Located in the north-central reaches of Hawaii’s Big Island, Mauna Kea packs a punch for any adventure-seeking visitor. It’s a majestic contradiction for a place perhaps best known for its tropical flora, fauna, and ocean-scape. This often snow-capped dormant volcano stretches nearly 14,000 feet into the sky, and the land on it — scrubby alpine meadows that give way to surreal moon-rock landscapes — couldn’t look more different than an oceanside paradise. But this place offers so much more than a day at the beach: It’s where ancient culture and tradition meets modern research amidst one of the most dramatic backdrops imaginable.
Here are a few fantastic reasons you should consider a visit to Mauna Kea during your next Big Island adventure.
1. It’s One Of Hawaii’s Most Sacred Spots
While Mauna Kea is stunning on its own, soaring 13,803 feet into the air, and rising a whopping 33,000 feet from the ocean floor, this is a treasured place for Native Hawaiians. In their creation traditions, the Earth Mother and the Sky Father created the Islands together. Mauna Kea was described as their first-born mountain child, and as such, is considered the piko — or center — of the Big Island. Gods and goddesses were worshipped here; evidence of that can still be seen in the stone and wooden altars scattered along the mountainside. Mauna Kea also served as a burial ground for high-ranking chiefs and priests, and religious ceremonies still take place on the long-quiet volcano, even today.
A quick footnote here about the volcano’s name: while Mauna Kea means “White Mountain” and is certainly an apt description, you’ll also see the area referred to as Maunakea — all one word. That’s at the suggestion of Native Hawaiian language scholars and experts, who say it’s a more accurate name. While the change is starting to catch on, you’ll likely see both versions during your trip.
While it doesn’t have walls, keep in mind Mauna Kea is indeed a sanctuary, and truly one of the most sacred spaces in all of Hawaii. Take nothing, tread lightly, and treat this place with the deep respect it deserves.
2. You’ll Be In The Clouds
As you make the six-mile drive up to Mauna Kea’s Visitor Information Center from the main turn-off, you’ll notice the air becomes noticeably thinner. You’re now at about 9,200 feet, and it’s recommended you stop here to acclimate before heading to the summit. There’s loads of information here about Mauna Kea’s cultural and scientific significance. Friendly guides and rangers are on hand to answer any questions you might have; snacks and souvenirs are available at the center’s store.
As you travel further up the face toward the summit, you’ll likely have the same strange, exhilarating experience we had: It’s one we will never forget. It was surreal to be heading up the face of this marvel, and realizing what we initially assumed was fog was instead feathery, drifting clouds.
3. Go From Sand To Snow
It was mind-boggling to us, and likely will be to you as well, that you can have breakfast on the beach in the morning, enjoying the sun and surf, and in just several hours, you can be in the middle of a completely different landscape, thousands of feet above sea level, frosted with fresh snow. While it fades in the summer months, it was absolutely prevalent in the winter when we visited. Going from snow to sand in the blink of an eye is one of the things that makes Mauna Kea — and the entire Big Island — so special, and the significance wasn’t lost on us.
4. The Hiking Is Incredible
Make no mistake: You’ve got to be sturdy and tough to take on Mauna Kea’s hiking trail, which starts off near the Visitor Information Center. This is a trek for experienced hikers only, as the out-and-back trip is 12 miles and includes a 4,600-foot gradual climb to the summit. Take on the eight- to 10-hour challenge, and you’ll be rewarded with incredible landscapes, a view of Mauna Kea’s Lake Waiau, and bragging rights to last a lifetime. Be prepared: Plenty of water, sunscreen, and fuel will be necessary. Keep in mind, it’s disrespectful to Native Hawaiians to ascend all the way up to the very top of the summit. Just don’t do it.
5. Observing The Observatories
Mauna Kea is considered by many to be the world’s premier astronomical research site. The mountain’s high altitude, combined with calm, dry air and dark skies, makes Mauna Kea the perfect place to observe space from Earth clearly. Since the 1960s, 13 observatories have been built here. Located near the summit, they contribute to the otherworldly feel of Mauna Kea.
The non-profit institutions — including universities and research centers — with powerful telescopes on Mauna Kea are part of the Maunakea Observatories collaboration. The group seeks to advance space knowledge while honoring Native Hawaiian culture and the mountain’s role in it.
This hasn’t always been easy. Demonstrations routinely take place to protest the telescopes; some Indigenous groups argue they disrespect the site’s sacred nature. And the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, has been an ongoing flashpoint. The project, which would feature a massive telescope, has been argued in court, started and stopped, and has served as the center of opposition for some Native Hawaiians.
6. The Once-In-A-Lifetime, White-Knuckle Drive
They say getting there is half the fun, and that was certainly our experience driving up to Mauna Kea’s summit. There’s no getting around this one: It is intense. Only consider it if the weather is good and the way up is free from ice or snow. The partially-paved road has a steep grade, with frequent hairpin turns, no guardrails, and some of the creepiest traffic signs we’ve ever seen anywhere. That said, the drive up to, and down from, the summit made for a memory we will never forget. Be sure to take your time on the way up, and down, and keep your eyes straight ahead. Having someone else in the car do the hands at 10 and 2 won’t hurt, either.
7. You’ll See One Of The Best Sunsets Anywhere
If you’ve driven up to the summit and the timing is right, stick around for dusk. Way up there, it seems as if you’re watching the sun set from the top of the world. Locals say it’s one of the best ways in all of the islands to catch an unforgettable sky scene full of blazing color.
8. Gaze At The Night Sky
The show’s not over at Mauna Kea once it gets dark. Plan to spend some time near the Visitor’s Information Center to get more than a glimpse of an incredible night sky. Chances are you’ve never seen the stars quite like this! Constellations are easily visible, and telescopes brought out by volunteers will help you see even more clearly. Spend even just a few minutes looking up at the bright, brilliant night sky, and you’ll have a better understanding of why Mauna Kea is so significant, scientifically and spiritually.
A trek to Mauna Kea is not for the faint of heart. If you choose to summit, you will be ascending from sea level to high altitude in just a couple of hours. Clearly, visitors need to take the necessary precautions to prevent illness. Take it slow, bring and drink plenty of water, and have Advil on hand in case a headache sets in. Another very important note: If you have gone scuba diving during your time on the Big Island, you must wait at least 24 hours before heading to Mauna Kea to keep the bends at bay.
It can and does get chilly on the mountain. Pack layers accordingly.
As far as vehicular safety reaching the summit is concerned, make sure you’re in a true all-wheel drive, low-range vehicle. If it’s a rental, it might not be a bad idea to check to see if you’re even allowed to drive up past Mauna Kea’s Visitor Information Center.
Of course, if the idea of making the drive yourself makes you a tad nervous, we totally get it! You can still get near the top of this special place by booking a tour. Plenty of local outfitters offer full-day excursions that include the drive up and down, plus stargazing and meals.