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Best Hikes In Hawaii: Mauna Kea’s Humuula Trail

Basic Information

  • What: Humuula Trail
  • Where: Muana Kea, Hawaii
  • Elevation: 13,796 feet
  • Distance: 14 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,528 feet
  • Time: 9-12 hours
  • More Information: Onizuka Visitor Center website

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Map of the Humuula Trail

Mauna Kea Humuula Trail

Elevation Map of the Humuula Trail

Mauna Kea Elevation Map

Mauna Kea Narrative

Hiking up the 13,796 foot Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has always been on my short list for hikes to complete.  Just the unusual nature of hiking up such a tall mountain on a tropical island made it unique and thus appealing to me.  I also wanted to hike up Mauna Kea during the winter hoping there would possibly be snow.  Everything came together for my trip to the Big Island in January 2016.  Unfortunately my timing did not work out to where there would be snow on the peak, however it was going to be very cold with temperatures getting into the 20’s.  I began my hike by making the roughly one hour drive from my hotel in Kona to the trailhead located at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station.  The visitor center is located at 9,200 feet in elevation which was slightly concerning to me because I had been living at sea level for over a year.  I was very curious what effect the elevation would have on me.  I arrived at the visitor center at 4:15 AM and at the parking lot there was only one other car with hikers in it.  I readied my gear and began my hike up the mountain at 4:30 AM after signing in using a log book outside the visitor center.  The trailhead fro the Humuula Trail is located about a hundred yards up the road from the visitor center.  It can be a little difficult to spot in the dark, but I had a great headlamp which allowed me to spot it:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The next sign I saw was that the trail goes through an established hunting zone and to be cautious of shooters:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Just for the record I heard no shooting during my entire hike and it seemed like there would be very little to shoot at on Mauna Kea anyway considering how lifeless it seemed.  The beginning of the hike I would say was actually the most difficult.  The trail was steep and some sections quite sandy and thus slippery.  Plus it was very cold and I could slightly feel the effects of the elevation.  Despite all of this I was having a great time as I trudged my way up the trail in the dark.  Eventually the very first rays of the morning sunrise provided enough light to silhouette some of the surrounding terrain:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Eventually the sun rose enough where I had a stunning view of the sunrise to the east:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Probably the most amazing thing I saw in the darkness that morning was the lava glow from the Kilauea volcano in the distance.  With the low light conditions I could not get a picture of the lava glow to come out with my camera, but it was amazing to see it from such distance.  Eventually the sun rose enough to where I could see for the first time the massive 13,679 foot Mauna Loa behind me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a wider angle view of the sunrise:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As the sun rose I began to see more and more of the surrounding terrain:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Eventually the reddish glow of the sunrise approached me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As the sun rose higher in the sky I could see what was ahead me which looked like a desolate alien world:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

When the sunrise was in full glow it really did feel like I was walking across the surface of Mars:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Eventually the reddish glow of the sunrise passed and I was left with this dry and rocky landscape:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Something else I noticed as the sun rose was instead of Kilauea’s lava glow being visible I could actually see the volcano pumping out smoke:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

With the sun now fully out the temperature was getting warmer and I could begin shedding some of the cold weather gear I was wearing to keep warm during the early morning hours of the hike:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I continued up the trail the large cinder cone of Pu’uhaukea came into view:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

It was here that I came to a trail intersection where going right led towards the summit and going left led to Lake Waiau:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The walk to the lake is a short one of about a quarter mile.  I found the first view of the lake to be quite stunning considering how dry and desolate Manua Kea is:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama of Lake Waiau:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

It is a bit of a natural wonder that the lake exists at all considering how the porous volcanic rock does not easily hold water.  However, for Lake Waiau the geology is slightly different which has allowed the water to not seep through the volcanic rock in this basin.  Another interesting fact about Lake Waiau is that its 13,000+ elevation makes it one of the highest lakes in the United States.  Its high altitude was quite apparent when I visited the lake because of the ice sheet that covered the lake:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The temperatures before the sun came out was in the low 20’s, but had actually warmed up above freezing once the sun came out.  The warming temperatures was melting the ice which in turn was attracting a variety of birds to drink water from the lake:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I walked up to the lake the birds actually scattered in all directions which was an indication to me that they do not see a lot of human activity at the lake.  Something else of interest at the lake was this Hawaiian shrine:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Ancient Hawaiians prayed for the well being of their newborns here by throwing their umbilical cords into Lake Waiau.  The cultural importance of this lake is why wading or swimming of any kind is forbidden at the lake.  With the cold and the fact that the lake is filled with umbilical cords I would think this would be enough the scare away most people from jumping into the lake. After spending about 20 minutes checking out the lake I then turned around and headed back towards the main trail.  Here is one final panorama picture I took of the lake from its shoreline:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I walked back I could see the road up Mauna Kea in the distance backdropped by the cloudy skies below the mountain:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Soon after I began my walk up the main trail the telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea came into view:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The impressive telescopes grew bigger in size as I walked further up the trail:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I neared the telescopes the trail then turned towards the highway:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

At the highway the trail ends and the rest of the walk to the summit of Mauna Kea involves walking along the side of the road:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Where the trail ended there was this sign explaining how most of the land around the telescopes is part of the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a map of the summit area that depicts the roads and various telescopes on Mauna Kea:

To reach the summit of Mauna Kea I had to follow the road to the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) where a side trail to the top of the cinder cone Pu’u Wekiu could be accessed.  I began to make my way up the road towards the UKIRT:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama picture of the view as I walked up the road:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view looking back down the road

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

It was still early in the morning and I did not have one vehicle drive by me as I walked along the side of the road.  Here is a view looking back down at the paved road I walked up with the dirt trail visible in the background:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

In the distance to the west I could see the large Hualalai volcano that towers 8,271 feet over the Kona region:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

On any other island in Hawaii Hualalai would be an impressive mountain to see, but on the Big Island it is so dwarfed by Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa that it does not appear to be very impressive.  Regardless I would definitely like to hike up some day.  Directly across from me was the large cinder cone of Pu’uhaukea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is another picture of the switchbacking road that leads to the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Eventually the UKIRT and other telescopes came into view in front of me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a wider angle view that shows the observatories on the left and Mauna Kea’s summit on the Pu’u Wekiu cinder cone on the right:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the start of where the trail to the summit of Mauna Kea begins:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Once I reached the telescopes there was a sign asking hikers to not walk to the summit of Mauna Kea because it was supposedly offensive to native Hawaiians to do so since the mountain was considered a holy site:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

It seemed to me that if the park service wanted to stop people from hiking to the summit they would put up a barrier and signs banning entry.  This appeared to me to be similar with what I saw at Uluru in Australia where entry to the summit was discouraged, but just about everyone was doing it anyway.  I had spoke to an Aboriginal park ranger about this and he told that they discouraged as many hikers as they could because unfit people were attempting to hike up Uluru and would die from heat stroke.  Anytime someone died they had to conduct an elaborate ceremony to remove their spirit from the rock which was very taxing for the community to continuously do.  He took one look at me and told me to go of the summit because he had no worries about me killing myself on the rock.

Anyway for those that want to hike to the summit, it is a very short walk over to the Pu’u Wekiu cinder cone from the road:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a view of the trail as it ascends to the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I decided I would walk up the trail, but not actually stand on the summit in respect for the native Hawaiian tradition:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

From where I stopped I used my camera to zoom in to look at a shrine that had been constructed on the summit:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I zoomed in with my camera further to take this picture where I could see that it appears native Hawaiians had been walking up on the summit to leave offerings at the shrine:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

So I am left unsure who is supposedly discouraged from hiking to the top of Mauna Kea.  Regardless I still did not walk to the top and instead stayed on the slopes of the cinder cone and began taking pictures of the incredible scenery.  Here is a view of some more cinder cones visible to the north:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a closer look at those cinder cones which look like would make for a great adventure to go and check out sometime:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view towards the southwest of Mauna Loa:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

In the foreground the large cinder cone of Pu’uhaukea can be seen:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama picture of this view with Mauna Kea’s summit visible on the left and Mauna Loa visible in the distance:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view looking south where the volcanic desert meets the thick forests below Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Further in the distance to the southeast I could see Kilauea volcano continuing to pump out smoke and ash:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Finally here is the view across from the summit of Mauna Kea looking back at the observatories to the northwest:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a closer look at the observatories:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama picture of this same view:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is another panorama view with the observatories visible on the far left and Mauna Loa pictured to the far right:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

After I finished taking pictures I walked back across the saddle over to where the observatories were at.  Here is a panorama picture I took from the middle of the saddle:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view from the saddle looking in the opposite direction:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Her is a panorama from the saddle with the summit of Mauna Kea in the center and Mauna Loa rising in the distance:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

From Mauna Kea it almost feels hard to believe the Mauna Loa is actually a few feet shorter than Mauna Kea because of how massive it looks rising in the distance.  After crossing the saddle I was back at the UKIRT observatory:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama of the saddle running between the main road and the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Something I noticed on some of the observatories was that they had falling ice warning signs on them which is always fun to see considering I was in Hawaii:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I walked around I also noticed that some of the observatories had signs explaining the significance of the observatory:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The size of the observatories are pretty incredible when standing next to them:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the Canada-France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT):

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

After I finished walking around the first cluster of observatories I then followed the road across to the other side of Mauna Kea to see the next cluster of observatories:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a pretty cool panorama picture I took of the road between the two cluster of observatories:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The road loops over to the second cluster of observatories before descending down to a third cluster of smaller observatories:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

From what I have read online, most people just hike to the summit and go back down; they don’t do the full circuit around the summit.  I figured I walked all this way I might as well and go explore the summit.  Here is a picture that shows the valley separating the two main cluster of observatories on the top of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I walked over to the second cluster of telescopes the views above the clouds were just incredible:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The first observatory I walked by in the second cluster was the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (NITF):

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I next approached the W.M. Keck Observatory pictured on the left:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a closer look at the Keck Observatory:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Something really unique about the Keck Observatory is that visitors can actually walk inside and check it out:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Inside the Keck observatory they have a number of informative displays that explain the capabilities and significant findings of this incredible piece of scientific equipment:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

After spending about 20 minutes checking out the Keck Observatory I then descended down a dirt road by Japan’s Subaru Telescope:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The dirt road led towards the third cluster of smaller telescopes:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Once again the views along the way were just spectacular to include being able to see the Haleakala volcano all the way over on Maui in the distance:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here are another couple of pictures of the incredible views from Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view of the ocean and shoreline on the Kona side of the Big Island from over 13,000 feet above; just incredible:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is another picture showing the first cluster of observatories on the left with the third cluster of observatories pictured in the center and the Subaru telescope on the right:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama from further down the road showing more of the third cluster of observatories:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view as I approached the third cluster of smaller telescopes which consisted mostly of small antennas:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

These antennas are likely used for radio astronomy much like the much larger antennas in New Mexico at the Very Large Array (VLA) that I had previously visited.  Here is the view from the third cluster looking back up the hill at the first cluster of observatories:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama of this view with the Subaru telescope visible on the far left:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I next walked by the California Institute of Technology’s 10.4 meter Submillimeter Telescope:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

This telescope has been in use for three decades and is about to be decommissioned:

After almost 29 years of astronomical observations, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) closed the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) in Hawaii on September 18, 2015. As previously announced in 2009and 2015, Caltech plans to dismantle and remove the observatory from Maunakea according to the Decommissioning Plan approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources. This process will be planned in close coordination with the Office of Mauna Kea Management, University of Hawaii at Hilo, to ensure that it is undertaken promptly and in a culturally and environmentally respectful manner. Caltech is sincerely grateful to the people of Hawaii Island for the use of Maunakea for nearly three decades, enabling superb research from this excellent astronomical site for the betterment of humanity.  [Cal Tech webpage]

In front of the observatory I saw the only evacuation vehicle on the volcano that day.  I guess if for some reason Mauna Kea begins to rumble this is the ride everyone jumps in to get off it:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I walked down the road back towards the trail I had multiple people stop by in their trucks asking me if I wanted a ride down the mountain.  I even had the porta-potti guy ask me if I wanted a ride back down.  It was thoughtful of people to ask, but I politely declined all the requests since I was determined to finish the whole hike.  Plus the views from Mauna Kea are just so incredible I did not mind taking the time to walk back down the mountain.  For those looking to do just a one way hike though catching I ride down seems like a likely option for those interested.  I eventually reached the dirt trail again and was thankfully spared of people asking me if I wanted a ride.  It was just me and the almost Martian like landscape again:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I walked down the mountain enjoying the views of mighty Mauna Loa that loomed in front of me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I also had views of Kilauea pumping out smoke in the distance:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a closer look at Kilauea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I would occasionally during the descent turn around and take pictures of the view above me that I missed during my ascent of Mauna Kea in the darkness earlier that day:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama looking back up at Mauna Kea’s summit cinder cones:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama showing the cinder cones I still had in front of me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Something I noticed as I walked down was the strange shale piles that could occasionally be seen:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I am sure there is some geologic reason why there is a shale pile in the middle of a rocky terrain of a very different color.  Here is another view of where I stopped and looked behind towards the high summit craters of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama from later in the hike once again showing the cinder cones on the summit of Manua Kea in the distance:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is the view of the trail that I had in front me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

At this point I was actually jogging down the trail which a few people I passed thought I was pretty crazy to do.  Here are a couple of pictures of some of the volcanic cones I passed on the way down Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a panorama picture of these two cones:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Of course Mauna Loa continued to dominate the view ahead of me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a couple of panoramas of the always impressive Mauna Loa:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I then passed a collection of rocks that were unfortunately covered in graffiti:

Picture from Mauna Kea, HawaiiPicture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Even here in the wilderness of Mauna Kea idiots somehow think to bring a can of spray paint; disgraceful.  Here is another view looking back up the trail:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a picture of how much trail I had left in front of me:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I continued to jog down the trail I eventually saw the Onizuka visitor center come into view:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a closer look at the visitor center:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I next reached the really steep and sandy portion of the trail that I remember trudging up earlier in the morning:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I descended, the trail began to be surrounded by Mauna Kea silversword plants which are listed as an endangered plant species since they are only found in the high elevation volcanoes of Hawaii and Maui:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The trail began to get less steep as I neared the end of the trail:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Up ahead I could see the prominent cinder cone that rises across the street from the visitor center:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I descended towards the base of the cinder cone I was surrounded by more and more silversword plants:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

There are so many of the silverswords growing near the visitor center that I found it hard to believe they were at one time nearly extinct due to the grazing of feral goats on the Big Island.  Scientists actually had to introduce silverswords brought over from the Haleakala volcano on Maui to replant on the Big Island to save the species:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Once I was at the base of the cinder cone I had been descending towards, I next had to follow a dirt road back to the main road that leads to the visitor center:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I neared the end of the trail I had the feeling that after hiking 14 miles and over 4,500 feet in elevation gain that Mauna Kea was giving me a big thumbs up for my efforts:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

At the end of the dirt road I intersected with the main road that leads back down to the visitor center.  Across from me was the housing area that supports the scientists that work in the observatories on the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a picture that shows what the start of the Humuula Trail looks like:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a picture that looks up at the prominent cinder cone near the start of the trail:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here is a picture that shows the start of the dirt road that leads to the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I think the state keeps this road as a four-wheel drive only road simply to reduce the amount of tourists trying to access the summit which I can understand.  There were very few cars I saw up there during my hike which I am sure makes life easier for the scientists and park personnel that work up there.  Here is a panorama from the road looking back up at the slopes of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

As I walked back down the road towards the visitor center I spotted what appeared to be an old restroom now slowly being reclaimed by the plant life growing at the 9,200 foot elevation level:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Across the street from the old restroom I could also see this traditional Hawaiian structure set up as well:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Mauna Kea has actually been the site of protests recently due to the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.  Native Hawaiians believe building another telescope on the summit is offensive to their traditional cultural beliefs.  This fight is still going in in the Hawaiian courts and government and is actually dividing families.  The day I visited fortunately there were no protests going on.  It seems to me a middle ground of taking down two telescopes and replacing them with the TMT would get the observatory built while at the same time reducing the number of buildings on the summit which would be a win for both science and the Hawaiians.

Anyway after a short walk along the side of the road I found myself back at the Onizuka visitor center.  It had taken me 9.5 hours to complete the hike:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

At the visitor center I stopped to use the restroom as well as check out the various hazard signs they have posted about hiking to the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Being an experienced Colorado hiker I found this trail to be straight forward and pretty easy to complete.  I could however, see how people not bringing proper clothing and water could get in trouble on this hike.  There was also a warning about being aware of free range cattle along the road which I saw none of during my visit to Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Conclusion

I completed my hike by signing out in the logbook and stopping by inside the visitor center to let the employee know that I was back.  He was pretty impressed with my round trip time and I was pretty amazed by how little the altitude affected me during the hike.  There was a few times I could feel the altitude towards the beginning of the hike and on the top when I was pushing myself hard, but mostly it was not a factor.  I also had a number of tourists come up to me to ask why I hiked up when I could have just as easily drove to the top?  This reminded me of the exact same questions I get from tourists when I hiked up Pikes Peak.  My response even in Hawaii is the same as in Colorado, “Why not?”  If you are someone that rather hike than drive to the summit I think this is a hike you will enjoy.  I enjoyed it because it was so different compared to hiking in Colorado.  Mauna Kea had some characteristics of hiking in West Texas, but on the Big Island it is on a much grander scale.  This is truly a trail not to be missed by any hiker thinking of visiting the Big Island.

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