When my wife and I started planning a Summer trip to Hawaii, one of my key goals was to climb the highest point in the state of Hawaii. Mauna Kea, on the Big Island, is Hawai'i's highest mountain at 13796 ft (4198 m). So needless to say, I made sure to include a few days on the Big Island in our trip to Hawaii.
I decided to wait until the second day of the trip, to hopefully relieve some jet lag before my hike. On the morning of July 4th, 2004, I pulled out of our hotel at 5:45 am. Our hotel was on the beach, so I was essentially started at sea level. It took me just over an hour to get to the Onizuka Visitor Center, which is at 9200 ft. I took the Saddle Road, to the Mauna Kea Summit Road. Although I had heard that the turn off to the Summit Road was often not marked – due to theft of the signage – it was marked very well on this morning. At 7 am, there was no one else at the Visitor’s Center, but it was turning out to be a beautiful day. At the Visitor’s Center there were sign-in sheets, as well as a very clear map of the trail.
I threw on my new Salomon trail runners, and my light day pack, and started up the road at around 7 am. From the Visitor’s Center, the Mauna Kea Trail follows the road for about 5 minutes, then turns off to the left. This was very well marked also. I started out at a light jog, but once I hit the trail, I had to walk. The trail was mostly dirt, gravel and rock the whole way. This stuff was impossible to jog on. The trail was very clear, but not very well worn.
The full trail is about 6 miles each way. All of the trail is class 1 hiking. For the first mile the trail follows what is obviously a 4x4 dirt road. There are a few turnoffs, but the trail markers kept me on track. Eventually the trail becomes a foot path only. The terrain is mostly gravel and dirt. As the trail gets higher, it crosses several small volcanic rock fields; nothing very big, but enough to stop you from jogging for fear of rolling an ankle. The terrain shifts from gravel, to dirt to volcanic rocks for the first 5 miles. At about the 5 mile point, the trail pops out onto the road. For the rest of the route the trail uses the paved road. Once you hit the road, you start to get a clear view of the many giant telescopes that litter the top of Mauna Kea. I guess this high point in Hawaii is a great place to park a telescope and view the universe with a very clear view of the sky. Although I had no more excuses about gravel and dirt, I still chose not to jog too much during the last mile. The top of the road is not actually the high point on the mountain. The true high point is about a 5 minute walk – and 100 ft drop and re climb – just to the right of the road’s high point.
I reached the true high point in around 2 hours 45 minutes. I was surprised that I had no ill affects from the altitude; no headaches, and only moderate fatigue and loss of appetite. I was comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt (poly, of course) on top. My watch said that it was 63 degrees. I had expected it to be much cooler, and I had packed a jacket and running pants just in case.
I spent about 20 minutes on top, admiring the view and gobbling some carbs. When I start down, I finally started jogging. I jogged on and off the whole way down. At about 1.5 miles from the top (0.5 from leaving the pavement), I turned right towards Lake Waiau, at 13200 feet. This is a beautiful little lake. My side trip to the lake was about 10 minutes, then I was back jogging down the trail. As I was jogging down, I had to walk through the patches of volcanic rocks. As, I stated before, I didn’t want to roll an ankle. Although I was cautious through the rocks, I did eventually wipe out. I was about 1 mile from the bottom and something jumped out and grabbed my right foot, and I sprawled head first down the trail. I scraped up my arm plenty good, and I threw a bunch of dust and gravel up into my face, just as I was taking a deep breath. Needless to say, I was blowing rocks and gravel out of my nose for two days.
I reached the bottom in about 1 hour and 20 minutes – minus the side trip to Lake Waiau. When I got back to the Visitor’s Center, there were plenty of people there. I think that several were wondering where the heck I had just come from. I washed off in the bathroom, got back in the car and headed back to the beach.
Overall round trip was around 12 miles, overall elevation gain (according to my Suunto) was 4895 feet. I saw no other hikers the whole day. I only saw a few cars near the top, but other than that, I saw no one until I got back to the Visitor’s Center. This was a great hike to get in during my trip to the Islands; and a great warm up for my Colorado trip in two weeks.