Mauna Kea Hike: Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the Tallest Mountain in the World

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For humans. By humans.

The Big Island of Hawaii is full of incredible activities, from snorkeling with manta rays to watching an erupting volcano. But for a truly epic Big Island adventure, the Mauna Kea hike will lead you up what is technically the world’s tallest mountain (and volcano!), for jaw-dropping views above the clouds.

So lace up those hiking boots and let’s hit the road- here’s everything you need to know to conquer the Mauna Kea hike.

woman hiking to the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii

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Pssst… visiting the Big Island? Check out our other posts on this incredible place:

Kona vs. Hilo- Where Should You Stay?

Green Sand Beach: The Big Island’s Most Unique Beach

Snorkeling at Captain Cook: Everything You Need to Know About the Best Snorkeling on the Big Island

About the Mauna Kea Hike

Distance: 13.4 miles

Elevation: 4,986 feet

Difficulty: Challenging.

While this is one of the best hikes on the Big Island, it’s also really long and steep. Plus, you’ll be starting your ascent at over 9,000 feet elevation- and will just keep climbing almost one vertical mile up from there! It’s definitely one of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever done!

Dog-friendly? You’ll sadly need to leave your furbabies at home for this one.

Observatories on top of Mauna Kea

What is Mauna Kea?

Mauna Kea is a one-million year old shield volcano, located in the center of the Big Island. While there’s lots of volcano hikes on the Big Island, like the Mauna Loa trail or the Kilauea Iki trail, Mauna Kea is arguably the most impressive.

While the volcano is dormant today, it was once incredibly active and one of the five primary volcanoes that formed what the island is today. Plus, it holds lots of impressive titles, from the tallest point in Hawaii, the second tallest island mountain on Earth- and, by some definitions, even the tallest mountain on the planet. 

Cinder cone along the Mauna Kea hike

So how can all of those things be true at once? Well, Mount Everest famously holds the title for Earth’s highest mountain, with an elevation above sea level of 29,032 feet. But Mauna Kea beats out Everest for the tallest mountain on Earth when measured from its lowest point along the seafloor, rising a total of 33,500 feet (of which 13,803 feet are above sea level). So take that, Everest!

It’s not just notable for its height, though- Mauna Kea was considered by ancient Hawaiians to be the realm of the gods and incredibly sacred. In fact, only the highest chiefs and priests were allowed to trek to its summit. 

Nowadays, us mere mortals can make the challenging trek to the summit (well, kind of, anyway… more on that below) or, alternatively, if you have a four-wheel drive car, you can drive your way up along a rugged access road.

Summit along Mauna Kea hike

Between its importance to ancient Hawaiians and its whole “tallest mountain in the world” thing, I’d say the Mauna Kea hike is totally worth adding to your Big Island itinerary!

Psssst…. you can also watch us take on Mauna Kea on YouTube.

How to Get to the Mauna Kea Hike

The trailhead to Mauna Kea is located here, approximately 40 minutes from Hilo and a little over an hour from Kona. 

To reach the trailhead, no matter which city you’re coming from, you’ll drive along Saddle Road and turn onto the Mauna Kea Access Road. You’ll drive along this well-maintained and mostly paved road (any passenger car should be able to make it), with lots of signs warning you along the way about your possible impending death due to altitude sickness. After six and a half miles of climbing uphill, you’ll reach the parking lot of the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Information Station (“VIS”), perched at 9,200 ft above sea level.

Ellison Onizuka Visitor Information Station at Mauna Kea

Once you arrive at the VIS, it’s recommended that you hang out in the parking lot for anywhere between half an hour to two hours to help get acclimated to the high elevation, given that the rest of the island is at sea level (I’m not totally convinced this does much, but it’s certainly better than nothing!). 

Use part of your acclimatization time to go fill out a (free!) permit by the entrance of the VIS, which the rangers (who were all incredibly friendly and helpful) use to make sure that all the hikers on the trail are safe and accounted for, especially given the dangers of high altitude hiking.

Man hiking along Mauna Kea Trail

Once you’re good and acclimated, you’ll continue walking up the access road for several hundred feet. You’ll eventually notice a path to your left for the “Humu’ula Trail.” Head down that path- you’re officially on your way to the summit of Mauna Kea!

What to Expect Along the Mauna Kea Hike

Once you turn off the paved road onto the dirt path, the elevation gain kicks in immediately, gaining over 2,000 feet of elevation in the first two miles. The path is well-marked and easy to follow. 

Just make sure not to stray too far from it– the area to the left of the trail is used as a hunting grounds for some of the invasive animals that have become threats to Hawaii’s endemic species. Rangers warned my husband, Justin, and I that there was a risk of being shot if we accidentally wandered onto the hunting grounds (not the kind of memorable experience you’re hoping for in Hawaii). 

Woman hiking along the Mauna Kea hike

As you climb, you’ll be afforded incredible views of Mauna Loa (believed to be the world’s largest volcano!) to the south, as the ground beneath your feet transitions from dirt to volcanic rock. For the next few miles, the steepness eases up slightly, allowing you to focus more on the beautiful views of the black and red cinder cones towering in front of you.

Man hiking along the Mauna Kea hike, with Mauna Loa in the background

A little over four and a half miles in, you’ll start being able to see the shimmering telescopes perched on the mountains’ peaks up ahead and shortly thereafter, off to the left, there will be a 0.5 mile (roundtrip) offshoot to Lake Waiau. Much like Mauna Kea, Lake Waiau holds a lot of titles- it’s the highest lake in Hawaii and the entire Pacific Rim and one of the tallest alpine lakes in the world! 

Lake Waiau is also culturally significant and sacred in Hawaiian culture and was believed to be a portal connecting the Earth to the heavens above. In fact, ancient chiefs would throw the umbilical cords of their first borns into the lake to bless the baby with the mountain’s power and strength. 

Sign for Lake Waiau along Mauna Kea hike

Thus, if you choose to visit Lake Waiau, observe its waters from a respectful distance (this is not a lake you should be wading around in) and refrain from drinking from it (there’s ancient placental matter in it, anyway!).

Back on the main trail, you’ll wind your way around the back of Pu’u Hau Kea, a towering cinder cone only 300 feet shorter than Mauna Kea, and, a little over five miles in, finally reach the paved access road that leads to the summit. 

Man hiking along Mauna Kea trail

To be honest, it can feel a little demoralizing to just have your butt whooped by the trail’s altitude and elevation gain for the past several hours, only to see a bunch of people casually zipping up to the summit in their Jeeps. Take it in stride, though- you’ve definitely earned some major bragging points by this point!

The final stretch of the hike is along two steep switchbacks of the road. Distract yourself from your shaky legs beneath you with the incredible views- the Martian-looking telescopes against the red volcanic soil to the north, an endless sea of red and black cinder cones to the west, and to the south, a sea of clouds blanketing the island beneath your feet. 

Woman walking along the road on the Mauna Kea hike

Finally, you’ll be able to see a footpath along a ridgeline leading to the highest point on the volcano- however, there’s a huge sign right in front of the footpath, explaining the spiritual significance of Mauna Kea and asking hikers not to continue to the “true summit” out of respect.

Please be respectful of this request (and consider it a win to not have to not have to climb the additional 10 feet of elevation gain) and just give yourself a big pat on the back. You just climbed Mauna Kea!

Summit along the Mauna Kea hike

To make your way down, you can just retrace your steps back along the trail or, from talking with a ranger, it’s fairly common for hikers to make their way back down the access road as well. It will add an additional mile to the return journey, but it’s not as hard on your knees and easier to maintain your balance, as compared to the rocky, volcanic terrain. 

We actually took the access road down (more on that in a bit) and thought the views from here were potentially even more stunning than along the trail. So I’d actually recommend considering hiking up the trail (for the moral superiority points, obviously) and hiking back down the road, so you get to experience both perspectives.

Things you should know before hiking Mauna Kea

1. Start early. 

On average, it usually takes hikers about 10 hours to complete this trail- and honestly, to be on the safe side, I’d plan on it taking even longer. 

I have a whole host of excuses (okay, since you asked– due to it not being hiking season in our home of the Pacific Northwest, I wasn’t in my fittest shape and Justin and I had both recovered from COVID a couple weeks before our trip and unfortunately picked up a nasty cold on our flight to the Big Island), but it took us, reasonably seasoned hikers, almost nine hours to get to the summit.

Woman hiking along the Mauna Keah hike

Even if you’re not quite as epic slowpokes like us, ten hours of hiking is a full day and you’ll risk running out of sunlight if you start any later than about 8 AM or so. So plan on getting to the trailhead pretty early (with plenty of time to acclimate to the high elevation) and bring headlamps in case you get stuck on the trail longer than anticipated.

2. Altitude sickness is a serious concern here.

If you’ve been staying on the Big Island for a couple of days before the hike, your body will be used to living at sea level. When you rapidly ascend to higher elevations, like Mauna Kea, where the atmospheric pressure and oxygen levels are greatly reduced, you can quickly develop acute mountain sickness (“AMS”), which has a range of symptoms from headaches and nausea to poor judgment and loss of consciousness. Left untreated, AMS can be deadly.

In fact, when you arrive to the Mauna Kea Access Road, you’ll be greeted by a 2-meter wide, bright yellow sign informing you that “Altitude sickness can be fatal“, that you should only “…travel to the summit at your own risk“, and that there are “…no emergency medical services on [the] mountain“.

Mauna Kea Hike access road caution sign altitude sickness can be fatal travel to summit at your own risk no medical services on mountain

With that said, pay attention to any symptoms you have along the trail and, if you’re experiencing any, turn around to descend to lower elevations or, since the majority of the trail has cell coverage, call 911 if you need immediate assistance.  

By the time we had reached the summit, Justin had started to experience symptoms of AMS, including a bad headache, fatigue, and nausea. About halfway through our descent, a ranger spotted us along the access road and helped us get a ride back down the mountain to get to a lower elevation quicker.

Cinder cone along the Mauna Kea summit road

AMS doesn’t discriminate on your fitness level or age, so don’t feel bad if it hits you. Just drive down the mountain and plan on hitting Mauna Kea on your next Big Island trip!

3. Bring lots of water and sunscreen.

During this hike, your body is going to be cooking through water- not only are you climbing basically a vertical mile, but higher elevations just seem to suck the water right out of you. So having plenty of water on hand, like at least 4L (~1 Gallon) a person, is really important- not only to stay nice and hydrated, but it also helps prevent the symptoms of AMS.

Justin and I each brought along our trust giant Nalgene bottles that hold 48 ounces, as well as a couple of large bottles of water for refills. We take our Nalgenes everywhere, from trips in our RV to, of course, hiking up Mauna Kea- and not only are they easier on our wallets than single-use bottles, but they’re also better for the planet!

Woman drinking water with Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii

4. Pack layers and sunscreen.

When you’re thinking of your Hawaii packing list, you probably aren’t stuffing a beanie and a warm, puffy jacket into your jacket, but you’ll definitely want those items for Mauna Kea. Towards the summit, it’s surprisingly chilly (obviously, it gets cold enough for full blown blizzards!)

Even if the weather forecast the day of your hike looks sunny, I’d recommend bringing along plenty of layers- the weather is quite unpredictable here.

In the same vein, the sun might not feel super intense, due to the chill in the air- but the UV index actually increases 2% with every 1,000 feet of elevation you climb. So be sure to bring along and slather on that sunscreen (I’m obsessed with this kind– it’s reef-friendly and even when you get back from Hawaii, the smell will transport you right back to a tropical paradise).

5. Consider stargazing after your hike.

Mauna Kea is considered to be one of the best places on the planet for astronomical observation, thanks to its high altitude and low light pollution. Accordingly, there are a number of academic telescopes built on the summit of Mauna Kea, with a proposal to build another, which would be the largest optical telescope in the northern hemisphere, on the docket. 

But these telescopes have caused quite a lot of pushback from the Native Hawaiian community, due to Mauna Kea’s cultural and spiritual significance. In fact, protesters have stymied the building of the new telescope for over eight years (when we visited, there were still protesters in tents at the base of the mountain). 

In any event, you’re not allowed to visit the academic telescopes and I wouldn’t recommend pairing stargazing at the summit with taking on the Mauna Kea trail, due to the whole “hiking down an enormous, rocky volcano in the pitch black” thing.

If you’re interested in watching the sunset from the summit (it’s one of the best places on the island to do it) and stargazing, you can consider separately booking a stargazing tour with a knowledgeable guide and transportation to and from the summit, like this one or this one.

Stargazing on the summit of Mauna Kea

Alternatively, you’ll actually see more stars from the parking lot of the VIS than at the summit, thanks to your eyes’ ability to see better with the increased oxygen levels. So watching sunset from the VIS parking lot and hanging around to stargaze may just be the perfect post-hike activity. 

6. Soak those aching muscles after your hike.

Speaking of the perfect post-hike activity, if you’re anything like me, your glutes will be SCREAMING at you the following day.

If you have time in your Big Island itinerary, head to the Pohoiki Hot Springs along the southeast coast to soak those aching muscles in deliciously warm water and celebrate your accomplishment (or if you can’t squeeze in the trek to Pohoiki, your hotel hot tub will do in a pinch!).

Woman in Pohoiki Hot Springs on the Big Island of Hawaii

When to Hike Mauna Kea Trail

One of the best things about Hawaii is its year round gorgeous tropical weather, allowing you to explore its natural beauty, whether it’s the middle of the summer or the dead of winter. Mauna Kea, though, is a little different.

Given its towering elevation, the volcano’s summit frequently sees quite a bit of snow from December through March– in fact, “Mauna Kea” actually means “White Mountain” in Hawaiian, thanks to the snow that regularly dusts its peak in the wintertime. While weather-related trail closures are most common in the wintertime, the summit can receive snow throughout the year– in fact, Justin and I visited in mid-May and the trail had been closed most of the preceding weeks due to a huge blizzard!

Summit of Mauna Kea Hike with snow at sunset

Inclement weather can make this already challenging hike straight up dangerous- so before heading to the trail I’d recommend checking trail reports on All Trails, checking with the rangers before you start your hike, and, if snowy or icy conditions are expected, having microspikes and trekking poles on hand for better support and traction on the trail.

Where to Stay Near the Mauna Kea Hike

There unfortunately aren’t any accommodations super close to Mauna Kea, but the good news is that, thanks to its central location, it’s not too far from either Hilo or Kona, the main cities that visitors stay at on the island. 

Hilo, located on the more lush eastern side of the island, is about 20 minutes closer to Mauna Kea than Kona. For Hilo, consider staying at: 

  • SCP Hilo Hotel: Affordable pricing with friendly staff, awesome perks, like paddleboard rentals, and conveniently located close to the bustling restaurants and shops of downtown Hilo. 
  • Hilo Bay Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast: If you want to feel immersed in nature, this bed and breakfast is literally perched right on the shores of the Pacific and you’ll be able to relax on the expansive porch,
  • Dolphin Bay Hotel: If you can look past the dated decor, you’ll discover a hidden gem of a hotel, with fresh baked banana bread, a friendly cat, and rooms with comfy beds and kitchens (all for an extremely affordable price).

Kona, on the Big Island’s western side, is much drier and is home to the island’s best beaches and swankiest resorts. Consider staying at:

  • Royal Kona Resort: Everything you’d imagine a Hawaiian resort to be, with an oceanfront pool, lots of open air spaces, and roomy rooms with generous lanais. 
  • Aston Kona by the Sea: This resort offers condos, complete with lanais and kitchenettes, with lots of perks to enjoy, like barbecues and a hot tub.  The friendly service, paired with the close proximity to Kona’s charming downtown, makes this a wonderful option for your stay on the island.
Resort hotel in Hawaii

I hope you enjoy the Mauna Kea hike as much as we did! Do you have any questions about the trail? Let me know in the comment section below!

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