, it is completely up to you.
5. Is It Worth It To Summit Mauna Kea?
There’s no way around it.. Mauna Kea is a long and strenuous hike. Oftentimes travelers will even question if it’s worth the effort considering you can just drive to the top instead.
But coming from an adventurer, reaching the summit of Mauna Kea is definitely worth your time.
In fact, most of the people who conquer Mauna Kea say that it’s their favorite hike of all time.
How To Get To The Mauna Kea Hike Trailhead
It is relatively easy to access the Mauna Kea Humu’ula Trailhead, but before our hike, we were concerned about a few things. Where would we park? Would our car be able to make it to the visitor’s center?
In order to reach the trailhead, you’ll need to take Saddle Road to Mauna Kea Access Road.
Once you turn down Mauna Kea Access Road, you’ll drive for about 6.5 miles before reaching the visitor’s center.
Park at the visitor’s center and sign the guestbook at the entrance (even if the visitor’s center is closed).
From the visitor’s center parking lot, walk back and start your hike going up the paved road. On your lefthand side, there will be a sign that says Humu’ula Trail.
This is the trailhead that leads to the summit of Mauna Kea.
Note: We were warned by many people that our car wouldn’t make it to the visitor’s center. We rented a 1998 Nissan Altima with low clearance but surprisingly we didn’t have any issues.
On the other hand, driving all the way to the top probably wouldn’t have gone well for our car simply because of the altitude.
Map of The Mauna Kea Trailhead
Use the map below to find the trailhead for the Mauna Kea trek.
The Hike: Route Description & What To Expect
Before beginning any hike, it’s important to read about the trail and what you can expect. As I’ve mentioned several times throughout this post, Mauna Kea is not a walk in the park.
You’ll start by ascending up the main road from the visitor’s center. Once you turn left onto the actual trail, you’ll face a steady incline for the first mile.
After the one-mile mark, you’ll climb up a steeper grade. This will last for the next few miles. At around mile four, the trail will level out a bit, giving you some time to gain ground.
Once you pass by Lake Waiau at around mile 5, the telescopes will come into view and you’ll approach the main road once again.
On the main road, switchbacks will lead you to the top. Prepare for the switchbacks to last for about 3/4 of a mile.
You’ll know you’re at the top when you find the sign that asks you to stay off the true summit (again, you can decide if that is something you’d like to do).
At the top, the wind can be strong, so I suggest hunkering down behind one of the buildings for a snack before starting the descent.
Note: Many hikers recommend hitching a ride with a car or truck that drove to the top, but that is up to you. We didn’t mind the hike down.
When To Hike Mauna Kea On The Big Island
Hiking on the Big Island is possible year-round, therefore, adding Mauna Kea to your itinerary is perfect for any season.
Although it is possible to conquer this volcano during any month, keep in mind that December tends to be the coldest and snowiest month, making it more difficult to reach the peak.
Summer is best for hiking this trail because the days are slightly longer and the weather is much more tolerable.
Should I Hike To The Top of Mauna Kea For Sunrise?
As we prepared to hike to the top of Mauna Kea, we wanted to start the trek early enough to reach the peak by sunrise.
This sounded a lot more attainable than it really is.
To reach the top of Mauna Kea by sunrise, you’ll need to factor in the drive (from wherever you are staying) and the hike. For reference, it took us 3.5 hours to reach the summit, but we were hiking quickly and it was light outside.
After much research, we decided not to hike in the dark or summit Mauna Kea for sunrise. Instead, we drove to the visitor’s center and watched the sunrise there before beginning our hike.
Note: If you’d like to drive to the top of Mauna Kea, it *may* be possible to do it for sunrise. However, you might run into barricades that won’t open until around 6am, so keep that in mind.
Do I Need A Guide For The Mauna Kea Hike?
One of the most common questions that’s asked about the Mauna Kea hike is, “do I need a guide?”
And the answer is no, you definitely don’t need a guide to reach the summit of Mauna Kea. The trail is very obvious and straightforward, so it would be difficult to get lost.
If you aren’t an experienced hiker, you could hire a local guide to help you reach the top.
Since you’ll be gaining almost 5,000 feet in 6.5 miles, altitude sickness can happen quickly. Having a guide there to assess your symptoms and help you down the mountain could be life-saving.
Note: If you’ve hiked the mountains in Colorado (13,000+ feet), then you will be able to conquer Mauna Kea without a guide.
What To Wear During Your Hawaii Hikes
Although I highly suggest bringing plenty of tank tops and shorts for other hikes on the Big Island, the Mauna Kea hike will require some warmer clothes.
Here’s what you’ll want to wear:
Who knew that while you’re packing for your Hawaiian vacation, you’d need to pack a winter hat?
It’s true. If you plan on hiking to the top of Mauna Kea, you’ll want to bring a warm hat because temperatures are likely to be below freezing, especially near the top.
Since Mike didn’t listen to me when we were packing, he frantically searched the stores in Hilo but to no avail. He ended up borrowing one from our Airbnb host and he was glad he did.
So while you pack, don’t forget a hat!
While you’re packing your hat, be sure to slip in some gloves, too. For several hours during our hike, I only dreamed of having warm gloves to keep my hands warm.
Even thin mittens are better than nothing. You will thank me later!
✅ Windbreaker/Rain Jacket
The weather on the Big Island is so unpredictable. In one area, it could be sunny and 80 degrees. Five minutes down the road, it could be raining sideways and 55 degrees.
This kind of weather pattern remains true for Mauna Kea, too. In fact, the weather is much more vulnerable to change on top of the volcano.
Throughout the first part of our hike, we wore layers to fight the cold, but at least it was sunny.
On our hike down, we faced sleet, snow, and freezing temperatures. We were so grateful to have our rain jackets.
✅ Hiking Shoes
You can get away with regular athletic shoes on hikes like Waipio Valley and Kilauea Iki, but for Mauna Kea, you’ll want hiking shoes to reach the top.
Due to loose gravel and possible snow-covered areas, hiking shoes will help you stay on your feet.
What To Bring On Your Hawaii Hikes
Most hiking trails in Hawaii won’t require a lot of gear or special equipment since they are designed for casual hikers. But Mauna Kea is not a hike for causal vacationers.
Here are the things you’ll want to bring:
At 13,000+ feet, the sun is extremely intense, especially because you’re much closer to the equator in Hawaii.
Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen.
As with any hike, you’ll want to pack plenty of food to fuel yourself on this grueling mountain. I recommend bringing sandwiches, nuts, fruit, and energy bars (our favorite is Rx Bars).
Water is a MUST on this hike. Pack at least 2L of water per person and more if possible. Not only will it keep you hydrated during your trek, but it will help prevent altitude sickness.
Note: I also recommend taking some Gatorade or Pedialyte with you to replenish electrolytes.
To carry all of your snacks, water, and extra clothing, you’ll want to bring a backpack. We each hike with a 27-liter backpack, which is plenty big enough to hold all of our gear.
Unfortunately, there aren’t very many campgrounds on the Big Island (in comparison to other places in the US), especially near Mauna Kea.
The closest area to “camp out” near the mountain is in the Mauna Kea Recreation Area. But, keep in mind that there aren’t campgrounds in this recreation area; there are only cabins and bunkhouses.
You can apply for a bunkhouse or cabin permit here: Hawaii Camping Reservation.
Watch Our Detailed Mauna Kea Hiking Video
To see our hike up to Mauna Kea and to get a sneak peak as to what you’re up against, check out our video below.
The Wrap-Up: Mauna Kea Hike
The hike up to Mauna Kea is an amazing feat to accomplish. It’s a hike that isn’t for the faint of heart, but you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views and a huge sense of accomplishment knowing you have summited the tallest mountain in the world.
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