The islands of Hawaii are home to some awe-inspiring sights that stretch across the center of the Pacific. Mauna Kea is one of these attractions that are not to be missed when you visit the Big Island. You cannot really ‘miss’ Mauna Kea anyway as its iconic slopes and imposing summit can be seen from sea level to the sky. 

The summit of Mauna Kea rises to an impressive 13,796 feet. What’s more impressive is that this is technically the tallest mountain on Earth when you consider another 18,900 feet of the mountain hides below sea level. This totals to a towering 32,696 feet, nearly ¾ of a mile taller than Mount Everest. Mauna Kea is a cinder cone volcano which is the simplest type and takes the classic dome with a crater on top shape.  

The Island of Hawaii, otherwise known as the Big Island, owes its productive natural resources, diverse ecosystems, and storied past to Mauna Kea. Lava flows from the peaks of this still active volcano continue to mold the island, pushing it ever further upward towards the endless unknown.     

The Importance of Mauna Kea on Hawaii

The View From Mauna Kea
A beautiful sunset on top of Mauna Kea looking at the Observatories on the Big Island of Hawaii

Mauna Kea is a sacred place for native Hawaiians. According to tradition, Mauna Kea is considered the kapuna, or firstborn, of the Earth Mother Papahānaumoku and the Sky Father Wākea. This mountain holds much power and is the heart and soul of Hawaii and the Big Island. While Honolulu may be the state’s current capital, true local history places Mauna Kea at the center and beginning of it all. 

The Hawaiian Islands are made of various volcanos, some dormant and some active, that have very literally shaped the landscape here. From Haleakala on Maui to Mauna Loa, Kilauea, and Kohala on the Big Island, these volcanoes rise like ever-present guardians of island knowledge. They are an integral part of their historical and cultural significance, and none of these hold as much esteem, power, and importance as Mauna Kea.  

The mountain also is an important place for astronomical research and other types of scientific study. The clear skis found at the summit of Mauna Kea make for some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world. A lack of light pollution and 360-degree views make it a valuable location where the University of Hawaii and other organizations study the skies. Several Mauna Kea observatories provide an unmatched view towards the heavens and a search into the world beyond. A thirty meter telescope and a project surrounding its use, known as TMT, has fueled ongoing study and development on the mountain.  

Tradition and modern science are in conflict here. Many native Hawaiians view the development of the summit as a direct threat to their history and culture. Governor David Ige has attempted to approach the situation with a sense of balance, but protests and demonstrations have occurred in defiance of Mauna Kea’s development. The Gov is relatively popular, but his support of TMT and the development of the summit has been met with mixed reactions.   

How to See Mauna Kea

sunsetMaunaKea Learn
sunset on Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As mentioned earlier, you can see Mauna Kea from just about anywhere on the Big Island, but to really get a sense of the grand scope of the mountain, you’ll want to dive into its heart. The two major cities on the Big Island, Kona and Hilo, make good starting points for a trip to Mauna Kea. Hilo is on the west side of the Big Island, Kona is on the east. You can reach the sites and summit of Mauna Kea by car from either of these towns within a few hours, and the excursion makes for a recommended day trip while you’re here. 

You’ll want to make sure to bring several layers and be prepared for rapidly changing weather caused by the high altitude. This can lead to altitude sickness, which can cause headaches, nausea, and fatigue. Be sure to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, as this can help with the effects of elevation. Ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers can help with headaches.

Mauna Kea is also sometimes known as the White Mountain because it does actually snow here. If you’re lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on how you see it) to see Mauna Kea on a snow day, be sure to drive carefully because the access road to the top can get slick. And keep an eye out for Poli’ahu, one of the four goddesses of the snow. You can even ski or snowboard at the summit if there’s enough snow. 

Check out these other recommended sites and stops on a visit to Manau Kea:

Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station is a good starting point for any trip to the summit. There is a parking lot where you can get out and take a good look at the volcano and surrounding areas. There are also bathrooms and a few places to sit down for a picnic lunch. The information station has been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, so check its website before visiting. 

Saddle Road

Saddle Road, also known as Hawaii Route 200, spans the center of the Big Island and goes from Hilo to Waimea. This road takes you directly between the two major volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If you don’t have the ambition or time to make it to their summits, this route makes for a good day trip that will give you a long view of each. You’ll see many diverse terrains and various ecosystems through the drive as you go from sea level to over 6000 feet.  

Lake Waiau

Lake Waiau is a small little lake found below the summit of Mauna Kea. It sits perched at an elevation of 13,020 feet, and there are a few different hikes you can take to reach its shores. It’s the highest lake on the entire Pacific Rim but isn’t much to look at other than that. An easy day hike if you want to stretch your legs after a drive, but it’s not a must-do activity.

Mauna Kea Summit

The summit of Mauna Kea is a top attraction for any visitor. You’ll get amazing views and feel the inherent power and beauty that this location holds for native Hawaiians and tourists alike. The drive takes about 2 hours, and you’ll want to be prepared for a high elevation environment, as mentioned earlier. The summit is open to visitors during daylight hours only, and you’ll need a 4WD vehicle to drive beyond the visitors center. But it’s a magical place that is well worth the effort. Be sure to respect this sacred land and leave it as you found it.