Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s High Point


Hawaii is the youngest full-fledged addition to the United States of America and perhaps the least congruent. It is, after all, a string of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The state isn’t the only one with volcanoes, but it is unique in that it was created by volcanoes. In many ways, Hawaii isn’t just synonymous with volcanoes, it IS volcanoes!

Hawaii is the result of a hotspot, a point on the earth where magma inexplicably rises to the surface. The hotspot doesn’t move, but tectonics dictate the plates on the surface amble slowly over the lower regions of the planet. This phenomenon is why Hawaii is a chain of islands instead of just a single island based around one volcano. If we look far into the future, Hawaii will add additional islands. In fact, volcanoes are already rising in the ocean on the leading edge!

So Hawaii is literally made of volcanoes, most extinct, but a few still active. The queen of them all is Mauna Kea, the state’s High Point. At 13,803 feet, this peak towers over all other Hawaiian beauty.  In fact, by some parameters, Mauna Kea isn’t just supreme on Hawaii, but perhaps the entire planet.

An illustration of the Hawaiian Hot Spot, as the Pacific Plate moves above the mantle plume - USGS

Because Mauna Kea literally rises from the seafloor, some geologists consider it to be the tallest mountain on the planet. Obviously, the mountain does not reach as high above sea level as Everest or many others, but those crags all have a much higher base. Mauna Kea rises 33,500 feet from base to apex! Everest, by comparison, rises at most 17,100 feet above its base on the Tibetan Plateau.

The volcano is currently dormant, but not extinct. The last known eruption occurred circa 2460 BCE. Geologists believe the mountain is around one million years old, which means it long ago passed its most active stage, which vulcanologists refer to as the shield stage. Scientists believe it will erupt again, but danger levels associated with the volcano are low.

Despite the tropical connotation that Hawaii well deserves, Mauna Kea’s name translates to “White Mountain” because it seasonally becomes covered with snow. In fact, Mauna Kea actually has evidence of glaciation in the past! It is the only volcano in Hawaii with such a distinction. In Hawaiian mythology, the summit was the most sacred spot of all the sacred mountains on the island of Hawaii. The acme was revered as the “region of the gods,” where the benevolent gods resided, including Poli’ahu, the snow deity. I never would have guessed a snow deity existed in Hawaiian lore!

Mauna Kea's summit in winter - USGS

Because the peak was a sacred location, most native Hawaiians were forbidden from ascending the mountain. Only high-ranking members of society, known as ali’i, were permitted to climb the sacred peaks. The first known, recorded ascent occurred in 1823 by Joseph F. Goodrich, but even he recognized he was certainly not the first to summit Mauna Kea. He found an arrangement of stones at the top, so he knew he was not the first to grace the peak, but natives did not note their climbs for posterity.

Because of its height and arid conditions, Mauna Kea is one of the world’s best locations for astronomical telescopes. Almost all cloud cover remains below the peak, which keeps the air dry and free of atmospheric pollution. Further, turbulence there is extraordinarily stable, in contrast to some of the world’s other similar locations. Light pollution is nearly non-existent. Add it all up and Mauna Kea is nearly perfect for stargazing. Thirteen enormous telescopes have graced Hawaii’s high matriarch.

The scientific boon is not without controversy, however. Some native groups feel the presence of the telescopes is sacrilegious and continue to protest new construction. 

Sunset over telescopes at Mauna Kea - photo by Alan L

The climate at Mauna Kea is interesting. It’s an alpine environment, another odd thing to associate with Hawaii, but, because of its location in the tropics, there is very little deviation in temperature. The record high for every month except July (which spiked to 75 degrees)  ranges between 54 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost is common year-round. The average low is consistent: between 24.9 degrees and 31.3 degrees. One could reasonably expect a visit to Mauna Kea to be similar no matter when one visits.

The geology of Mauna Kea and Hawaii in total is fascinating and I’ve barely scratched the surface since it is so dynamic and complex. I could write another article on the flora and fauna, too. So, if you are interested in this fantastic mountain, I urge you to do more research, as the information is seemingly never-ending!

I have never been to Hawaii, so I can’t vouch for the grandeur of this volcano with my own eyes, but if I ever make it there you better bet I will make it a must-see!

Mauna Kea from Maui, 78 miles away! - photo by Aiden Relkoff

Further Reading and Exploration


Mauna Kea – US Geological Survey

Mauna Kea – Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program

Hawaii Center for Volcanology

MaunaKea Observatories – official website

Mauna Kea – Summitpost

Mauna Kea – Peakbagger

Plate Tectonics and the Hawaiian Hot Spot – Geology.com

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