Hiking Mauna Kea, Hawai’i

I’ve written before on the amazing sunsets and star gazing at the Mauna Kea visitor center, but there’s nothing that can beat hiking to the top.

Mauna Kea is one of the volcanoes that helped form the Big Island of Hawai’i. However, its last eruption was around 2600 BC.

Mauna Kea sits at an elevation of 13,796ft above sea level making it the second highest mountain I’ve hiked as I write this post – just shy of Mt Whitney.

Interestingly, more than half of the mountain lays below the ocean’s surface. This adds 18,900ft to Mauna Kea’s height (32,696ft) making it the tallest mountain on Earth – 3,661 ft taller than Mount Everest.

(For more interesting geographic information on Mauna Kea check out my post on its star gazing)

Since we slept the night before at sea level. This hike is the largest elevation gain I’ve made in a single day.


The trail begins at an elevation of 9,000ft at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. Parking is free. Go up about 200 yards from the visitor center on the road and the beginning of the trail will be on your right.

The trail is marked well. You shouldn’t have any issues finding your way once you get on it.

It’s called the Humuula Trail.

Just make sure to brush your shoes off before going in and out of the mountain to protect its ecosystem from unwanted pests.

In total it’s about 12 miles round trip. The first 6 up will slow you down from the steep elevation gain of 4,800ft, but the way down will go by fast.

Our group was inexperienced with high elevation hiking, and we got up and back in 9 hours – 5 1/2 up and 3 1/2 down.

Make sure to plan plenty of time into your hike to get your group up at a pace that works for you, and you should be fine.

One mile an hour is definitely a crawling pace, but I’m happy to say that everyone in our group made it all the way up and back just fine.

There are a few tips for staying on top of the altitude while you’re up there. 13k ft isn’t anything insane, but it’s enough to affect you, especially if you’re altitude sensitive or even if it just isn’t your day.

  • Make sure to drink plenty of water. Lack of fluids will slow down your acclimation process, and make sure you regularly eat to give yourself the calories you need
  • Keep an eye out for headaches and nausea. If you feel any of these from the altitude make sure to stop. If the symptoms don’t go away while you wait there, go down to a lower altitude.
  • Also, make sure to wear sunscreen. There is no sun protection on this hike, and you will be more susceptible to burning at a higher altitude.

(I also wrote a little more on dealing with altitude on my Mt Whitney post)

One more thing to look out for is low electrolytes. Taking Gatorade or propel packets can be a good call. You’ll be sweating a ton on this hike, and the sugary drink can also be a great pick me up.

A telltale sign of low electrolytes is nausea when drinking plain water, so it can easily be confused with altitude sickness at first – believe me, I’ve made that mistake!

If it comes to this stop get your electrolytes up. Gatorade is common, but something salty will work just as well.

The best approach as always is to be proactive. When you pack food and liquids keep electrolytes in mind.


Finally, don’t forget to keep an eye on others in your group. Don’t fry them at a horrible pace that only works for you. Sometimes the only way to the peak is to take a break.

Since you most likely would be spending the night before this at sea level you likely will be taking many breaks for acclimation.

Know what your group dynamic is going into this. We took lots of break on our way up, but if you’re with people that can charge the mountain go for it.

Even if you are fine without a break stopping to support your group might lend for a nicer more relaxed hike for you, and I won’t complain over extra time on the mountain.

We made sure to have no solid plans after this hike, and it worked out well. Having something we couldn’t miss right after the hike would add stress to hasten our pace and maybe even cause us to turn around before the summit.

And keep in mind that your pace will change on the way down. When you no longer have to keep fighting the rising altitude this hike flies by quick!


The hike is on a dirt trail for the overwhelming majority of it and the last mile connected back up with a paved road, but it’s gotta be the pretty paved road you’ve ever walked on.

Some people take this road up to the observatory. Technically you could drive up to the peak, but come on… the mountain so much better when you earn your way up it. I know everyone in our group is glad we made the hike.

If an emergency were to occur you could potentially get a ride back down from someone who drove up. This is all good and well if someone needs to get down from the mountain, but don’t do it just because you want to make the hike faster or easier.

If you hike up the mountain be prepared to hike down it! It’s as much a part of the hike as the way up. Making a plan to have someone drive you down from the peak is not a cool move in my book.

If going up and back is too hard there are plenty of other hikes you can do instead.

Once at the top you have the option to stay on the false peak or to go over to the true peak… However! The true peak is a sacred place for traditional Hawaiian’s and they ask that you not hike.

Don’t be an asshole. Just keep off the top.

There’s pretty much no difference between the two.

2 Replies to “Hiking Mauna Kea, Hawai’i”

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