Mauna Kea State Recreation Area: The Complete Guide

The summit at Maunakea on the Big Island
Christopher Chan / Getty Images
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Mauna Kea State Recreation Area / Mauna Kea Forest Reserve

Address
44-5400 Daniel K. Inouye Hwy, Waimea, HI 96743, USA
Phone +1 808-961-8311

Mauna Kea State Recreation Area helps protect one of Hawaii’s most precious natural landmarks: a dormant volcano. Mauna Kea rises to an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest insular volcano on Earth (scientists predict that it’s been at least 4,000 years since its last eruption). Many of Hawaii’s endangered species call this landscape home, including the Palila honeycreeper, the ʻuaʻu bird, and the Mauna Kea silversword. At the same time, the site itself is a deeply sacred place to the Native Hawaiian community.

History

Maunakea is not only the highest point in Hawaii, it is also known as the mountain of the god Wakea, “from whom all things in Hawaii are descended,” according to traditional Hawaiian legend. As such, it is a sacred symbol of Hawaiian culture that is treated with immense respect among the local community. Centered around the mountain’s summit, there are about 11,000 acres dedicated to the Maunakea Science Reserve, made up of 263 historic properties, including 141 ancient shrines. The small lake on Maunakea, Lake Waiau, is considered to be one of the highest lakes in the country, as well.

Things to Do

Due to a combination of safety concerns, the density of threatened plant and animal species, and connection to important cultural sites, visitors are discouraged from traveling outside of the immediate area of the Maunakea Visitor Information Station (VIS) on their own. Since the high elevation and thin air at Maunakea can cause altitude sickness—especially for children, visitors with chronic health problems, and those who may be pregnant—the VIS has specific guidelines for those who’d like to visit the summit on their website.

That said, there is still plenty to see and do at the VIS, including stargazing or joining a tour from a permitted tour company. Agencies like Big Island Bike Tours host Maunakea mountain bike tours for experts where riders are shuttled to the top of the road to bike down along the lower slopes of Maunakea. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures features sunset and stargazing tours with professional guides that include historical commentary, food, and beverages. Be sure to check that your tour is registered as one of the companies with permits to conduct tours around Maunakea.

Best Hikes & Trails

Venturing to the summit of Maunakea is reserved for only the most experienced hikers. Starting at the VIS (where the state requires all hikers to register before setting out), the trail spans 6 miles one-way and climbs from 9,200 feet above sea level to 13,800 feet at the summit. Due to the high elevation, Maunakea is one of the few places in Hawaii that sees snow, so the trail is often closed in the winter according to the weather forecast. The VIS also warns that hikers who do not return to the station by sunset may be stranded on the trail in the dark overnight. Cases of acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) are not uncommon, while those who have been scuba diving within 24 hours are not permitted to ascent to avoid health complications according to the VIS website.

large white telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatories on a sunny day
Westend61 / Getty Images

Stargazing

There are currently 13 international observatories on the summit of Maunakea, representing some of the largest and most powerful telescopes in existence today. The dry, often cloudless sky provides the perfect backdrop for observing faraway galaxies and constellations. While the professional research observatories aren’t open to the public, the Maunakea Visitor Information Station puts on free nightly stargazing programs between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, weather permitting.

Camping

Camping facilities at Maunakea include five regular cabins with room for six people, two accessible cabins with room for six people, and two bunkhouses with room for 24 people. Facilities also feature a children’s playground, picnic areas, parking areas, a walking path, and a public toilet. Bunkhouses require a group permit before proceeding with a reservation, but cabins may be rented without a license using the Hawaii County online reservation system.

Where to Stay Nearby

Other than the camping facilities, there are no accommodations near Maunakea. Most lodging options are located over 40 miles away in Hilo to the east or Waimea to the northwest. Drive a bit further to find more luxury resorts along the Kohala Coast or a more comprehensive range of hotels in Kailua-Kona, where most Big Island visitors choose to stay.

Learn more about your options with our guide to where to stay on Hawaii Island.

How to Get There

Mauna Kea State Recreation Area is on Hawaii Island (formerly called the Big Island) about 35 miles west of Hilo. The park is also one of the only spots in the world where you can travel from sea level to over 13,000 feet within a two-hour drive on a single road.

To get there, take Saddle Road west from Hilo for about 43 miles up the mountain. From the north side of the island, take Saddle Road southwest from Waimea for about 46 miles. It will take a bit longer (a total of 63 miles) from the west side in Kailua-Kona, where you’ll take HI-190/Hawaii Belt Road to Daniel K. Inouye Highway (which eventually turns into Saddle Road). Once you reach the visitors center, there is a parking area on the left-hand side of the paved road.

If you're new to driving in Hawaii, get more tips with our complete guide to driving on Hawaii Island.

Accessibility

While there are accessible parking spots available near the visitors center, the parking lot is made up of gravel and uneven surfaces, and the restrooms are portables (likewise, the summit is all gravel as well). The high altitude of Mauna Kea could cause a variety of complications and the VIS doesn’t recommend anyone with a heart or repository problem to travel above the visitor center.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The closest gas station to Maunakea is 40 miles away from the VIS, so be absolutely sure to fill up before making the drive.
  • No matter the time of year, Maunakea is always much colder than other parts of the island, with low temperatures ranging from 17 degrees F in the winter to 26 degrees F in the summer and high temperatures averaging in the 40s. Needless to say, this is a pretty drastic shift from the beaches and hotels at lower altitudes that visitors have probably already acclimated to, so coming prepared with warm clothes is a must.
  • Altitude sickness is common, even for those who only go as far as the visitors center. Get familiar with the symptoms and learn more on the VIS website
  • On some Saturdays, the VIS hosts a special cultural presentation to share knowledge about Maunakea history and its importance in Native Hawaiian culture called Malalo o ka Po Lani. Check the VIS website to see if your visit falls on the same day as the program.
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Mauna Kea State Recreation Area: The Complete Guide