Hawaii County Highpoint Trip Report
Mauna Kea (13,796 ft)
Date: July 24, 2005
Author: Kevin Baker
My wife and I had been planning our first trip to Hawaii for quite some time and
at last the time had come. My first hiking goal on the agenda was the state
highpoint, Mauna Kea, on the Big Island. We flew into Honolulu and stayed there
the first night, then visited Volcanoes N.P. the day before Mauna Kea.
To mitigate the effects of coming from sea level, we car camped at the visitor's
center about 6 miles up the road to Mauna Kea at an elevation of 9200 feet.
My wife was feeling the effects of losing 4 hours on the flight over, so she
decided to drive up and meet me on top.
After a restless night of sleep in our rental GMC Envoy, I awoke at 5:15 am to
clear skies with a thick blanket of clouds below us. After a long battle of
getting my gear organized, I signed my name in at the register and headed for
the trail across the road. I quickly found out that I was on the wrong trail
and needed to walk north up the road about 0.2 mile to the official trail.
I was finally off in the right direction at 6:45 am. For the first mile or so,
the trail follows an old road that steeply climbs northeast on well-behaved
scree that is annoying going up. I was quickly showing signs of coming from sea
level and was struggling to keep my normal pace.
As expected, the lunar landscape on Mauna Kea is interesting to walk through as
for the most part it is devoid of vegetation, trees, and animal life. There are
a few sections of the trail that traverse across small "a'a" lava rocks but for
the most part it is soft scree that takes a lot out of you on the way up. At
around 10,200 feet, a side trail from the road intersects the trail, so you can
probably save a couple miles or so by starting higher on the road. The trail is
well marked with poles every 400 yards or so, so it is easy to follow amidst the
non-distinct landscape. At around 11,600 feet, the steepness finally relents as
the scree gives way to more rocky terrain. For a good portion of the hike, you
can see the road on the right and at around 9:30 I saw Jenni driving up.
I tried to reach her with my walkie-talkie but she didn't have it on yet.
After a steep climb to the saddle between sub-summits Puu Waiau and Puu Hau Kea,
I was rewarded with my first view of the many telescopes on the sub-summits.
Clouds began to move up from the valley but I was not worried about thunderstorm
development as they are rare in Hawaii. The clouds moved overhead and out of
the area quickly and I finally made it to the point where the trail joins the
road at an elevation of 13,200 feet.
From here, I could have gone straight up the scree or followed the road as it
makes two long sweeping switchbacks on the southwest flank. I decided to
conserve energy by staying on the road. I met a ranger just below the parking
area who reassured me that I was close and I rounded the corner to find Jenni
waiting for me in the parking area between two large telescopes. I told her to
put on her outfit for the summit while I headed on over. The summit itself is
just to the southeast of the parking area, a short 400 yard walk that drops 100
feet and climbs another 100 feet to the summit. I topped out at 10:47 and
donned my Hawaiian shirt for the occasion and waited for Jenni. Temps were in
the upper 40's on the summit and the wind was pretty stiff.
I noticed that the trade winds off the ocean kept the summer temps cooler up
high than in Colorado. Changes in elevation tend to make a larger difference in
the temps in Hawaii. I was protected for much of the hike from the wind until I
got on the road. Jenni soon arrived and we waited for a couple who drove up to
take our picture. Jenni wore a nice flowery Hawaiian dress to celebrate the
occasion. After taking some pictures, we headed back over to the car for some
lunch out of the wind.
To increase my time at high elevations, I decided to hike back down and left
the car at 12:22 pm. I cutoff the switchbacks on the road by going straight
down a soft scree slope to the point where the trail intersected the road.
I made a quick side visit to the 7th highest lake in the U.S., Lake Waiau, at an
elevation of 13,020 feet. I had an ambitious goal of hitting some of the
sub-summits on the way down but I was beat. I settled for an easy one just above
Lake Waiau, Puu Waiau. I then contoured southast down the slopes of Puu Waiau,
hoping to eventually meet up with the trail again. The GPS pointed me the right
way and I was soon on my way down the scree fest to the trailhead.
The pleasant scree makes for a quick descent and I was back down to the car at 2:45,
a little before Jenni expected me back.
All in all, the views on Mauna Kea would be spectacular on a clear day, but the
marine layer kept us from seeing the ocean. Hulking Mauna Loa dominates the
skyline to the south and shows why it is the largest mountain in the world.
The scenery is pretty ugly for much of the way but the uniqueness of the terrain
makes it worth doing the hike.
On to Mauna Loa!
Climb statistics: 12.5 miles round trip with 5,040 feet of elevation gain from the Hale Pohaku Visitor Center.