Winter Fun in a Tropical Paradise

Standing atop the summit of majestic Mauna Kea is more than just a breathtaking experience. In such an oxygen-deprived environment, with the exception of the cold wind whistling by, you will hear almost nothing. You will find yourself wrapped in pure tranquility and see the island from a perspective you would have never thought possible. Up here, high upon this sacred volcano is about as far as one can get from the hectic pace of everyday life. 

The public road that leads to the top of Mauna Kea zigzags back and forth over alternating sections of dirt and asphalt. No matter how many times I have driven upon it, the anticipation of what lies around each turn is always different. The ever-changing weather conditions create different appearances upon the arid landscape. On this island of fire and ice, there exist 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones; and during the winter months from November to March, Mauna Kea’s peak is at one of the most unusual and extreme.

At a staggering 13,796-ft, the summit of Mauna Kea sees its share of blanketing snow and ice. It would seem that finding this rarity in the tropics is improbable. However, Big Island residents know that this is not the case. When I mention to unknowing people that it really does snow in Hawai‘i, they often respond with a blank stare, figuring I must have been hit on the head with one too many falling coconut.

But whether in the tropics or elsewhere around the world, winter storms will provide snow at such locations with an enormous elevation—even in Hawaii.  Mauna Kea, or “White Mountain” as it is referred to in Hawaiian folklore, is the tallest mountain in the Hawaiian Island chain. When measured from its true base on the ocean floor, the volcano stands nearly 10,203 meters high (about 33,476-ft), surpassing the height of Mount Everest and technically making it the tallest mountain in the world. It is estimated that Mauna Kea last erupted around 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, and will probably become active again someday.

At 13,679-ft from sea level, Mauna Kea’s sister volcano, Mauna Loa, isn’t much further behind in size.  The geography of Mauna Loa is gradually more sloped and is referred to as “Long Mountain.”  Unlike Mauna Kea, however, there is no public road that reaches the summit of Mauna Loa. For this reason alone, the bulk of winter activities transpire solely atop Mauna Kea. The rare sight of snow attracts skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts, two sports that are not usually associated with Hawaii.

Unquestionably, there are safety factors to consider before ever participating, let alone visiting, the summit of Mauna Kea. Proceed with caution as the thin rarified air will prove challenging. Essentially, it’s best to stop at the Visitors Information Station (VIS) located at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the 9,300-ft level. Spending at least 30 minutes here is highly recommended, as this will help acclimate your body to the altitude and prepare you for the journey ahead. Most people who ascend to the top of Mauna Kea will experience altitude sickness to some degree. A couple suggestions to help combat the feeling: take aspirin if you are not allergic and hydrate yourself by drinking a lot of fluids like water, coconut water, or Gatorade, which contain electrolytes.

After departing the VIS, the surrounding landscape begins to change dramatically. The ride will feel as if you are ascending upon a pathway to the heavens, and in many ways, it is. Mauna Kea has served as the longtime home to several of astronomy’s most powerful observatories in the world. These telescopes, their glimmering domes visible from almost anywhere on the island, continuously peer deep and far into the heavenly sky above.

A four-wheel drive vehicle is the only way to reach the top, and before proceeding, make sure you have all of the necessary items: water, food, sunscreen, sunglasses and protective clothing. Always drive with caution and adhere to the posted speed limits. Winter can bring especially hazardous conditions as snow and ice can form rapidly. Be prepared to evacuate at any time.

At about the 10,000-ft level, you will encounter the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Reserve. This area of land includes a historic adze quarry, where ancient Hawaiians once crafted stone tools. Continuing along, you’ll see the surrounding environment begins to look very moon-like with small puu (volcanic cinder cones) that dot the barren landscape. Wildlife is extremely sparse, and temperatures drop rapidly. During the winter, temperatures range on average from 25-40°F and 30-60°F during the summer. Saying that the environment is harsh would be an understatement, yet the beauty of it all is unsurpassed.

After reaching the top of Mauna Kea, it’s easy to feel rather insignificant—like an ant sitting atop a large elephant. The summit is above 40% of the earth’s atmosphere and there are many sights to marvel. On clear days, you can see long distances in all directions. Take a look around at the unique vistas: the island of Maui in the distant west, the impressive land terrain of the Big Island, the numerous observatories reflecting the mid-day sun, and several heiau (ancient temples of worship) and other rock shrines in the area.

Although it requires a half-mile hike, another special and sacred location is Lake Waiau. Over 30,000-50,000 years ago, a glacier that existed for over 20,000 years covered Mauna Kea. After the glacier finally receded, Lake Waiau was left behind. As the third highest lake in the United States, it is situated at an elevation of 13,020-ft and is relatively small at 1.8-acres in surface area. It is the only glacial-formed lake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Hawaiian mythology references four goddesses associated with the snow-covered mountains of Hawaii: Lilinoe, Poliahu, Kahoupokane, and Waiau, the lake’s namesake.  They ruled the mountains north of Kilauea and were fierce enemies of Pele (goddess of fire). In ancient Hawaii, Lake Waiau was thought to be bottomless, a portal for spirits to travel to and from the spirit world.  Today, its depth is estimated at around 10-15 ft., depending on rain or snowfall. The harsh environment prevents any fish or marine life to be found, and the water does freeze over in the winter. Spectators should not attempt to swim in or disrupt the lake, since Lake Waiau, as well as the entire Mauna Kea Mountain, is tremendously sacred to the Hawaiian people.

This majestic volcano still continues to earn the deserved respect and admiration from both locals and visitors alike. After significant snowfall, most come to the summit of Mauna Kea to observe, but many come up to play. Skiing atop the volcano can be traced back to 1952 when the Hawaii Ski Club was initially formed. It didn’t take long for the most accessible slopes on the mountain to receive appropriate names like: Pele’s Parlor, Poi Bowl, Warrior’s Run, Menehune Run, King Kamehameha Run, and Prince Kuhio Run.

Some of the slopes can be rather steep and end very suddenly. A few inches beneath the snow are hard and abrasive lava rock, certainly not ideal for a crash-and-burn wipeout! Over the years though, skiing atop Mauna Kea has become increasingly popular. It wasn’t until the 1980s that another extreme winter sport began to make a strong emergence—snowboarding. Over the past few decades, whether it’s skiing or snowboarding, a few impromptu competitions have been held, generating even more excitement.

But one aspect about winter sports on Mauna Kea has always remained the same. There are no lodges or chair lifts to be found, nor will there ever be. With such a sensitive environment and deep cultural value, there is no questioning why. Transportation to the “runs” is done the old fashioned way—by car. Drivers take turns, hauling friends to the top, though no one ever seems to mind. Pickup trucks taking on the role of taxis with a handful of skiers and snowboarders, all packed in the back, is a common sight.

Every year, dedicated locals look forward to the arrival of big winter storms and can usually find more than 2-ft of snow during the winter. The oddity of snow in Hawaii provides the initial lure since locals don’t experience powdery snowfall on their front lawns—ever!  And after all, there aren’t too many other places in the world where you can go surfing and skiing, all in the same day.  Other fun options include building a Hawaiian snowman, riding sleds, boogie boards, trashcan lids, or anything else that’ll help you glide safely along the slopes. 

Before any of the aforementioned activities can occur, however, it first has to snow.  It then usually takes road crews a day or two to clear all the ice. If you are thinking of going to the top, it’s always best to call the road information hotline beforehand to check on conditions. And whether you come to visit or to play, exercise caution in the high elevation and take great care to not disturb the precious environment.  The area is of great cultural significance and also home to endangered insect and plant species. Mauna Kea’s white summit may seem like a strange sight on this island paradise, but it is a well-loved tropical wonder for sure. If done carefully and with safety in check, the fun of winter sports on the Big Island will surely be one of life’s great travel moments.


Additional Information:

Mauna Kea is one of the few places on earth where spiritual, scientific and cosmic forces collide to create a memory that will last you a lifetime. You can take a tour with knowledgeable guides to the summit for a sublime sunset and an exploration of the night sky with their powerful telescopes. It’s a worry-free way to experience Mauna Kea with dinner and parkas provided for an amazing evening under the stars. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (808) 322-2366 or Hawaii Forest & Trail (808) 331-8505. 

If you plan on going on your own, make sure you have a 4WD and check your rental agreement. Call (808) 935-6268 for weather and road conditions or (808) 961-2180 for more information, or visit Don’t forget your camera and wear warm clothing.

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