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Advice For Hiking the Summit of Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s Highest Peak
Tourism to the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii is becoming increasingly popular with visitors to Hawaii. Understandably, at 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the State of Hawaii. Since its base is 19,000 feet below sea level, it has a base-to-top height of 33,000 feet, making it the highest mountain on earth. The views from the top are absolutely beautiful, the idea of being in an alpine setting in the tropics is quite special and, quite simply, it is also one of my favorite places in the world.
Mauna Kea began to form on the sea floor about a million years ago. The name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is covered with snow most of the winter, and the top is covered with permafrost 35 feet deep. During the ice age, the top of Mauna Kea was cleared 3 times, starting about 200000 years ago and ending only 11000 years ago. You can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, striped bedrock, glacial slabs covering the roof and the remains of ice-damaged lava from those times. There are even remnants of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.
The Visitor Center and summit are reached by a road that turns off the Saddle Road at about 6600 feet elevation near the 28 mile marker and drops steeply up the right side of Mauna Kea. to the Visitor Information Station at about 9300 feet. The road, although steep, is paved to the Visitor Center. Above that, the road is considered dirt for about 5 miles, returning to asphalt pavement for the final sprint to the summit’s cleft edge. Road conditions for the summit road can be obtained at 808.935.6263.
The visitor center is open from 9am to 10pm 365 days a year. Information multimedia displays, souvenirs, and some food are available here, as well as clean bathrooms and drinking water. Every evening after dark the center allows visitors to look at the stars through several telescopes and informative talks with visiting scientists are recorded from time to time. On Saturdays and Sundays, Center staff lead field trips on the summit, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is recommended that visitors stop at the summit at the Visitor Center for at least half an hour before going to the summit to acclimatise.
Above the Visitor Information Station there are no public accommodations, water or food or gasoline service; the observatory buildings are closed to the public and usually locked. There are no public phones or restrooms, just port-a-potties. An emergency telephone is located in the entrance to the U of H 2.2 meter Telescope building.
Driving the summit road to the very top of Mauna Kea is not as dangerous as the rental car companies want you to believe, or as steep as many Big Island residents will tell you. True, the summit road is unpaved most of the way, it is steep and winding with limited viewing planes; the road is extremely dangerous when it is wet or icy, which is very often, and it often gets thick clouds, snow, rain and fog obscuring all views. Also, balmy summer conditions can turn into deadly winter spells in minutes with little warning.
However, the road is very wide, regularly graded and poses no real danger to the careful driver. The safe driver can expect to reach the summit within ½ hour of leaving the Visitor Information Station. Remember, it is not the roughness of the road that hinders your car; it is the elevation that starves it for oxygen. To be safe, take as much time going back down the hill as you did coming up, using the lowest gear to save wear on brakes. Check your car rental agreement – many prohibit you from driving this road. If you go anyway, your insurance is void, and you do so at great financial risk. Remember that sometimes people crash their cars.
If the weather is scary, just come down immediately. Relax, be calm and drive with care; you can be confident that even if you have to slow down to 10 miles per hour in places, you’ll be at the safety of the Visitor Center in just 40 minutes or so.
The summit of Mauna Kea, which hosts the largest collection of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, is a truly amazing place; a seductive setting of icy heights lifted from steaming tropical jungle; age-old altars of sacred Hawai’ian gods next to editions of the latest sciences; of frigid landscapes carved during ancient ice ages next to volcanic fire landscapes; all wrapped around a great ride with a little hint of danger, just for spice! Beautiful, breathtaking, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island including the islands of Maui, Kahoolawe and Lana’i on clear days. The glow from the Kilauea volcano can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures in the summer can be in the upper 60s, it is generally cold to freezing, often wet and very windy on top. Plan and dress accordingly.
The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians, hosting many religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry and several other archaeological sites. Remember that this landscape, and the archaeological sites on it, are sacred; take nothing but pictures, don’t even leave footprints.
Parking is limited, but the hike from the top of the road to the summit is a must-do for anyone who has made it this far and is in good shape. A stone altar and USGS survey point mark the very top of the mountain, about a 15-minute walk up an expressway from the top of the road. A path around the summit crater takes around 30 minutes to walk and crosses wild country with amazing views. Make sure to drink plenty of water and hydrate often to help prevent altitude sickness. Do not leave the safety of the car park if you feel ill or if the weather is at all likely – indeed, in bad weather or bad weather, or at the start of the session, you should leave the roof immediately and descending
Alternatively, for those in good physical condition, one can walk to the top from the Visitor’s centre. With unparalleled views, wild landscapes, archeological sites and more, the hike is about 6 miles long, gains about 4500 feet in elevation and takes 6 to 10 hours to ascend, a according to the pedestrian. There is no water available anywhere above the Visitor Center, so take enough to get up, and back down. In fact, many people choose to walk down the mountain after walking up. Of course, for people who are short on time, or for those who have views and do not get over the top of the main goals, it is a good alternative to take a trip to the top and walk down, and it will not take it’s only about 3 1/2 hours.
Another wonderful hike in the summit area, one that is accessible to almost anyone in reasonable condition, is to Lake Wai’au. Park either at the lot at about 12000 feet, near the 5 mile marker, or the lot at about 13000 feet, near the 7 mile marker. Needless to say, one hike is uphill in and the other uphill; but both are less than a mile long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper route because the view of the astronomical center of the summit on the outer route is amazing. An absolute gem of alpine skiing in itself, at 13,020 feet Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world. It is about 300? about 150? 8 feet deep and, yes, I can personally confirm that it was snorkeled. There isn’t much to see, though.
There are some health concerns about visiting the summit of Mauna Kea as well. In brief: children under 16, pregnant women, and people with respiratory, heart conditions, or severe obesity are advised not to go above the Visitor Information Station. Scuba divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before traveling to the top.
Severe mountain sickness, due to exposure to high altitude, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. Aspirin and lots of water are reliefs for altitude sickness, but the cure ends immediately and quickly. Sufferers will notice an almost complete cessation of symptoms when they get back in the saddle. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even life-threatening, and comatose conditions can start quickly, or even death, can be unexpected.
Finally, there is a real risk of severe sunburn and eye damage, especially when there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses rated to at least 90% IR and 100% UV (both UVA and UVB); wear a sunscreen with at least an SPF rating of 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce the risk of sunburn.
Most trips to the summit of Mauna Kea are highly enjoyable experiences, including easy adventures that can bring mild euphoria, stunning views and a great sense of relief when you reach the road. paved and public restrooms at the Visitor Information Station after exiting the roof.
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