Mauna Kea in Hawaii – Driving to the Summit of this Grand Volcano

By Steven Anderson

The summit of Mauna Kea is called Puu Wekiu and it is at an elevation of 13,796 feet. This is the highest point of land in the Pacific Basin. An interesting fact about Mauna Kea is that if measured from the bottom of the ocean floor, it reaches nearly 30,000 feet which would make it the tallest peak on earth.

Visitors flock to Mauna Kea for a variety of reasons. There are 11 domes and 13 telescopes at the peak of Mauna Kea which attracts professional and amateur astronomers alike. Others come for the amazing viewpoints, unique bird watching and rugged hiking. Others come to Mauna Kea just to say they did so.

The drive up Mauna Kea takes about an hour. At the start, the driver will see typical Hawaiian tropical vegetation. As you pass sea level, the landscape changes to grass pastures and then into raggedy looking forests of koa and ohia trees. These thin out at 6,000 feet and the landscape becomes dominated by barren lava flows. The sub alpine regions found after the 6,500 foot level still support a few koa and ohia trees and even the rare mamane tree. All vegetation beyond 8,500 feet becomes very scarce.

The mountain is home to some excellent bird watching. The rare, yellow-crowned palila bird can be seen here. The endangered Hawaiian honey-creeper can be seen here as well. This bird only feeds on the seed pods from the scarce mamane tree. Less rare, but still interesting birds such as the uau (Hawaiian petrels), nene (Hawaiian geese), io (Hawaiian hawks) can also be seen on Mauna Kea.

The first step to reaching Mauna Kea is to drive Saddle Road (Route 200). This road is listed as off-limits by many of the car rental agencies. Thrifty will allow its rental cars on saddle road but advises against this practice. The roads are narrow with little or no shoulders and there are no emergency phones on this route should you encounter a problem.

You take the turn off from Saddle Road to Hale Pohaku and the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station. This leg lasts 7 miles and takes the traveler to 9,300 feet. This section can be driven by a normal car but it does feature very steep and windy roads. If you are driving a Thrifty rental car, the Visitor Center is as far as you are allowed to go. Harper’s Car and Truck Rental does rent vehicles for the exact purpose of getting from the Visitor Center to the observatory.

Please remember to bring warm clothing on this journey. Even in the summer temperatures can reach the low 40s. Also make sure to fill up the gas tank before you go. The steep grade and thin air pushes the car into very poor gas mileage and there is nowhere to fill up at the top.

(2006 – February) Steven Anderson is the Reservations Director for Hawaiian Discount Car Rentals, specialists in Maui car rentals. He has personally driven to the top of Mauna Kea and rates it as one of the most panoramic views in his travels to Hawaii. Please visit

1 Comment

  1. Hey this is a great post. Gave me a lot of information I needed to know and I knew things I would have never guessed on my own.

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