Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea

Telescopes on Mauna Kea summit at sunset, Big Island, Hawaii | Felix Nendzig

Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii, is one of the most significant landmarks in the Pacific region. Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, Mauna Kea forms part of the chain that makes up the Hawaiian Islands, offering an impressive spectacle of natural beauty and scientific interest. With its summit standing at over 13,800 feet above sea level, it represents the highest point in all of Hawaii and is often capped with snow during the winter months, thus earning its name which translates to ‘White Mountain’ in Hawaiian.

Moreover, the significance of Mauna Kea extends beyond its geographical features. To the native Hawaiian people, it is a sacred site, with numerous ancient shrines and burial sites scattered across its slopes. The mountain’s spiritual significance is deeply ingrained in Hawaiian culture and folklore, with many local residents considering it a revered ancestor. To this day, it remains a place of worship and reverence for the indigenous Hawaiian community.

Mauna Kea summit. Mauna Kea stands at around 14,000 ft above sea level.

Simultaneously, Mauna Kea also holds immense scientific value. The clean air, high altitude, and minimal light pollution make it an ideal location for astronomical observations. As one of the best sites on earth for astronomy, Mauna Kea hosts some of the world’s most advanced astronomical observatories. Scientists from around the globe come to observe celestial bodies from its summit, contributing significantly to our understanding of the universe.

Keck observatory on Mauna Kea, at 14,000 feet, on the big island of Hawaii during sunset.

Additionally, Mauna Kea’s unique alpine desert ecosystem supports a variety of flora and fauna adapted to its harsh conditions. Several endemic species such as the Mauna Kea silversword and the endangered Palila bird call this mountain home.

Yet, despite its ecological, cultural, and scientific value, Mauna Kea has become a focal point for controversy in recent years. Plans for further astronomical development have been met with strong opposition from indigenous Hawaiians who view such projects as a desecration of their sacred land.

While Mauna Kea is a landmark of the Hawaiian Islands and a pivotal site for astronomical research, it is also a place of immense cultural significance to the native Hawaiian people. The balance between preservation of its cultural and natural heritage, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a complex challenge that continues to shape the future of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Mauna Kea telescopes at sunset. Big Island, Hawaii

Fast Facts

Mauna Kea Geminy Telescope

Country: United States

State/Province: Hawaii

County/Region: Hawaii

Mountain Range: Hawaiian Islands

Parents: Hawaiian Islands

Elevation: 13,803 feet / 4,207.3 meters

Prominence: 13,803 feet / 4,207.3 meters

Isolation: 3946.92 miles / 2452.5 kilometers

Nearest Higher Neighbor (NHN): Misery Hill

First Ascent: the first recorded ascent was in 1823 by Joseph F. Goodrich, however when he reached the summit, he discovered an arrangement of rocks that suggested that he was not the first to reach the peak.

Fun Fact: Mauna Kea is the highest point in Hawaii. It is also the tallest mountain on earth when measured starting at its oceanic base.

Plant Life: Mauna Kea is home to a highly endangered plant species called the Mauna Kea Silversword. At one point, there were only 50 of these plants known in existence.

Flora and Fauna

Mauna Kea Summit on Big Island of Hawaii

Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii, is not only known for its astronomical observatories and significant cultural and spiritual significance to the native Hawaiian people, but also for its unique and diverse flora and fauna. The natural life on this mountain provides a fascinating glimpse into the ecological wonders of the Hawaiian Islands, with a variety of species that have adapted to the harsh conditions of high altitude, low temperatures, and nutrient-poor soils.

Mauna Kea Silversword

The flora of Mauna Kea reflects the island’s isolation and volcanic origins. The most iconic plant found here is the silversword, or ‘ahinahina in Hawaiian. This plant, specifically adapted to survive in the extreme environment, has silver leaves to reflect sunlight and a deep root system to absorb as much moisture as possible. Other plants found on the slopes include mamane trees, which provide habitat for native bird species and have a unique symbiotic relationship with them.

The fauna of Mauna Kea is equally diverse and unique, with many species found nowhere else in the world. Among them is the Palila bird, a critically endangered species that relies heavily on mamane trees for its habitat and food source. The Wekiu bug, another endemic species, has an unusual adaptation to the harsh mountain conditions: it survives by feeding on insects that are blown up the mountain and perish in the cold.

Moreover, Mauna kea is home to an array of other creatures including insects, spiders, and birds that have evolved unique adaptations to survive in this harsh environment. The mountain also serves as an important sanctuary for several endangered bird species like the Hawaiian goose or Nene, which is Hawaii’s state bird.

The flora and fauna of Mauna Kea highlight the extraordinary biodiversity of the Hawaiian Islands and underscore the importance of preserving these unique ecosystems. These organisms not only contribute to the ecological balance of the region but also hold significant cultural importance for the indigenous Hawaiian people. However, with the ongoing threats of climate change, invasive species, and human activities, the flora and fauna of Mauna Kea continue to face significant challenges.

Mauna Kea seen from Mauna Lani, Hawaii Island

The flora and fauna of Mauna Kea manifest the adaptability and resilience of nature in the face of harsh conditions. Their existence is a testament to the remarkable biodiversity of the Hawaiian Islands and a reminder of our responsibility to safeguard these unique ecosystems for future generations.

Late afternoon sunlight at Mauna Kea beach, Big Island, Hawaii


Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano located in the heart of the Hawaiian Islands, is not just an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold but also a hotspot for hiking enthusiasts seeking to explore the beauty of Hawaii. Known as the highest point in Hawaii, Mauna Kea offers a variety of trails that cater to hikers of all levels of expertise, each offering different perspectives of the island’s unique landscape.

One of the most popular trails near Mauna Kea is the Mauna Kea Summit Trail. This trail is not for the faint-hearted, but those who dare to tackle it are rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the Hawaiian Islands. Starting at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, this trail takes you up to the summit of Mauna Kea, a challenging 6-mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of over 4,000 feet. It’s a great choice for experienced hikers looking for a bit of adventure.

Mauna Kea in Hawaii

For those looking for a less strenuous option, the Mauna Kea VIS (Visitor Information Station) Trail is a perfect choice. This trail is about a mile long and offers scenic views without the high altitude or lengthy hike. It’s an excellent option for family outings or those who are new to hiking.

The Kipuka Puaulu or Bird Park trail is another excellent choice. This gentle 1-mile loop takes you through a forest full of native Hawaiian birds and plants. It’s perfect for bird watchers and nature lovers who prefer a relaxed hike.

Above the main cloud layer, wispy clouds float between the observatories on Mauna Kea volcano, Hawaii, at sunset. Shown are Subaru Telescope, Keck I and II and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility.

In addition, the Mauna Loa Observatory Trail offers another unique hiking experience. This challenging 11.2-mile trail starts from Saddle Road and climbs up to the Mauna Loa Observatory, providing stunning views of Mauna Kea and the surrounding landscape.

Another scenic trail is the Pu’u Kalepeamoa Loop at Kilohana Hunter Checking Station. This 4-mile loop offers panoramic views of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa and is home to a variety of native Hawaiian flora and fauna.

The trails near Mauna Kea provide hikers with a unique opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Hawaii. Whether you are an experienced hiker seeking a challenge or a nature lover looking for a leisurely stroll, the Hawaiian Islands have something for everyone. The diverse landscape and the stunning views make hiking near Mauna Kea a truly rewarding experience.

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