Getting High in HI...climbing Mauna Kea
(The highest (almost-a-) drive-up state highpoint)

24-26 Jun 2006 - by Alan Ritter

Hawaii: Climbing Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea
Getting High in HI
June, 2006

Monday - Friday, June 19-23, 2006

Highpointers Club

Another year's highpointing epic is under our belts. Given the need to identify a college that suits Nathan, and his having been invited to sing in a choral event in Honolulu, we combined a trip through California to visit several colleges, the choir tour and the southernmost state highpoint into one trip.

We flew to LAX, drove up to the Bay Area and flew out to Hawaii from SFO. We chose to stay in Hilo rather than the much-more-touristy Kona area. Hilo gives better access to Mauna Kea, but if you want kitsch, stay in Kona. We rented a 4WD Explorer from Harper's Car Rental in Hilo. As many Highpointers Club members already know, Harper's is the only agency on the island that allows their vehicles to be driven to the summit area of Mauna Kea.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

We got up early and ate breakfast at Ken's House of Pancakes, conveniently only a few blocks from our hotel. Great breakfast...good service and very much a local place...definitely not just for tourists. We drove up the newly-improved route 2000 to the observatory visitors center at about 9,200' on the slopes of Mauna Kea. They recommend you stay there for at least a half-hour to acclimate and see if you are going to have immediate problems with the altitude. After our stop, neither of us was suffering particularly, having loaded up on Tylenol before we left sea level.

Onizuka Visitors Center on Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea Summit Trails

Trail to Mauna Kea Summit Follows the Ridgeline

As you approach the summit of the road, there is a large gravel parking area on the left a hundred yards or so before the high point of the road. A faint use trail is visible that countours across to the more-commonly-used trail from the road down a small saddle and back up to the summit, proper.

Ever unwilling to hike "down" to hike "up," we chose to hop over the guardrail and use the fainter but more nearly level trail. It joins the other trail near the low point of the saddle. All-in-all, it's maybe a quarter-mile and a couple of hundred feet of gain to the summit. The main trail follows the ridgeline in the view to the right.

Warning Signs at the Summit Trailhead

USGS Benchmark at the Mauna Kea Summit

Altar at the Summit of Mauna Kea

If you do drive up to the top of the road, you are greeted by signs warning of danger if the slope is icy and cautioning you not to disturb the rocks in this almost-extraterrestrial landscape.

The trail up the summit ridge is visible behind the signs and leads up to the summit with its Hawaiian altar and USGS benchmark.

On top of the highpoint of Hawaii and the tallest mountain on earth (counting, of course, its base at the bottom of the Pacific), we took the requisite summit photo, recorded a GPS waypoint of 19 49.242' N, 155 28.086' W and shot a summit panorama. (See - You will need a Java-enabled browser to view the panorama. The file is quite large, so if you're not on a high-speed link, it may take a while to load, as well.)

At the Summit of Mauna Kea

Snow near the Summit of Mauna Kea

During the winter, it is not uncommon for the upper parts of Mauna Kea to receive significant snowfall. With the winter of 2005/2006 having been one of the wettest on record, it was not too surprising to find the remnants of the winter's snowfall still present on this otherwise tropical island. Temperatures on the summit were in the upper 40s, with a bit of a breeze, so the fleece jackets we had brought to Hawaii definitely came in handy. Overnight temperatures near the summit fall to near freezing even in mid-summer, according to the forecasts on the Mauna Kea observatory website. You can also see a live webcam view of the summit on the NOAA Mauna Loa weather observatory website (which used to be at

The summit area is populated by a variety of astronomical observatories owned and operated by various countries' universities. Probably the best-known of these are the twin domes of the Keck multiple-mirror telescope. Unfortunately, we were there on a Saturday, so the visitors center for the Keck telescope wasn't open and we had to content ourselves with a walkaround of the exterior of the building.

As you can see in the background of this shot, a low deck of clouds had begun bo build, and we drove through clouds and mist as we descended back through the 9,200' level and passed the Onizuka visitors center on our way down the mountain.

The Keck Telescopes atop  Mauna Kea

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Nathan at the Southernmost Point in the U.S.

Having accomplished our first goal for the trip, we returned the Explorer to Harper's and rented a more-efficient Ford Focus for our further touring of Hawaii. On Sunday, we drove a lap of the Big Island and checked off another geographic extremum, the southernmost point in the U.S. along the south coastline of Hawaii.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Our last day on the Big Island, we drove through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Both Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes are active at the moment, and the drive down the Chain of Craters Road takes you to the point where a lava flow overran the road a few years ago. From there, a short walk across the cooled lava crust brings you to this overlook where you can see the steam cloud generated as the current lava flow meets the Pacific Ocean. (It is also possible to hike considerably closer to the flow, but we were limited on time before we had to return the rental car, so settled for the more-distant view.)

Steam as Lava meets Water

A Real USGS Bench Mark

As highpointers, we're very familar with USGS benchmarks on summits and other points of geographic significance. At the Kilauea visitors center, however, there is one that really is a "bench" is set into a stone bench on the rim of the Kilauea crater. I suppose that someone at the USGS actually has a sense of humor!

The road that circles the Kilauea crater passes by a number of interesting sights, including a large lava tube and several subsidiary craters and vents that have been active at various times. The road itself obviously leads a rather tenuous existence as you drive along stretches that have been built over fairly recent flows from the 70s and 80s.

 USGS Benchmark on Kilauea Crater Rim

Tuesday, June 27 - Monday, July 3, 2006

With my 41st and Nathan's 39th highpoint under our respective boots, we boarded an inter-island flight back to Honolulu for Nathan's choir tour the following week. The kids, many of whom hadn't been off the mainland before, had a great time and performed very well.

Now, Nathan and I just need one more Western Region highpoint and we can get our 40-state highpointer pins. Probably not this year, maybe next year...

Respectfully submitted by Alan Ritter, July 2006
The Eclectic Traveler

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