Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the state of Hawaii. It is located on the big island and tops out according to the 1955 geological marker located at the summit at 13,796 feet. The true summit is accessible via a short hike from the main road near the top observatories. If the weather is decent and there is not snow and ice on the road the summit will be open by driving or hiking (yes we met some people who had hiked up 5000 feet from the visitor’s center!).
Most car rental companies on the island forbid taking 2 wheel drive cars to the summit. Contrary to popular belief and what you might find online there is not just one company that will rent 4wd vehicles to take to the top. The major car rental companies all have 4wd vehicles. You might also want to check with some local car rental companies to see what their policy is regarding this. However be aware that some online companies may look like a local car rental company when in reality they are just middle men for the larger car rental companies.
In good weather and when there is no snow or ice on the summit road you can *actually drive a 2wd to the end of the road* at the top of Mauna Kea.
There is a several mile section of dirt road that has some bad washboard at times. The road is also steep in sections and combined with the high altitude (lack of vehicle power) you will need to use your lowest gear in a 2wd vehicle. We saw several 2wd passenger cars making the climb up to the top towards the end of the dirt section. The dirt road starts at the visitors center, switch backs up for several miles until it reaches pavement again and the road is then paved to the top. All bets are off for a 2wd vehicle making the drive to the top in bad weather. Find out about the weather ahead of time.
The visitor’s center is located at 9,000 feet and due to the elevation it is recommended you stop here for at least 30 minutes. For those motoring on to the summit and those with experience at high altitudes, you know that you cannot really acclimatize in such a short time, but a short stop will help slightly. Planetary and other astronomical videos are shown on demand and there is a well stocked gift shop with books and other souvenirs. A few snacks are also sold on site.
Another stop worth making on Mauna Kea is the short uphill hike to the sacred Lake Waiku at slightly above 13,000 feet. There is a parking lot near mile marker 6 (the road has mile markers ever mile past the visitor’s center towards the top). Park here, then walk across the road, jump over the metal guard wires and you will soon hit the dirt trail. If you walk slowly, the round trip hike will take about 1 hour.
Lake Waiau is sacred to Hawaiians and mothers bring their umbilical cords to the lake after giving birth. As a result you may see placental matter lining the edge of the shoreline. This lake freezes over in most winters – it is very shallow surrounded by rocks.
For more information about visiting Mauna Kea please visit: www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis