TR-Mauna Kea (13796’)
Highest point in the state of Hawaii
12.5 miles RT, 5040’ gain
from Hale Pohaku Visitor Center
My wife and I had been planning our first trip to Hawaii for quite sometime, and at last the time had come! My first hiking goal on the agenda was the state highpoint, Mauna Kea, on the Big Island. We flew into Honolulu and stayed there the first night, then visited Volcanoes N.P. the day before Mauna Kea. To mitigate the effects of coming from sea level, we car camped at the visitor’s center about 6 miles up the road to Mauna Kea at an elevation of 9200’. My wife was feeling the effects of losing 4 hours on the flight over, so she decided to drive up and meet me on top.
After a restless night of sleep in our rental GMC Envoy, I awoke at 5:15am to clear skies with a thick blanket of clouds below us. After a long battle of getting my gear organized, I signed my name in at the register and headed for the trail across the road. I quickly found out that I was on the wrong trail and needed to walk north up the road about .2 miles to the official trail. I was finally off in the right direction at 6:45 am. For the first mile or so, the trail follows an old road that steeply climbs northeast on well-behaved scree that is annoying going up. I was quickly showing signs of coming from sea level and was struggling to keep my normal pace.
As expected, the lunar landscape on Mauna Kea is interesting to walk through as for the most part it is devoid of vegetation, trees, and animal life. There are a few sections of the trail that traverse across small “a’a” lava rocks, but for the most part it is soft scree that takes a lot out of you on the way up. At around 10200’, a side trail from the road intersects the trail, so you can probably save a couple miles or so by starting higher on the road. The trail is well marked with poles every 400 yards or so, so it is easy to follow amidst the non-distinct landscape. At around 11600’, the steepness finally relents as the scree gives way to more rocky terrain. For a good portion of the hike, you can see the road on the right and at around 9:30 I saw Jenni driving up. I tried to reach her with my walkie-talkie, but she didn’t have it on yet. After a steep climb to the saddle between sub-summits Puu Waiau and Puu Hau Kea, I was rewarded with my first view of the many telescopes on the sub-summits. Clouds began to move up from the valley, but I was not worried about thunderstorm development as they are rare in Hawaii. The clouds moved overhead and out of the area quick, and I finally made it to the point where the trail joins the road at an elevation of 13200’.
From here I could have gone straight up the scree or followed the road as it makes two long sweeping switchbacks on the s.w. flank. I decided to conserve energy by staying on the road. I met a ranger just below the parking area who reassured me that I was close, and I rounded the corner to find Jenni waiting for me in the parking area between two large telescopes. I told her to put on her outfit for the summit while I headed on over. The summit itself is just to the southeast of the parking area, a short 400 yard walk that drops 100’ and climbs another 100’ to the summit. I topped out at 10:47 and donned my Hawaiian shirt for the occasion and waited for Jenni. Temps were in the upper 40’s on the summit and the wind was pretty stiff. I noticed that the trade winds off the ocean kept the summer temps cooler up high than in Colorado. Changes in elevation tend to make a larger difference in the temps in Hawaii. I was protected for much of the hike from the wind until I got on the road. Jenni soon arrived and we waited for a couple who drove up to take our pic. Jenni wore a nice flowery Hawaiian dress to celebrate the occasion. After taking some pics, we headed back over to the car for some lunch out of the wind.
To increase my time at high elevations, I decided to hike back down and left the car at 12:22. I cutoff the switchbacks on the road by going straight down a soft scree slope to the point where the trail intersected the road. I made a quick side visit to the 7th highest lake in the U.S., Lake Waiau, at an elevation of 13020’. I had an ambitious goal of hitting some of the sub-summits on the way down, but I was beat. I settled for an easy one just above Lake Waiau, Puu Waiau. I then contoured s.e. down the slopes of Puu Waiau, hoping to eventually meet up with the trail again. The GPS pointed me the right way and I was soon on my way down the scree fest to the trailhead. The pleasant scree makes for a quick descent, and I was back down to the car at 2:45, a little before Jenni expected me back. All in all, the views on Mauna Kea would be spectacular on a clear day, but the marine layer kept us from seeing the ocean. Hulking Mauna Loa dominates the skyline to the south and shows why it is the largest mountain in the world. The scenery is pretty ugly for much of the way, but the uniqueness of the terrain makes it worth doing the hike. On to Mauna Loa!
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