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Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park

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Re: OT: Mauna Kea

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OT: Mauna Kea
May 15, 2014 09:17PM
I posted a teaser for this trip previously as well as a few other Hawaii trips, but the full write-up for this one slipped through the cracks...

While our previous Hawaiian "peak" holds the record for the largest mountain in the world (in terms of volume), Mauna Kea is in the running for the tallest mountain--at least if measured from it's base on the ocean floor, some 50,000' below its summit. Even by more typical mountain measurement methods, it is an impressively tall summit, and is only a few hundred feet short of being a "14er".

First of all, some red-tape related items. The Internet would have you believe that the road to the summit of Mauna Kea is the tropical equivalent of the Rubicon Trail and requires an off-road capable 4x4 vehicle. In fact, while some tours do have such requirements, the summit road is what I would describe as "high-clearance vehicle" rated and is among the better dirt/graded roads, with just a bit of "washer board" effect. It's definitely better than, say, the road to White Mountain Peak and the bristlecone pines. There are five miles of wide, well-graded switchbacks immediately above the visitor center, after which the pavement resumes--steeply, but with wide shoulders, a center line, reflectors, guardrails--basically, all the modern highway fixings--to the summit. The biggest problem--getting down without roasting your brakes. Anyone who has gone down Old Priest Grade or descended Lee Vining Canyon knows the drill: use a gear low enough that you don’t need to ride the brakes--even if it's first gear (which for most automatics it will be).

"Do not ... build rock piles." Enough said. Unfortunately the visitor center didn't sell copies of the sign we could bring back...

Second: if you are hiking from the visitor center (at 9500'), you need to register there--forms are available outside in case they are closed (and if you're hiking to the summit and back from this elevation, you probably need to be starting before they are open…) However, if you are starting from further up the road, apparently (per rangers) there is no need to register.

The rangers and various signs ask that you respect the summit area, which is considered sacred to native Hawaiians.

Or, just respect all mountains--they are probably sacred to someone.

There are two nice, paved parking lots along the summit road that allow for easier starting points: one at about 11,900' where the pavement resumes, and one near 13,000 feet near the Lake Waiua trail. (There is also a large dirt lot near 13,000' that is closed). Parking is also available at the "Y" where the summit road splits. Restrooms (always open) are available at the visitor center, and when we were there porta-potties were available at the 13,000' lot, the "Y", and near the summit.

Due to the desire to not re-injure JKW's ankle, for our summit "hike" we decided to start at the first paved parking lot (11,900') and hike the road to the summit. This part of the road mostly parallels the trail that is approximately 1/4-1/2 mile west of the road. The generous shoulders and light traffic made the road walk a nice, high, steep, and mostly peaceful stroll. Mauna Loa's terrain is nothing like Mauna Kea's, consisting of mostly large boulders and coarse volcanic dirt.

Yes, this is where NASA films all the Curiosity footage... just kidding!

We decided to take the detour to Waiua Lake on the way up. This spur trail is in fact an old 4x4 road (perhaps an older alignment of the summit road?) and had a nice tread and grade. It joins the main Mauna Kea trail--marked with iron posts--shortly before the lake. Signs indicate the cultural significance of the lake and ask that visitors respect it, so we "touched" it virtually from a distance. The lake level was quite low, and resembled more a pond than a lake, but it is nonetheless the highest Alpine lake in the Pacific.

Alpinist near Waiua Lake

Soon after leaving the lake, we got our first up-close view of some of the observatories (the Subaru and the twin Keck domes being the most dominant), which loomed on the horizon much larger than we had expected. In retrospect, given how visible they were from Waimea and the Mauna Loa summit, it should not have been surprising how huge these buildings are up close. The presence of nearby observatories meant that we were near the summit, but we also knew that we still had several hundred feet more to climb to the summit.

Telescopes (right-to-left): James Clerk Maxwell, Subaru, Caltech Submillimeter (foreground), Keck I and II, Canada-France Hawaii

The trail joins the road for the final steep switchback to the summit. Shortly after returning to pavement, we encountered a ranger who chatted with us. He gave us a friendly warning about the weather (the forecast was for thunderstorms and rain starting around noon) and asked if ours was the car parked at the lower lot. We convinced him we were prepared for inclement conditions and we were pushing to be off the summit--if not the mountain--by noon. He did explain that, oddly, the thunderstorms the previous day hadn't reached the summit.

If you look closely you can see our (rental) car and both paved parking lots. And Mauna Loa.

The final road walk to the summit was steep, but with excellent views. I must have been stopping to take too many pictures (at least, this is my preferred theory) since I wasn't able to catch up with my wife until she stopped on the summit--a mile and several hundred feet higher up.

Okay, you're allowed one rock pile on the summit...

Unlike Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea's summit is very, well, mountain-like; it would not be out of place among other high volcanic mountains, such as those around Telluride or even Mammoth Lakes.

I understand some birds are getting left at home for trips because they take up too much space... Pro tip: lay off those Twinkies!


Clouds partially obscured our views, but we did get peeks at the road we'd walked, the green valley between the two Hawaiian peaks, and Mauna Loa itself. The nearby observatories drifted into and out of view as clouds obscured them.

Right-to-left: University of Hawaii, Gemini Northern, Canada-France Hawaii

After a quick lunch, during which we were graced with mostly sunny and warm conditions, we returned to the road by completing the summit crater circuit. The trip down was mostly uneventful, which was good in that we avoided any rain, lightning, or injury.

Mauna Loa has more mass than the entire Sierra Nevada. At this time, Mauna Kea had more snow than the entire Sierra Nevada...

We did encounter one other group of hikers who seemed to be visiting the lake (or perhaps just playing in the snow) from the upper parking lot--but it was strange to have encountered no other hikers on a tall peak on a weekend day with reasonable weather. Maybe in Hawaii clouds, rain, and cool breezes are considered unreasonable? Our total car-to-car time was about 4.5 hours, and the drive down the dirt switchbacks was similarly uneventful.

Oh, and I forgot one more thing: absolutely no helicopters buzzing around! For this reason alone Kauai gets bumped down on my "Hawaiian Islands to Revisit" list...

More Pictures
Re: OT: Mauna Kea
May 15, 2014 09:29PM
Wow, memories of a really good time. Something about those two mountains really hit me and I'd be happy spending a week just walking on them/up them from different places (or not) every darned day - the weather changed so much during the time we were there, no two days were identical. We *did* walk on one beach, for a few minutes... in the heat. But I was happiest over 10,000'!
Re: OT: Mauna Kea
May 16, 2014 03:57AM
Very nice. Thanks for posting.
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