Hiking Maunakea

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We had real trouble finding information on hiking Hawaii’s tallest mountain- Maunakea (it’s all one word now) 13,796 ft- both online and in person once we were on the Big Island. We heard/read a lot of things – you can’t hike it in winter, there’s camping at the base, there’s a hut available to overnight at elevation, the trail’s six miles straight up and nothing but loose volcanic gravel requiring gaiters, it’s managed by the county, it’s managed by the state – literally, none of which were true. Well, we still don’t know who manages it so maybe one of those is, but the point is we’ve never had more trouble trying to hike a mountain. Let me make it easy for you.

In an effort to avoid an unnecessary trip up the mountain, we tried getting the information we needed in Hilo. We went to the State office who sent us to the County who sent us to another State office who sent us to Forestry and Wildlife who didn’t know anything except the trail started at the Visitor Center. Just save your time and either go straight to the VC for info, or get up there early the morning you plan on hiking and talk to the rangers then. They’re supposed to be there at 0400, but our guy didn’t show up until closer to 0500.

Unfortunately there were no Leslie Knopes or Ron Swansons to assist us.

The keys to a successful summit, like any other mountain, is starting early and being prepared. Just because this is Hawaii doesn’t mean you’ll be cradled by warm, tropical breezes all the way to the top. It was literally freezing when we started, and we hiked through snow, and the summit was getting 45+ mph wind gusts that only got worse as the day progressed. We were the only ones- hiker or driver – allowed to go to the summit that day because we started early and “looked like experienced hikers”. Keep an eye on the weather and plan your summit for the best day.

Also don’t think just because you’re in great hiking shape that you can hike the day after you get to Hawaii (our original plan). You go from sea level to nearly 14,000 ft in about 40 miles. You need time to acclimate. We spent three nights camping at Hawai’i Volcanoes around 4000 ft, and stayed the night before the hike around 6500 ft.

There is a road going to the top, and it does require 4wd, but it’s often closed in winter due to storms, snow/ice, and high winds. Plan accordingly if you’re visiting in the winter and driving might be a back-up to the summit.

The trail starts from the Visitor Center at 9200 ft and is about 6.5 miles to the summit, but nowhere near straight up. The first mile is loose dirt, and steep, but miles 2 & 3 are a breeze. Miles 4 & 5 are grinders, but everything up from the lake junction is easy peasy. The last mile walking up the road was the easiest/fastest mile we clocked.

The trail is super well-marked and easy to follow, but there’s no water available short of melting snow so take plenty. There is a lake along the way, but Lake Wai’au is considered sacred by the Hawaiians and they’d rather you not take from it.

You don’t need a map. There are pamphlets with basic maps available free at the VC, but if you get lost, or visibility is poor and you’re worried about getting lost, just walk to the road and follow it up or down.

The wind whipping up the road was insane, and at the summit was unbelievable. Like, batten down the hatches and leave your small children behind as they’ll be blown off the mountain unbelievable. We thought the rangers were being a bit bullish closing the road so often, but you wouldn’t want the general public attempting to hike up a mountain in those conditions, trust me.

I found it! The mountain is managed by The University of Hawai’i at Hilo. You can call them at 808-933-0734 for information. Other pertinent numbers: Visitor Center 808-961-2180, Maunakea Rangers (they never answered our calls) 808-969-9613, Weather/road conditions 808-935-6268.

The one cabin is only available to groups, and only if you reserve in advance. The cabins/camping at Maunakea State Rec Area aren’t available for stays yet as of Feb 2018, but we had no trouble sleeping in the car in a pullout on the Mauna Loa Rd. Mind you, we were a couple of miles from the main road, because we heard unattended vehicles are often broken into along the highway and we didn’t want to be bothered in the middle of the night. I think we would’ve been fine setting up a tent late if we left early, and we probably would’ve slept better than we did in the front seat of our rented Nissan Versa, but we didn’t want the hassle of breaking down camp at 0300. There are lots of pullouts on the Mauna Loa road to choose from, and you’ll sleep at 6000+ ft.

Where the Maunakea road starts from the summit road, there is a parking area opposite with an outhouse and a short hiking trail through native forest. You could sleep in your car there, but again, we didn’t want the noise/possible disruption from the main road.

Wayside parking area.

There are picnic tables, running water, and flushing toilets at the Maunakea State Rec Area. You could probably stay the night in your car there as well.

There are porta-potties at the VC, as well as an outdoor water fountain so you can unload and fill up before you start hiking. We ate breakfast in the car there and did some last minute packing, just to have a bit more time at a higher elevation. A few vehicles came after us- non-hikers hoping to catch the sunrise- so get there early to secure a free parking spot for the day.

The early Warckens get the summit!

Maybe due to the challenge of figuring it out, and definitely due to the fine hiking weather, Maunakea is one of the best high points we’ve ever summited, and just a helluva fun day hike. I love hiking in the dark anyway, and with the nearly-full moon and the distant glow of Kīlauea it was unreal. I used my headlamp only occasionally to make sure I was on trail, and to let Greg (on up ahead) know where I was, otherwise it was just us, the dark, and the mountain. The wind at the summit was definitely the worst part- I actually had to stop and catch my breath after we descended, and not from exertion. The hike back to the VC was gentle enough, and we were happy to run into the same ranger from the morning. We gushed about the hike and thanked him profusely for allowing us to enjoy his mountain. He told us to keep it to ourselves because he hadn’t allowed anyone else to hike; he wouldn’t even let us sign out, in case other hikers saw we’d been allowed up. 

Mauna Loa and the glow of Kīlauea.
You and me going hiking in the dark.
Our 25th high point – complete!

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